He (Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and 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.”
(Luke 18:9-14, ESV)
What is your attitude as you approach God? Jesus addressed this parable to those who considered themselves to be righteous. This parable has two characters, and those characters demonstrate the difference between false worship and true worship.
The key difference is that true worship involves penitence. False worship sees no need for penitence. These two characters are going up to the temple to pray – this may have been for a time of public prayer.
The first character we meet is a self-righteous Pharisee, whose prayer was essentially a self-eulogy. As he prayed his biography, he thanked God that he was not like others. He told God how good he was. It seems that he was using his prayer as a means to achieve public recognition. This Pharisee believed that he had not succumbed to sin, and he viewed that as purely his own doing. He seemed to be praying to himself. There was no real thanks for what God had done but rather a long list of personal achievements (note all the I’s that he used!).
The prayer of the Pharisee was not a petition because he did not really think that he needed God. He had no sense of being an unworthy servant and having only done his duty (Luke 17:10). Actually, he believed he had done more than God required. He had not only kept the law perfectly and thus did not need to pray for God’s forgiveness, he even fasted twice a week and tithed everything he possessed. In that way he went above the law. The law only required a day of fasting once a year, but he fasted twice a week. The law also only required tithing on what a person earned, but he tithed on everything he possessed. He obeyed the law, but his attitude is obvious – he thought that God was very fortunate to have someone like him. He knew nothing of God’s perfection, nothing of God’s holiness and nothing of his own sinfulness!
This Pharisee was deluded about at least three things. He was deluded about prayer, for he told God (and anybody else listening) how good he was. He used prayer as a means of getting public recognition and not as a spiritual exercise to glorify God. He was deluded about himself, for he thought he was accepted by God because of what he did or what he did not do. He was deluded about the tax collector who was also in the temple praying. The Pharisee thought that the tax collector was a great sinner, but in fact it was the tax collector who went home justified by God while the proud Pharisee went home only self-satisfied.
The self-righteousness of the Pharisee can be contrasted with the attitude of the tax collector. The tax collector’s attitude can be seen in his physical stance. He stood afar off, indicating that he felt unworthy of entering the sanctuary. He would not even look up to heaven – he did not feel worthy of approaching God. He beat his breast – his attitude was one of humility and contrition. He knew what his problem was, and he sought God’s help.
The tax collector knew the enormity of his sins, but the Pharisee was blissfully ignorant of his own heart. The Pharisee’s pride condemned him, but the tax collector’s humble faith saved him. His prayer sought God’s mercy and God’s forgiveness just like the psalmist (Psalm 51:1). The tax collector prayed for the removal of the divine wrath he deserved. The result, which would have been shocking for many of Jesus’ hearers, was that the sinner who sought God’s mercy left justified, and the Pharisee was not justified.
Jesus addressed this parable to those who trusted in their own righteousness and despised others. Those who like the tax collector understand their sinful condition and know that they can only be saved by grace find it difficult to despise others, for there is nothing of which they can boast. Only those who possess a false confidence in their own righteousness look down on others.
This parable ends with the tax collector going home justified. The Pharisee was not justified before God. He sought to justify himself, rather than being justified by faith. Justification is more than just being forgiven. Justification also means receiving a new standing before God. To be “justified” means to be declared righteous by God on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross (Rom. 3:19–4:25). We can only be justified if we humble ourselves before God, rather than seeking to exalt ourselves.
What is our attitude toward God? Our attitude may not be as obvious as the attitudes in this parable, but is important that we approach God with a humble heart. One of my favorite verses is Psalm 51:17, which says that “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (ESV).
God will accept our worship if we approach him in humility. I find it interesting that this passage is followed by the familiar account of the children being brought to Jesus (Luke 18:15-17). The children who are brought to Jesus can also be contrasted to the proud Pharisee. Like those children, let us demonstrate humility, faith, and dependence as we approach God.
(Credit is due to Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary)