There's a knock on your door. But you weren't expecting anyone. And it's late at night and it's cold outside. And so you hope whoever is knocking will just go away. But soon you hear what sounds like two people talking outside your door. Who in the world could this be at this late hour? Again, the knocking continues, and gets louder and doesn't seem to stop. Finally you summon up your courage to go to the door to see who it is. You look through the peep hole, and sure enough, you see two people standing in front of your door. And so very cautiously you open your door, making sure the chain is still on. One of the gentlemen in front of you is very well dressed: white shirt, tie, shiny shoes. His hair is trim. He is very clean cut. He explains that his car is broken down and he is just asking if he can come in just to warm up while he waits for a tow truck. He doesn't want any other help than that.
You turn your attention to the other person standing by him at the door. That person is unshaven, wearing old jeans with holes at the knees. He is wearing a dirty knit hat that reeks of grease. He also needs help. But he doesn't want any money he just wants some food because he's hungry.
Which one of these two would you be more likely to accept into your home?
The well dressed gentleman says that he is a good standing citizen of the community. There is no telling what the other has been up to, judging by his looks and smell. He could be a criminal for all you know. A con-artist trying to rob you out of house and home. Who would you accept? Which of the two would you allow to step across that threshold into your home?
Now in the scenario that I just presented to you, notice that acceptance or rejection could hinge on one crucial factor: appearance. But appearance can be quite deceptive because you don't know what is inside a person's heart. What is seen by our eyes can be the opposite of reality, and it is so easy to forget that. What is it that makes a person acceptable? Let me put it this way: if you were in God's shoes, which one would you accept? Well, it depends.
Come with me to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18. Jesus teaches a very important parable, a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector, or publican. We will be looking at verses nine through thirteen. Luke 18_9-13 says that Jesus . . . spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous and despised others:
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
"The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'
"And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God be merciful to me a sinner!'
I like what Jesus says in Luke 18:14: "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Did you realize that what Jesus just said in verse 14 that He repeated elsewhere in the Gospels? It is interesting to look at a pattern in the Gospels when Jesus repeats Himself. It helps us understand the point He wants to make. We'll come back to Luke 18, but I'd like to point your attention to Luke 14. In verses 7 through 11, Jesus tells the parable about some people, when He noticed they chose the best places to sit at a wedding feast. It says, So He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them: "When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, 'Give this place to this man,' and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, 'Friend, go up higher.' Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Let's also look at Matthew 23. Here again, Jesus is speaking to the multitudes and to His disciples, and He's talking about the scribes and the Pharisees. Matthew 23:5. He says, "But all their works they do to be seen by men." And in verse 6 He says, 'They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues."
Now, the scribes and the Pharisees were considered pretty righteous. But Jesus tells the people that they were not as righteous as they wanted them to believe. In Matthew 23:12, Jesus again concludes with this statement: "And whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Now coming back to Luke chapter 18, this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector is about a great mix-up. Let me explain. You would normally expect that if you do what is right, you would be accepted by God. And conversely, if you do what is wrong, you would normally expect that God would not accept you. But in the parable, the one who tries to do everything right is rejected, and the one who has lived a sinful life is accepted. Why, that is scandalous. This is a great turn-around, a flip-flop of normal ordinary common sense. Is Jesus somehow saying that God is more accepting of, and more comfortable with, the tax collector than the Pharisee whot tries to do all the right things?
Coming to the point of the matter, what is the real purpose of this parable? That's what we should be asking ourselves. Well, Luke says in the beginning that the purpose was to say something to those who trusted in themselves and despised others. Then something must have been wrong with the Pharisee, since according to the parable he went home unjustified. What was wrong with him? Well, everything that he did was commendable. He tells us that he was not like other men: extortionists, unjust, adulterers, tax collectors. He fasted twice a week. He gave tithes of all that he possessed. This Pharisee was consecrated, He was dedicated, serious about God, ans serious about following God's word. But apparently he trusted in himself and despised others.
Well he certainly despised the tax collector. And even you would despise the tax collector if you lived back then. You must realize, of course that back those days the tax collectors where probably like the meanest, cruelest IRS auditors you could possibly imagine. Anyone ever been audited before by IRS agents? The problem in those days was not only that tax collectors took money away from you, they were collaborators. They were traitors who worked with the enemy. And they were consistently known as unfair as extortioners. They would overcharge, and only they could figure out the rules and regulations of Rome. Perhaps not unlike the IRS system today. And the problem was that you could not argue with them. The force of Rome stood behind them. And to make matters worse, you didn't see Mr. Joe tax collector dressed in plain Joe clothes in those days. No they were rich, dressed to the hilt, beautiful homes, swimming pools, heated spas, valuable jewelry, and fancy cars, I mean chariots of course.
Who wouldn't hate these guys? Tax collectors were the people that everyone loved to hate. But even though the Pharisees good behaviors list is impressive, is he really better off than the tax collector as his words seemed to imply? His prayer tells us that he is faithful for what he is not. His words imply that he is just the opposite of the tax collector. He is not like other men who are adulterers which means that he is a faithful husband. There are no affairs for him. He is not an extortionist, which means he is honest. And he is not like unjust people, which means he would be fair in all of his dealings. This Pharisee probably knew all the right answers. So if you have a Bible question or a question about right and wrong, the Pharisee would be the one to ask, right? You don't ask immoral people a question about morality do you?
This Pharisee knew what was right. He knew how to be righteous. He knew how to live a righteous lifestyle. He was a dedicated Seventh-day Adventist. After all, he kept the seventh-day Sabbath very strictly, and he looked forward very fervently to the advent of the Messiah. And he practices strict tithing as well. That has got to make somebody a really dedicated Seventh-day Adventist.
But did he know everything? Just ask the Apostle Paul about this matter. He was a Pharisee. He knew everything. Or he thought he did. In Philippians 3 he tells us that if anyone could have confidence in their uprightness as a Pharisee, it was he. And he counts of an impressive list of credentials, all of which would be very important to someone from his standing in society: He was circumcised the eighth day that was very important to a devout Jew. Of the stock of Israel. Of the Tribe of Benjamin. A Hebrew of the Hebrews. Concerning the Law, a Pharisee. Pharisee was a good term in those days. It meant to be separate from anything that was common or unholy. And concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
But it wasn't until later on, after he became a Christian that Paul said some said some very astounding things for his time. Do you remember what he said in the chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13? He said that if he were the most righteous person of all, and could speak all the languages of earth and heaven, but not have love, he would be just a meaningless noise. He said that if he gave all his goods to the poor, and had all the faith in the world, but did not have love, he would be nothing. I believe the foundation for that understanding began much earlier in his life. The Pharisees, mind you, weren't all hypocrites, and they weren't all teaching the wrong things. Paul's teacher was Gamelio, and Gamelio's teacher was Healel. Now you must be asking what is so significant about that. Well, let me tell you that Healel taught that a good Pharisee, even though he was to live a good life, was never to trust in himself, but only in God. That's righteousness by faith.
Apparently this Pharisee in Luke 18 had forgotten that. So when he came to God, he had no room for God. When he came to God he didn't recognize his need to trust in God for help. When he came to God, he didn't ask God for help. So, when he came to God, he didn't get help. You noticed that it says that he prayed "thus with himself" as he rattled off all these good things about himself. In other words, he trusted in himself and not in God. He wasn't really praying to God, was he? He was extolling his own virtues. It was a reflection, it was a reverie, on his own goodness. In other words, he trusted in himself.
To paraphrase the closing words of the parable, "Those who trust in themselves will be humbled. And those who don't trust in themselves, but in God, will be exalted."
So let me ask you one more thing about this parable. What kind of God would give this parable in Luke 18? What does this teach us about a God that loves us? The only answer that I can come up with is that it is the same God that wept and agonized over Jerusalem because they wouldn't come to Him that they might have life. This is the God that, I believe, wants us to know that the whole point about religion is not so that we can say "look at me," but it is about knowing God. He's the Good News. We're not the good news. He is. So, knowing God is what's important. It is all about reconciliation, at-one-ment with our Father. It is about trust in God so that He can heal us from the damage of sin. And believe it or not, we are all damaged beyond what we can possibly imagine. And so we need His healing touch. The whole point about Religion is not about our knowledge of scripture or living good lifestyle choices both of which are very healthful and very important, but remember the Jews read the Scriptures very much. And they thought that by reading them they would have eternal life. But the Scriptures, Jesus explained, we meant to bring us to Jesus. But they wouldn't come to Him that they might have life.
So, this business about living for God and religion and Christianity; it' about being one with God. That's the true atonement as Jesus describes in John 17, that part about you and me that we might be one togther. This matter about being one with God, that He would be in us, that we would be in Him. That is really what God wants. Religion that God commends is not about compiling arbitrary rules upon other arbitrary rules, because God is not like that. He simply wants our attention, and by giving Him our attention, He can do marvelous things in our lives.
What I like about this parable is that Luke 18 tells us that forgiveness is never a problem for our God. It's never a problem. God is forgiveness personified. That is never really the issue. The issue is what is going on here in our hearts. And behind this parable stands the promise of Psalm 51:17, The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart these, o God, You will not despise. Isn't that good news? I am thankful for that, aren't you? This is why the tax collector went home justified. That is why God could work with him. He wasn't shutting God out as the Pharisee was. He gave his attention to God. He started listening to God. And he trusted in God.
The words of our Scripture reading this morning, is so very important. Jeremiah 9:23,24. ". . . Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I a the Lord, exercising loving kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,' say the Lord.
So the tax collector who was wrong in so many ways in his life, turned a corner and became right in the one way that was important. He knew that he needed God's help. The Pharisee did not know, or he forgot. Perhaps it's time that we wonder ourselves what is it that we have forgotten as we live our lives as Christians? What have we left aside in our Christian experience? Where do we need to be renewed and restored? Whatever we forget, may it never be that we forget to trust in God for His grace.
In this Thanksgiving season, let's be thankful that God is someone that we can trust. And that God is strong enough and powerful enough and trustworthy enough to bring us the healing and the grace that we need. Let's be thankful for Who God is and to allow Him to work in our lives and continue His work of transformation in us. May we always remember what the Pharisee forgot.
Hymn of Praise: #201, Christ Is Coming Scripture: Jeremiah 9:23,24 Hymn of Response: #109, Marvelous Grace
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last updated November 22, 2004 by Bob Beckett.