Sermon - October 27th, 2013 - Luke 18:9-13 - Pharisee & Tax Collector
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed:
‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said,
‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.
A quick look at the Gospels reveals that Jesus often used parables as a teaching aid. Jesus put difficult concepts into a form that people could identify with and understand. This morning we consider the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Here, as we will see, Jesus contrasts two very different types of "religious" people. And, as we will see, these two types of "religious" people are still with us today. I pray that God would bless our consideration of His Holy Word!
A quick look at the Gospels shows that Jesus could see past people's exterior and directly into their hearts. In the parable before us this morning, Jesus explains what makes different kinds of religious people tick. In his parable, Jesus describes religion that is acceptable to God, and religion that is not. In this parable, Jesus' shows us what genuine faith looks like. You know, in years past, some Lutherans have witnessed to their faith by asking a very simple question:
If you were to die tonight and face God at the Judgment and He was to ask you, 'Why should I let you into heaven?" what would you say?"
As we will see, the two men in our parable this morning would have answered this question in very different ways.
So let’s begin with the Pharisee. Now, if you don't know anything about Pharisees – or Tax Collectors, for that matter – you're going to miss point of the parable. So let's do a little homework first before we try to interpret it. The Pharisees were a powerful group of religious leaders in Jesus' day. They loved their traditions. They held tightly to their traditions and laws. They believed that they should live a righteous life separated from others who didn’t share their faith or their customs. They lived in “splendid isolation” from others. The Pharisees loved formal worship and all the rites and rituals that went along with it.
The Pharisees were extremely religious. Their whole life centered around religious things. Today, we might call them 'religious fanatics.' or ‘fundamentalists.’ Bear in mind that the Pharisees were proudly SELF‑RIGHTEOUS. They were proud of their religious accomplishments and of their good works – proud enough, as Jesus Himself points out, to boast about these things. Here’s the prayer of a rabbi who lived in the time of Jesus. I’ve quoted it before, but it bears repeating. The Pharisee said to God:
I thank thee, O Lord, my God, that thou hast given me a place among those who sit in the House of Study, and not among those who sit at the street corners.
For I rise early, and they rise early.
But I rise early to study the words of the Law,
and they rise early to engage in vain things.
I labor and they labor;
but I labor and receive a reward,
and they labor and receive no reward.
I live and they live;
but I live for the life of the future world,
and they live for the pit of destruction.
I’m sure it won't surprise you to hear that Jesus didn't get along very well with people like this. In the Gospels, Jesus was angry with the Pharisees far more often than he was with anyone else. The religion of the Pharisees focused on the self. Theirs was a religion of good works. They believed they could keep God’s Law in a way that was pleasing to Him. As a matter of fact, they added hundreds of petty regulations – 613 of them as a matter of fact – to God's law and set out to live by them, too. The Pharisees were proud and boastful. But as far as Jesus was concerned, their faith was just a thin layer of paint, applied to their sinful nature. And that paint was peeling off. As far as Jesus was concerned, the Pharisees had their priorities confused. On the outside, they appeared to be very religious. But, on the inside, it was a different story. Here’s the bottom line. The Pharisees were hypocrites, pure and simple. They said one thing and did another. What you saw wasn’t what you got. The Pharisees were religious actors, putting on a show for an audience. They deceived many people. but they didn't deceive the Lord.
The Pharisees were hypocrites. They judged faith by man‑made standards. They were zealous for God, but they had become disconnected from His Word. Over the years, they substituted their will for God's will. And when Jesus challenged them, pointing out their errors, they fought back with a vengeance. Their hearts were hardened to the point that when their own Messiah appeared, they rejected him. When their own Messiah appeared, instead of worshipping him, they crucified him. The Pharisees had lost touch with the concept of Grace, of God's UNEARNED LOVINGKINDNESS. They mistakenly thought they were worthy of God's love by virtue of WHAT THEY DID. They prayed. They tithed, that is, they gave one tenth of their income to the Lord's work. They did lots of good works. Knowing all this, it makes perfect sense why one of them would stand up in the temple and say:
God, I thank you that I am not like all other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tithe of all I get.
The Pharisee sincerely thought God would be impressed. He was working hard to make himself look good at the expense of others. You’ll notice that he didn't say one word about God’s love and grace.
Well then, what about TAX COLLECTORS? Here again we need to do a little homework. At this time, the land of Israel was occupied by the Romans. The Jews hated the Romans and especially resented paying taxes to the Romans. In the Roman tax system, certain people were responsible for collecting taxes in the various areas of Israel. Tax collection system was subcontracted to these people. They paid a certain amount in advance for the privilege of collecting taxes. And once they collected enough to cover that cost, the rest was theirs to keep. No one kept tabs on the total amount collected, as long as Rome got its quota.
In most cases, these subcontractors didn't actually collect the money. They hired others to do the dirty work for them. And our friend in the parable was most likely one of these hired tax collectors, working for someone higher up. Some of these tax collectors were Romans, but the majority were Jews. When it comes right down to it, the right to collect taxes was a license to steal. That’s why tax collectors were hated as they were. That’s why they were thought of as robbers and thieves. And the JEWISH tax collectors were even more despised because they were seen as turncoats and lackeys for the Romans.
In the Hindu caste system, the untouchables are known as pariahs. They are avoided and considered to be unclean. In Jesus' day, the tax collectors were the pariahs. People avoided them. They were the brunt of jokes and rude comments. But Jesus, amazingly, spent time with them. As a matter of fact, he even made a tax collector by the name of Matthew Levi one of his disciples. Jesus ate meals with tax collectors. You can imagine what the SUPER‑RIGHTEOUS Pharisees had to say about that!
The tax collector in Jesus’ parable was a humble man. The Pharisee, on the other hand, boldly advertised his piety. The tax collector was so ashamed of his sins that he wouldn't even lift up his eyes to God. Unlike the proud Pharisee, he willing to be judged by God and to face the consequences. Unlike the proud Pharisee, he was willing to repent of his sins and tell God that he was sorry for them. He was willing to confess his sins and to be absolved of them. You may recall that the New Testament tells us of a second Jewish tax collector, one besides Matthew Levi, who came to faith in Jesus. That man's name was Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus came to see the error of his ways, and was willing to pay back four times as much as he had defrauded. Zacchaeus, too, was willing to do things God's way.
In Jesus’ opinion, the Pharisee in His parable went about it all wrong. He very much wanted to impress God with his good works. But God was not impressed. The Pharisee turned the spotlight on himself. The tax collector, on the other hand, turned the spotlight on the grace and love of God. The tax collector was unworthy of God's blessing, and he freely admitted it. The Pharisee wrongly claimed it, and it was withheld from him. At the heart of our faith is a confession of sins. At the heart of our faith is a total submission to God's will. Christianity involves swallowing our pride, and admitting our faults. When you think about it, these are things that our proud human nature resists strenuously. The tax collector was honest with himself and with God. As he confessed and renounced his sins, God graciously declared him to be forgiven and gave him new spiritual life. These words, found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs are oh, so true.
He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.
So, what do you think? Are there any Pharisees in our world today? Are there Pharisees in the church? Absolutely! Another question, Do we have the equivalent of Jewish tax collectors in the world today? For sure! Modern-day Pharisees, like their ancient cousins, are only too ready to point out the speck in their neighbor's eye, while ignoring the great plank in their own. Modern-day Pharisees do all kinds of religious things, but for all the wrong reasons. And some of it comes pretty close to home. One study of Lutherans, done a generation ago, pointed out that 40% of Lutherans felt that they would be acceptable to God on the basis of the good works that they had done. Not much has changed in our day.
The legalism of the Pharisees is alive and well in the religious world today. Legalism is found everywhere, in non-Christian religions, and in the church too. There are those who think they are Christians because they don't smoke or drink, or go to movies, or grow their hair long. There are those who think they are Christians because they don't play cards or drink wine. Jesus was careful to point out, time and time again, that no one can keep the law perfectly, and if people want to be acceptable to God, there must be find another way.
“I AM THE WAY,” He said.
Many Christians misunderstand the function of God’s law. Many fail to see God’s Law as a great big needle that God uses to puncture our over‑inflated view of ourselves and our own righteousness. Martin Luther said that the essence of sin is to be curved in on the self. The religion of the Pharisee was exactly that, curved in on itself. God is not impressed with our efforts at saving ourselves. He’s not impressed with narrow mindedness and pride and lovelessness. When it comes to salvation and the forgiveness of our sins, He owes us nothing. And we deserve nothing. But he sent us His Son, and it’s only through believing in Him that we can be saved. The Pharisee trusted in himself and in his ability to earn his salvation. And he found the door to heaven closed to him. That's why Jesus told this parable. Remember verse 9:
To some who were CONFIDENT OF THEIR OWN RIGHTEOUSNESS and LOOKED DOWN ON EVERYBODY ELSE, Jesus told this parable.
You know, there are lots of very religious people in our world today, but not as many Christians. Lots of religious people think they can earn their way to heaven by doing good works. And many others believe that they can never be sure they have done enough to please God. Someone once said that the saddest funeral they ever attended was a Jehovah's Witness funeral. And the reason was simple. These people are taught that they can never be sure they are saved, that they have done enough to earn God’s favor. God’s Word tells us that the only way we can hope to enter heaven is with a complimentary pass given to us by Jesus Christ, a complementary pass earned for us at the cross of Calvary and approved by God at the empty tomb of Easter Sunday. In the Christian faith, to be made right with God is called RIGHTEOUSNESS. We are made right with God because Jesus took our sin debt upon Himself and paid it in full at the cross. As the hymn says,
"NOTHING IN MY HAND I BRING. SIMPLY TO THY CROSS I CLING."
It’s true. There are two basic kinds of religious people. Some want to pay their way to heaven. And some allow Jesus to pay the way for them. You know, here’s what’s at stake: If a person can be convinced that they can earn their way to heaven, then they don’t need Jesus Christ as their Savior from sin. So if God asks,
"Why should I let you into heaven?" I have a suggestion.
Don’t say, "Because I lived a good life."
Don’t say, "Because I'm a good person, and certainly better than my neighbor."
When God asks us why he should let you into heaven, tell Him about your faith in Jesus Christ. Tell Him that Jesus died for your sins and was raised for your justification. That’s all you need. AMEN.
LET'S PRAY: Dear Heavenly Father: Enable us to resist the lure of trying to earn our way into heaven. Turn our eyes upon Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and help us understand how important it is for us to trust him alone for our salvation. We pray in His most holy and precious name. AMEN.