The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Dave Baxter, Speaker

Luke 18:9-14 | May 28 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
May 28
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector | Luke 18:9-14
Dave Baxter, Speaker

Before we pray, go ahead and turn in your copy of God’s Word in the pew Bible in front of you to Luke chapter 18 for our text for our evening sermon tonight. I think that’s on page 877 in your pew Bibles. As you turn there, let me turn to the Lord now in prayer and we’ll seek God’s help for the preaching of His Word.

Father, how we need You, every hour we need You. In this hour, we need You. I need You. We as Your people need You. We need Your Word, we need Your grace. Would You please come again this evening through the preaching of Your Word, would You soften our hearts, open our ears, would You help us to see Christ? Would you strengthen, encourage, and equip us for Your purposes and for Your glory? We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I really love the start of summer. I know that somebody will want to come up to me afterwards and tell me that the official start of summer isn’t for a few weeks yet, so I know that’s true as far as the day goes, but for me, the end of the school year, especially as a school family, the opening up of our neighborhood pool, these things kind of signify for me the start of summer. So today, feel just like every year at this time, I was really excited once we got home from morning worship to go upstairs to my closet and grab out my favorite summer flannel and just bundle up.

Maybe you have a summer flannel, or a parka as the need may be. I know the weather’s not quite cooperating to send the message that we are arriving at summer, but the calendar says that we’re here. Our preaching schedule says that we’re actually here. If you’re a guest here with us tonight, let me just first of all welcome you and say how thrilled we are that you’re here with us. We’re so glad you’re here, hope you’ll join us again. We’re actually coming to a close from an evening series that we’ve been working through over the last few months now, the parables of Jesus that we find in the Gospel of Luke. We’re bringing that to a close with this evening’s message and next week we’re turning to a new evening series for the month of June called “Don’t Waste Your Summer.” You’ll definitely want to be here for those, especially as we set out on our summer together.

I actually will not be preaching a sermon in that series, but don’t you worry. I’m going to get in a “Don’t Waste Your Summer” comment in this sermon tonight. I’m just going to jam it right in here into the introduction itself. One of the things you might think about doing for your summer is putting together a reading list of sorts. I know, students, you will be very excited to do that sort of thing – finish up school and put together a reading list. One book you might add to your reading list for the summer that I would recommend, J. I. Packer’s classic Knowing God. Perhaps you’ve read it yourself already, but if you’ve read it already or never have, it’d be a great one to add for a list of reading for the summer.

Then if you get nothing else at all from this sermon, then at least you’ve got that one take-away already for tonight. Something, a book recommendation for you take home for your summer.

But I’m thinking about that just because I recently picked it up again just to add into my morning devotions, just reading a couple of pages, slowly through, and I was reading a few days ago and came across a few sentences that just really struck me, especially in light of the passage, the parable that we’re looking at this evening. I thought that I would share them then to help set the state for that passage this evening with you. So the chapter’s called “The People Who Know Their God,” it’s the second chapter, “The People Who Know Their God.” This is what Packer says there.

“Do we desire knowledge of God? Then first we must recognize how much we lack knowledge of God. We must learn to measure ourselves not by our knowledge about God, not by our gifts and responsibilities in the church, but by how we pray and by what goes on in our hearts.” We must learn to measure ourselves not by our knowledge about God, not by our gifts, not by our responsibilities in the church, but by how we pray and by what goes on in our hearts.

The parable tonight is not really as it were sort of a primer on how to pray, it’s not ultimately about crafting prayers, but this quote and this parable tonight remind us that prayers can be so very revealing – revealing of our hearts, of what we know and understand of God, how we know Him, even of what we know of ourselves. It’s certainly true of the characters in this parable, the story that Jesus tells about a pharisee and a tax collector. It’s a story that Luke tells us here already in verse 9 that Jesus told to a particular group of people, and that helps to set the tone for where we’re going with this text then.

It says that Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. Interesting how often those come together. It’s not a throw-away comment, by the way. In this story, this parable that Jesus is telling, is situational. It’s a response to a need that Jesus is dealing with and the people He’s talking to there among Him, a need related to spiritual pride, and He means to show that He’s talking to the danger of trusting in your merits, or trusting in yourself before God and for His approval.

Yet also to share with them, and through God’s Word to share with us tonight, a beautiful invitation to the abundant mercy of God to any who come to realize their need for it.

We’ll see that as we look at this little parable tonight. As we look at this story, we’ll see first of all two men, but if it’s okay with you, I’m going to call them two people, just for the sake of alliteration, because when it comes to sermons, that’s real important. So we’ll start with two people, then we’ll get to see their prayers, two prayers, and then we’ll see one pronouncement from Jesus. So two people, two prayers, one pronouncement from Jesus, and then we’ll make a couple of brief observations. Two people, two prayers, one pronouncement, some observations.

Look with me if you will at this text and his parable, and then we’ll consider first of all the two people we meet here. Luke 18, verse 9.

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and who treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.””

So two men went up to the temple to pray. That’s a rather inauspicious start to the story. It’s not surprising, after all, to see people going to the temple to pray. People go to the temple to pray. The first man certainly is not surprising at all – it was a Pharisee. He’s the head nodder in the story, he’s the one that kind of gets the heads nodding. Of course he’s going, especially probably in the group that Jesus was talking to, no doubt including among them at least a few Pharisees. They were the religious professionals, so of course he was going to pray. That’s what Pharisees did.

The other is a tax collector. Now he’s the head turner in the story, though honestly for us perhaps it may be hard to feel that way, to get back the feel of the story as they have landed with that original audience listening in, but if this story had happened in reality in that day, a tax collector going up into the temple to pray, it certainly would have led to some double-takes, perhaps some whispers, maybe even a direct confrontation.

I know we’ve talked about tax collectors here in our services before, in our sermons, but it’s good to remind ourselves they were considered traitors, traitors because they were collecting taxes from their own countrymen on behalf of the Roman authorities. Because of the way that the tax system was carried out, it allowed for the possibility of extorting others through taxation, which many took advantage of for themselves and their own benign, so they were often seen as traitors and often truly were cheats and crooks. They were a despised group.

But despite that, many of us here tonight, perhaps through a familiarity with the Scriptures and stories like these about Pharisees or maybe even because the word “Pharisee” has become itself sort of a synonym for religious hypocrite in our day, we instinctively know as soon as hear the word “Pharisee” in the story, the little radar goes up and we know who the real bad guy in the story is going to be already.

In fact, I actually looked up “Pharisee” on because I don’t think they actually even make printed thesauruses anymore; maybe they do, I’m not sure. But it’s easy to find on I did a quick search for terms with synonyms for the word “Pharisee.” They came up like “bigot,” “imposter,” “phony,” “poser,” “charlatan,” “crook.”

It’s graduation time right now. Lots of commencement speeches going on. Probably not most of the words in that list you’re going to find in the commending section of commencement speeches. It’s not a real nice list.

So many of us instinctively assume as soon as we hear the word “Pharisee” that is the guy in the story we absolutely do not want to be. But it wasn’t necessarily the popular sentiment of the time. The Pharisees were a pious group, often recognized by others as such. Of course, as we read the Gospels, we come to see through Jesus’ eyes that how often their motivations were something less than God-honoring, but in the original context perhaps the boos for this story would have been for the tax collector rather than the Pharisee.

Yet here they are, these two men, the Pharisee and the tax collector going into the temple to pray, and that’s what they did, they prayed.

Jesus tells those around Him and then Luke shares it with us tonight the context, the nature of the prayers that they prayed, so let’s look at those.

Two people, two prayers.

First look at the Pharisee and his prayer. Verse 11. He’s standing by himself, or maybe even praying in regards to himself, but either way, his attitude is already leaking. It’s one of self-righteousness, self-commendation, self-reliance, self-confidence, and here, not just before other people but actually before God Himself.

Of course he gives a nod in God’s direction. He starts with a “thank you, God,” but that’s actually the last word we hear of God. God disappears after the first word in the prayer and you don’t need a lot probably to realize that when it comes to prayer, that’s not really a good thing. It’s a prayer that seems to be a prayer of praise, but it’s in the wrong direction.

First thing he notes is things that he is not. He is not like other men, he say, extortioners, unjust, adulterers. Here we get the sense that while he is standing off by himself, he’s at least aware of this tax collector in the room or he says, “or like this even like this tax collector over here.”

I couldn’t help but when I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think of some of our family times of prayer at the Baxter house. Not because of the not-so-veiled comparison and accusation here by the Pharisee, but because of how I actually imagined him praying it. I don’t know if you’ve taught people to pray like around the dinner table or whatever, you might have had experience similar to this, but you have to give some prompts when you’re getting started. You know, “How about you start with something like, ‘God, I thank you for this food.'” Then you pause and they repeat. Then you give them another prompt, like “God, I thank you for my family.” Ah, now they’re getting it. They see where this whole thing is going so they don’t need your prompts anymore, they start in enumerating the family: “God, I thank You for mommy and I thank You for daddy.”

Then I like this part. I’m peeking, too, here but you kind of look up and you see them peeking now because they’re going to fill out the list but they want to make sure they don’t forget anybody, so they’re kind of, and we’ve got a lot of people, so you’ve got to make sure. You’re looking around, you’re kind of going around, “Thank You for Henry and thank You for Ellie” and you go around. Sometimes we get so charged up we start around for lap number two.

You always feel bad interrupting a prayer, especially of your child, but sometimes you just have to, okay, we’ve gone around three times, this is enough. Amen. Thank you for that wonderful prayer.

But they were peeking to make sure that they had included everyone in the thank-you list. They’re looking for fodder for this prayer of thanks.

Then when I think of this Pharisee not thanking for others but that he isn’t like others, and he comes up with a couple of examples of his own but then he’s peeking, too, isn’t he? Sort of peeking around the room, looking around for some fodder to help him fill out his list. Then there’s that tax collector that walked in with him, “Oh, yes, yes, Lord, thank You I’m not like him either.” Things he’s not.

He goes on to and to the things he’s avoided, a couple of things that he’s done, just by way of example probably, and they aren’t bad things. In fact, he’s gone well above and beyond what the Jewish law really required, fasting and tithing well more than what was technically required. These are good things, they’re good things that he’s done. There’s no reason, really, to assume either that he hasn’t done these things or that he’s necessarily exaggerating. The problem isn’t with the things he claims to have done or the things he’s avoided, it’s that his confidence is in those things and that he believes it’s those things that commend him in God’s sight.

Here’s what Leon Morris says – What the Pharisee said about himself was true. His trouble was not that he was not far enough along the road, but that he was on the wrong road altogether.

That’s the problem with his prayer. And it’s a sharp contrast to the prayer at the end of the tax collector, you can see that in verse 13. He wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven. He stands off at a distance, he’s beating his chest and he’s crying out for God’s mercy. He’s standing in the back, which maybe suggests something of where the Pharisee has positioned himself. He’s standing off in the back. There’s no comparisons in his prayer, the Pharisee doesn’t show up in his prayer.

Thankful that this has turned into something like a pray-off. “Oh, yeah, well, God, thank You that I am not like that guy.”

No, it’s clear what weighs on his heart – God, be merciful to me, I’m a sinner.

It’s a really short prayer. It’s a really short prayer and I know that my kids are probably out here somewhere, saying, “Dad, you should take notes.” Longer is not always better, it’s true.

But it is important to see what is not there in this prayer. Do you see that he is not excusing his sin? He’s not ignoring it, he is not rationalizing it. He owns his sin. And he is not presenting to God his own righteousness. He’s not presenting to God his own record as something that could commend him to God or cover over the sin he knows that he has. He’s asking God actually for mercy for the righteousness he knows he does not have in himself.

I don’t want to get bogged down picking apart the words of the prayer. In Greek there’s just six, including the articles. But let me just point out one word here, there word for “have mercy.” Literally it means to make propitiation for. Propitiation. It means to turn aside or divert away the just wrath of God from that object that it rightly belongs to, to something else for the appeasement, for the satisfaction of God’s wrath in some other way.

With that in mind, listen to what Dale Ralph Davis suggests about this prayer – The verb used, he says, has to do with turning away wrath by means of a sacrifice. Since the setting is the temple… It is such a great reach to imagine that the tax collector thinks here of the lamb offered morning and evening there? As if to say, oh, that there was an atoning sacrifice for me, one that would be a sacrifice that would take his place and absorb his judgment. __ he’s asking for more than mercy, and translate it “let there be an atonement for me.”

Not just ignore my sins, O God, but let there be some real way of taking them away from me, of dealing with them, of turning away Your wrath that is the just response for all of my sins. Not just have mercy, but God, let there be a means of mercy that You would have for me. And for me.

You know, the beautiful irony here is that the one telling the story will be the One who is that sacrifice. He is there in the flesh for that very purpose, to be the means of propitiating or turning away the wrath of God from broken and repentant sinners. At that very moment as He’s telling this story, Jesus is living the perfectly righteous life, obeying the Father at every second, faithfully fulfilling the law, and with every single breath that he breathes, He is completing the perfect life He’ll soon offer up to God as a substitute for the unrighteous.

It’s amazing. The very means by which God would pardon the unrighteous is the man telling the story to these self-righteous folks.

It’s interesting that the word for the tax collector uses here for “have mercy” is found just one other place in the New Testament in Hebrews 2, verse 17, and it’s referring there to Jesus – Therefore, it says, He (Jesus) had to be made like His brothers in every respect so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to, and here’s that word, to make propitiation for the sins of His people. Jesus, propitiation for the people.

Now the point of this story that offering is yet to occur, the sacrifice is yet to be offered, but that God is a God of mercy, a God who is willing to pardon and forgive was already very, very clear.

Let me just read you a couple of verses, these from the Old Testament, actually.

Exodus 34:6 – The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Isaiah 55:7 – Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to the Lord that He may have compassion on him, and to our God for He will abundantly pardon.

Or Daniel 9 – To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against You. But to the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness.

Psalm 103 – He does not deal with us according to our sins nor repay us according to our iniquities. As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.

We could go on and on, piling up these promises of God’s mercy and forgiveness in the Old Testament.

You know, we don’t know this, the story doesn’t tell us this, but maybe this tax collector was familiar with some of these. Maybe he remembered them. Maybe it had been a long time since he had been around that temple. Maybe, though, perhaps like some of here tonight, maybe this is for you, your own testimony. After years of neglect, of running, or resisting, you suddenly find yourself confronted by your sin, weighed down by the reality of it all, recognizing, aware of your position before God and then something from your youth, maybe something a Sunday School teacher said or a youth leader, something you remember hearing from a grandparent or a friend, but something, some way that God sends to you a reminder that God is a God of mercy for sinners and that maybe there is mercy for me.

Perhaps that’s what happened for this man. We want, of course, to see how God responds to such a prayer. We want to look at the responses to these prayers in the pronouncement that Jesus gives, but before we do, one more thing to note, and that’s important. It’s that Jesus is not just commending a better script for prayer here, but a different heart altogether. It’s not actually just the words themselves of the prayer that God responds to, but it’s the posture of the heart. That is, this is not just simply a better prayer than the Pharisee’s prayer for us to parrot, it’s the posture of the tax collector’s heart that we need before God.

As has been often said, the heart of the matter is a matter of the heart.

That’s what’s actually going on here. These prayers are revealing. They’re revealing two hearts, two different postures. It’s in the pronouncement that follows that God actually reveals His response.

So look at verse 14 where we see the results of these prayers and the postures they reveal and the pronouncement that Jesus gives. Very briefly.

Jesus says, “I tell you this man,” and here He’s referring to the tax collector, “I tell you this man, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.”

Now what would have been so surprising about this is that that was a complete reversal of what the people standing there would have expected to be the case. They were likely thinking the Pharisee showed up righteous. He certainly seems to be under that impression. Jesus is saying he didn’t even leave that way.

Rather, Jesus speaks and gives a different verdict. He says, “I tell you this tax collector rather than the Pharisee is the one who went to his house justified.”

It’s truly unbelievable. It would be unbelievable if it were not true. Nothing more. One man spends his whole life trying to perfect a religious record and then leaves just as far from God and condemned in His sight as any other sinner out there. The other man spends his life serving himself at the cost of those around him, flagrantly breaking God’s laws, and leaves right in God’s sight and even commended with a future in heaven secure because of one moment, because of one prayer, because of one broken plea?

Yes, because it doesn’t depend on what those men have done, but in whom and what they are trusting.

This is the absolute radical nature of grace, that this one broken plea from this one broken sinner could lead to one unbreakable pronouncement from Jesus. It’s why it can be so offensive or so astounding, depending on our ears, if we haven’t just grown accustomed to it. It’s why it’s so hard to believe, impossible, in fact, if God doesn’t enable us to do so.

Yet Jesus concludes with this incredible pronouncement and actually broadens it out into a broader principle with this promise of sorts – for everyone how exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Two prayers, two people, two prayers, one pronouncement.

That is the story.

Let me share three observations before we close. They’ll be brief.

First of all, first observation, notice the irony of distance with God. Notice the irony of distance with God.

See, the Pharisee takes the place of honor, not just in the temple, not just in the room itself, but in his own heart. The tax collector was standing far off, but in his brokenness and humility, he’s actually the one drawing near, getting close to God. In fact, in his brokenness, God is drawing near to him because that’s the way that God is.

Isaiah 57:15 – For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and the holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

The irony of distance with God is that as we acknowledge just how unlike Him we are, as we confess our sins and don’t hide them from Him, this is actually what draws us near to God and what actually draws Him near to us. It’s not that we need to go around morose or despondent all the time or constantly needing to be going around just talking about how wretched we are, that itself can become a kind of self-preoccupation. But it’s simply to say that we cannot come near to God apart from a spirit of humility, apart from a recognition of our deep and constant need for His grace for us in Jesus, apart from a turning from boasting in ourselves.

That’s not just initially, not just at the entrance or the outset of the Christian life, but it’s all the way through our life with Him. That ought to be such an encouragement to us tonight, honestly, because there’s not one single person here tonight who doesn’t have every reason to humble yourself before God.

There’s also not one single person here tonight who can’t truly count on the reality that God will draw near to you in response as you do so.

That’s the first observation, the irony of distance with God.

A second observation, the deceptiveness of self-righteousness. The deceptiveness of self-righteousness.

Friends, self-righteousness can be so very deceptive. You see that in the Pharisee, can’t you? He’s got no idea. He’s deceived perhaps even to the point of his eternal condition. Perhaps it’s obvious to us while we’re reading the story, Jesus is making it such, it’s obvious to us, we see it in him, but it can be so easy to miss in ourselves. While most of us here no doubt this evening have trusted in Christ and are truly justified forever in Him, it’s true that there can be remnants, traces of self-righteousness that linger on, even when we’ve been justified in Christ. The flesh fights on. The roots of spiritual pride and self-reliance can continue to grow.

So again, when it comes to spiritual pride, Dale Ralph Davis is helpful here. Notice that perhaps for some of us spiritual pride hides in something like this, perhaps for you, you instinctively refuse to identify with the Pharisee but may fall into the pit of self-righteousness and find yourself thinking something like this: O God, I thank You that I am not like that arrogant Pharisee, tooting his own horn, itemizing achievements, loathing other people.

I wonder if that can be some of us perhaps tonight. It can be so deceiving.

What do we do, though, when we see it? When we do see spiritual pride, self-righteousness? We do what the tax collector did. We do what the Pharisee should have done. Repent. God have mercy.

Self-righteousness is itself sin, but praise God it is no less repentable or forgivable than any other. The good news is that God’s mercy is always enough.

The deceptiveness of self-righteousness. That’s the second observation.

One more we need to make before we close – The delay of exaltation.

The delay of exaltation. Because while the tax collector leaves justified, truly justified in the sight of God, he’s clearly leaving still despised in the eyes of the Pharisee, and who knows, it doesn’t say, but the Pharisee probably doesn’t seem to be immediately humbled afterward. Not in his own eyes and certainly probably not in the eyes of those around him.

If we’re honest, isn’t that often the case in this world? The Apostle Paul was an actual Pharisee who humbled himself like this tax collector had, but he wrote later, and this is just one example, we could pile up others, wrote later, “To the present hour we hunger and thirst. We’re poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless. We have become, and our still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”

That does not sound like exaltation.

And delays can be confusing.

But as Darrell Bock has pointed out, this promises ultimately, ultimately it’s an eschatological promise. That is, it’s ultimately a promise of what’s still to come. That is, there’s a delay between our humility and our exaltation. A delay but not uncertainty. There’s a dash, but it’s not a question mark. It might be a very long dash, it might feel like a very long dash, but it’s a dash and not a question mark.

The same Paul wrote this elsewhere. Romans 8:28 through 20: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good. For those who are called according to His purpose, for those whom He foreknew He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers, and those whom He predestined He also called, and those He called He also justified, and listen to this, those whom He justified, He also glorified.

Paul says there is no justification that does not lead to glorification. Everyone who humbles themselves and seeks God’s mercy will be exalted. There’s no more certain promise in the universe. There’s no more sure ground that you could set your feet on tonight than this, and it makes for the most astounding invitation to us this evening.

It actually highlights one more thing to see before we close, and that’s this. This story is certainly a warning. We should not miss that. While this story is certainly a warning against the dead-end deception of self-righteousness, it is also an invitation. It’s also an invitation to the broken, but also to the self-righteous, to those who find themselves broken over sin and those who hate to discover yet one more place of spiritual pride within them. To all of us, this story is an invitation, an invitation to lay down your sin. It’s an invitation to lay down your self-righteousness and to come to Christ for the first time or the 1000th time, that God’s mercy is sure. God’s mercy is free. And God’s mercy is always more than enough.

So I thought that maybe a good way to close tonight would be to actually suggest another prayer in light of the prayers we’ve looked at. Perhaps another prayer with some mild improvement over what the words of the Pharisee, hopefully captures the spirit of this passage and the heart that God desires to see in us, and that probably we desire hopefully in ourselves, even as we grow in grace.

I’m actually going to close with this prayer for our sermon tonight, and then we’ll have the opportunity to stand and sing together, reminding ourselves and celebrating the fact that regardless of our sins, His mercy is always more. But I’ll pray and then we’ll stand and sing together as we close.

Let’s close with this prayer.

God, I thank You that You are not like other gods, judging me by my own merits, receiving me according to what I deserve, or even giving to me only what I have earned. I’m not the person I should be, I’m not yet like the person You want me to be. I have so often not wanted the good that I should, or done the good that I’ve actually wanted. In fact, I’m the worse sinner I know because I know my sin so personally. Even as much as I may hate it, I don’t hate it nearly enough, and not with anything worth comparing to Your hate for it. Yet, Father, there is hope even for me, for us, because You are a God rich in mercy, long in suffering, and patient. While You are just, You are also God who justifies the ungodly like me through Jesus Christ Your Son. You gave everything You had to give me everything I had lost and make me everything I was not. I’m not deserving of the least of Your kindnesses, but by Your grace alone I am no longer what I once was. By Your grace alone I will one day be what I am not now. I am justified only by grace. I will be glorified only by grace. Thank You, God, for the peace and the joy and the future that is mine, that is ours, only by grace. Lord, show me where I still need to grow and kill off all the pride and self-reliance that remains in me, and have mercy on me, a sinner. To You be all the glory. Amen.