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God’s Word for You

Luke 18:9-12 The Pharisee…

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

9 Jesus told this parable to some people who put their trust in themselves (that they were righteous) and looked down on everyone else.

Luke introduces this parable with the circumstance of an encounter with some self-righteous individuals, probably while he was still in a village on the other side of the Jordan (he will approach Jericho, the first of the cities on the near side, in verse 35). The perfect participle (πεποιθότας) tells us that they were putting their faith or trust in themselves, and that this was what they always did. It had been this way for some time, and it showed itself day after day. The word “faith” needs to have an object, and Luke supplies the shocking truth: they trusted in themselves. This is modified with a subordinate clause which I have placed in parentheses: “that they were righteous.” Luke doesn’t tell us that they were Pharisees. If he knew, he would not have hesitated to tell us. Perhaps they were part of another Jewish sect. Any of the villages in proximity to Jericho could have been home to a group that is unnamed in the Bible, the Essenes. We think that the Essenes were probably the group, I’ll call them monks although that’s inexact, who separated themselves from regular Jewish society and who either wrote or at least stored the documents we call the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the writings preserved there even reflect what the Pharisee in this parable says. This is just one example:

VI.8   “I give you thanks, Lord,
VI.13   …(that) you make me approach your intelligence,
VI.14   and to the degree that I approach,
        (so does) my fervor against all those who act wickedly.
VI.19   I do not lift my face to evil
        or consider a wicked gift.
VI.26   I loathe all the paths of the wicked.
        (1QH, Hymns, Column VI)

10 “Two men went up to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like other men; robbers, evildoers, adulterers, and especially that I am not like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all I get.’

The Pharisees were popular. They were well-dressed, sociable, and if they made a show of their faith, we might sigh to ourselves that at least they had faith. Others, like the Sadducees, did not. But the Pharisees had problems with their faith, and this is why Jesus spent time with them, correcting them. They were sometimes “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34), and therefore, with instruction, some of the Pharisees might be saved.

The tax collectors were not popular. Greedy and self-serving, most tax collectors over-charged people so much that they were hated and outcast from Jewish society. The appearance of a tax collector in the temple would have been shocking.

The Pharisee paints a picture of a pretty good man. He didn’t commit any flagrant sins. He wasn’t a robber, an evildoer, or an adulterer. He kept the second table of the law in his mind. He even adds a throw-away line into his prayer, “I am not like this tax collector.” He meant, of course, that he wasn’t like most tax collectors. If he had known what he was saying, he would have scrambled to have been even just a little bit like this particular tax collector. As for the rest of his prayer, the Pharisee felt the need to inform God about his fasting and his tithing.

The Pharisee believes that his goodness has its source within himself. Like some of Jesus’ listeners, he believed in himself, that he was righteous, and he had faith in his own righteousness. It would not matter in what direction this false belief led him. He might think that God had nothing to do with the goodness he exuded, or that God had given him a little push toward righteousness. In the first case, what a great day for God, that he stumbled on this man who was a shining example of goodness among wretchedness, like a flower blossom in the mud! In the second case, what a great choice God has made, pointing this man toward all his greatness, and letting his own natural talents drive him forward into the fine fountain of righteousness and good works that he was. The problem is that in either case, the Pharisee had to come to the conclusion, eventually, that he himself was good enough for God; that his own good works were enough to satisfy God’s demands.

This is where everyone must stumble and slip back into the mud. I’m not the one who’s righteous at all. It’s Christ who covered me with his righteousness. We need to recognize that in God’s eyes, each one of us is exactly as wicked and sinful as other men. We are all robbers. We are all evildoers. We are all adulterers. We are all like the tax collectors of old. We are all like the abusive, morally corrupt, self-serving swindlers, liars, and cheaters that we look at down our noses when they are paraded out in front of us every day in the news. We all have every sin to repent of. What we thank God for is not that we are “not like other men,” but that because we are exactly like other men, God had mercy on us. He saved us. He did not rescue us because of how great we are, but because of how great he is. We praise his holy name, and we proclaim him in the world.

O come, let us adore him!

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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