Two Men Praying in the Temple
Luke 18:9-14 23 October 2022
Jesus is no Mr. Nice Guy. He again tells it as it is in God’s realm. This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke is another parable that turns things upside down. When I read a parable of Jesus, I first like to determine who Jesus is talking to. Is it the crowd? Is it the Disciples? Is it a foreigner? Today he is not teaching his disciples but is talking to the Pharisees. Jesus is quite critical of the Pharisees. Some New Testament teachers believe he picks on them because he sees their potential as believers. One of the mild things he calls them is “brood of vipers (Matthew 12:34a).” Luke tells us that the audience of this parable is, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else (Luke 18:9).”
The parable begins with two men praying in the Temple. One is a Pharisee. Those who were listening to the parable in the first century would quickly understand that the Pharisee was a good guy. That’s contrary to what we might have learned in Sunday school. The usual contemporary understanding of Pharisee is that they are the bad guys. However, if you were a first century hearer of the Parable, you would recognize that Pharisees are moral, religious godly people. The Pharisee was the expected example of a man devoted to God. They were people who worked hard to keep all the rules found in the Law of Moses. They are the kind of people who might be found and appreciated in most churches today. They regularly come to church, are generous in their offerings, and are sincere, committed members.
The Pharisee in the parable stood by himself as he prayed. Some believe he stood by himself to avoid being made ritually impure by someone in the temple precincts. He is an upstanding citizen. In his prayer he thanks God that he is not like other people. Who are the other people? They are robbers, evildoers, adulterers and tax collectors. His list about covers it. What is wrong with that? Most of us are happy not to be robbers, evildoers, adulterers and rip off artists. The problem is that the Pharisee is self-focused and self-centered. In his short prayer he uses the word “I” five times. Can you see what he is doing? He is not really thanking God but is giving the Lord his religious resume. And he is favorably comparing himself to others. There is no question that he thinks a lot of himself. Have you ever compared yourself to others? I’d say the likelihood is high that every one of us has done just that.
After telling God what a good guy he is, he continues his prayer: “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:12).” There he beats us again. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that is practiced by few people today. I will tell you what a spiritual giant the Pharisee is. In the Law of Moses one is only required to fast on one day in the year. Jewish people are required to fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Any other fasting is voluntary, not required. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable fasts twice a week or 104 days a year. That is a hair more than a hundred times than what is required. I am impressed. He then tells God that he tithes on everything he has. He tithes not simply on the increase but it looks like he tithes on his entire net worth. Most people who tithe give ten percent of their increase, not ten percent of everything they have. The Pharisee does way more than the Law of Moses requires. He is clearly a sincere religious man and then some.
In contrast, Jesus tells us that there is a tax collector present in the temple precincts. If we were there we might have missed him as he stood at a distance. He did not want to be the center of attention. I imagine him standing in a corner with his chin on his chest. Jesus tells us that “He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).” Who were tax collectors? In the first century they were the bad guys. The Roman system of tax collection was one where the highest bidder got the right to collect taxes. And they would not only collect the required taxes but collected more than required and pocketed it. The tax collectors in Israel were Jews, and other Jews despised them as people who colluded with the Romans, the enemy. They classed the tax collectors in the same group as gamblers, robbers, the violent, shepherds and bond servants. They were utterly despised by their fellow Jews. Tax collectors in the Roman Empire were seen as dishonest people. The Roman historian, Tacitus reported that he once visited a village that had such an honest tax collector that they erected a monument to his memory. He beat his breast as he prayed. Those who study first century Jewish culture report that men rarely are as expressive as beating their breasts. Women do that. The first century listeners to this parable would see the Pharisee as the good guy and the tax collector as the bad guy. However, in this parable there are no good guys. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector are sinners. They both are in need of repentance and forgiveness from God.
One of the many glaring contrasts between the Pharisee and the tax collector is the way they prayed to God. As I commented earlier, the Pharisee was telling God what a good guy he is and was looking down on other people. God already knew what he did so there was no purpose in giving God his resume. He was being boastful and arrogant. However, the tax collector was being repentant and asked for God’s mercy. The usual understanding of mercy is that we receive from God what we don’t deserve. Instead of being punished, we receive mercy. Greek language experts report that there are two places in the New Testament where the Greek word is translated as a special kind of mercy. It is in the tax collector’s prayer and also in Hebrews 2:17. He is asking God to cover his sins with an atoning sacrifice. In his prayer of repentance, he asks for forgiveness that involves God covering his sins so that they will not be counted against him. We have such mercy through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross. Your sins are fully forgiven because of what Jesus did for you. As we trust that Jesus did all that was necessary for salvation, our sins are forgiven. They are covered by the blood Jesus shed on the Cross. The tax collector recognizes that his sin is so severe that he needs it covered by an atoning sacrifice.
What about the Pharisee? Weren’t his sins forgiven? It is clear from his prayer that he is not recognizing who he is before God but just bragging. It is not really a prayer. He is telling God what a good guy he is. He speaks about thanking God but he is just congratulating himself on what a good Jew he is. In essence, he does not need God. His righteousness does not come from God but from himself. He is self-righteous. One writer commented, “The Pharisee had beautiful religious feelings when he went to the temple. He felt right with God and with life. So comforting were his religious feelings that he felt sure he was in the kingdom of God. His heart told him so. But his heart told him a lie.” Feelings can be deceptive. The Pharisee’s religious feelings deceived him.
The parable shows the comparison between one full of pride and another full of humility. The Pharisee’s prayer is the prayer of a prideful man. Someone once wrote that “pride is a blend of self-absorption (narcissism) with an overestimate of one’s abilities or worth; that’s conceit. A proud person thinks a lot about himself and also thinks a lot about himself.” A prideful person has an excessively high opinion of himself and of his importance. It is obvious that the Pharisee had a great deal of unhealthy pride.
In contrast with pride, the tax collector revealed humility. He was not arrogant before God and did not tell God anything more than he needed mercy. His posture was that of humility as he prayed with his head down. Of course, he had reached rock bottom and realized his only salvation was with and from the Lord God. A good definition of humility is that a person has a modest or low view of their own importance. In the New Testament there are over 200 references to humility. It is obviously a key Christian value. Peter comments: “And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time (1 Peter 5:5-6).” Peter includes in his comments about humility a quote from Proverbs 3:34, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Being prideful is in opposition to God but he gives grace to the humble.
The Pharisee obviously forgot or did not understand the Scriptures. The prophet Micah writes, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)?” Being a man or woman of God requires one to cultivate humility. One cannot pray sincerely without genuine humility. A proudful prayer is not prayer at all. The Pharisee in the parable did not pray. He just bragged to God about what a religious paragon he was. Indeed, he followed the Law of Moses but he became self-sufficient and did not acknowledge his need for and dependence on God. The parable is about the Pharisee who no longer recognized his need for God. Martin Luther made a generalization: “There are only two sorts of people in the world: sinners who think themselves righteous and the righteous who think themselves sinners.” Which kind of person are you? The Pharisee was a sinner who thought himself righteous.
Jesus ends the parable with a one-two punch. The first punch: “I tell you that this man (the tax collector), rather than the other, went home justified before God (Luke 18:14a).” Justification is a technical term meaning “declared righteous.” He was declared righteous not on the basis of anything he did but by the grace of God. The second punch: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:14b).”
I’ll leave you with a prayer of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “O God, I ain’t what I ought to be, and I ain’t what I’m gonna be, but by your grace, I ain’t what I used to be.”
Sermon preached by CH (COL) Michael W. Malone at Veterans Memorial Chapel