The Pharisee and the Tax Collector. 18:9-14
In the parable of the Churchman and the Politician, Jesus reminds his disciples of the substance of faith, a faith that saves. The self-righteous churchman, a good and pious man, relied on his own righteousness for God's approval. In the day of the coming Son of man he will be humiliated. On the other hand, the corrupt politician relied on God's mercy, asking God to turn aside his righteous anger. As a consequence, the politician, a sinner, was justified; God now treated him as if he had never sinned. Here then is the substance of a faith that saves, it is a faith that relies on Christ's faithfulness and not our own.
v9. Luke notes that the parable is directed to people who are confident of their "own righteousness" and who therefore assume that they stand approved before God.
v10. Two men went to the temple to pray, probably for private prayer.
v11. The Pharisee declared his confidence in his own righteousness. Like Saul, before he met Christ, he could say "as to righteousness under the law, blameless", Phil.3:6. This is a common attitude for those who have adopted a merit-based religion. Indeed, he was a good man.
v12. In fact, as Jesus tells the story, the Pharisee had exceeded the law's demands. The law certainly didn't require fasting twice a week, nor was a person expected to give a tithe of everything they purchased.
v13. The tax collector, on the other hand, was anything but good. As part of a graft-ridden occupation which collaborated with the Roman government, he was a despised member of Jewish society. Unlike the Pharisee, he proclaimed his sinfulness and asked that God cover him from the righteous judgement that was coming his way.
v14a. Jesus now draws out an application from the parable. The Pharisee had justified himself, in the sense of proclaiming his own righteousness. The tax collector proclaimed his loss and, relying on God's mercy, asking God to turn aside his righteous anger. In so doing, says Jesus, the sinner was justified, that is, he was set right before God, and this as a free gift of God's kindness. Thus, possessing a righteousness from God, he found himself included with God's people and saved from judgement. The instrument by which he received this gift was faith. Although faith is not mentioned, the sinner clearly relied on God when, in his prayer, he asked God to act in mercy toward him. Well we are reminded that such faith made Noah an "heir of the righteousness that comes by faith", Heb.11:7.
v14b. The final saying is a typical, "the first shall be last....." type of saying that points to the great reversal in the day of judgment. It is a warning to those who think they stand to beware "least they fall" - a warning to the self-righteous that in the day of judgement, in the day of vindication, they may be the ones condemned. Only those set right before God as an act of divine grace will stand in that day.
It's strange how childhood memories stay with us. I remember my 5th class teacher reading us the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, as we used to call it then. Which, by the way, was a disturbing title for me, since my grandmother was a publican. She managed a hotel, and the term "publican" is the name given to a person who runs a hotel in Australia. So, the story got my attention, but it always worried me.
Our teacher made a point of emphasizing that the Pharisee got what he asked for, which was nothing, while the evil person got what he asked for, which was everything. Still, this seemed a bit unfair to me. How was it that the good man wasn't rewarded for his goodness? Why was the evil man seemingly rewarded for his evil? The story worried me because I was one of the good boys. I had even attended Sunday School for a year or two before graduating.
Martin Luther, while lecturing on the Psalms, 1513-15, discovered the secret of Jesus' words. Like so many godly people, before and after, he had devoted his life to godliness, but all he ever felt was "forsaken". The more he tried to honor his God, the more his rebellious nature seemed to show itself. It was a July afternoon, filled with the lightening of a summer storm. There in Psalm 22 were the words, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Christ forsaken! Like the brilliance of the lightening, truth leaped out at Luther. "Thou forsaken for me? God came to Sinai with terror, but now in forgiveness."
The self-righteousness of the Pharisee denied the reality that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." The truth is that our eternal acceptance in the sight of God, now and always, rests on a righteousness which is ours in Christ, a righteousness appropriated through faith (a gift for the asking). God's gracious truth for us today is that a person is justified before God by grace through faith and not by works of the law.
How is a person included with God's "chosen ones"?
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