Parables: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Sermon by David Felker on November 24, 2019

Luke 18:9-14

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Please turn with me in your Bible to Luke chapter 18; Luke chapter 18. The passage begins on page 877 in the church Bible in front of you. Tonight we are concluding a Sunday night mini-series looking at the parables of Jesus. Tonight we will be in Luke chapter 18, verses 9 to 14. 

And before we jump in and read it, something to help orient us to our text tonight. I can’t recommend everything that he writes, everything that he puts out there, but I found this helpful. In one of his books, the author, Donald Miller, describes a time in elementary school where his teacher asked the class a question that stuck with him ever since. The teacher asked the class to imagine a scenario in which five people are stranded in a lifeboat, adrift at sea. There’s a female doctor, a male attorney, a crippled child, a stay-at-home mom, and a garbage collector. And the teacher asked the class to choose which person should be thrown overboard in order to save the rest, because it’s the only way for the other four to live. And Donald Miller reflected on this question and he wonders what it would be like to be one of those people in the boat, what it would be like to have to argue your case. And he concludes that it’s actually not a bad metaphor for life, this life that can be such a meritocracy, like we are in a lifeboat and we have to argue our case for why we should remain in the boat.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating book that debuted at number one on The New York Times best-seller list. It was published in 2008 entitled, Outliers: The Story of Success, where he examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success. And in it, he looks at professional athletes and he looks at the band, The Beatles, and he looks at the top law firms in the country, and he looks at Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates. And throughout the book, Gladwell repeatedly mentions what he calls the “10,000 Hour Rule,” the “10,000 Hour Rule,” claiming that the key to achieving world-class expertise is a matter of practicing; it’s a matter of practicing the correct way for a total of 10,000 hours. That’s what it would take to be really good at something, is 10,000 hours of dedication, 10,000 hours of concentration. Or to put it another way, about 10 years of determined focus to be really, really good at something. 

And so the question for us tonight is this. “Who gets to be in the kingdom of heaven?” Who gets the smile of God? Who gets a seat at His table? Who gets exalted in the sight of God? What kind of person – the female doctor, the male lawyer and so on and so forth – what kind of person? And then what does it take? How much work do they have to do? What are the requirements? What kind of person and what does it take? Those are really important questions. And maybe you showed up tonight and you have not logged a lot of time in church and you look around and you see other people who seem to be doing a little bit better than you and who seem to not to continue to mess up in the ways that you continue to mess up. And you wonder, “What does it take? What does it take for me to be a member of God’s family? What does it take to get the smile of God? What does it require?” And that’s what we’re going to be talking about tonight. And before we read, let’s pray and ask for God’s help. Let’s go to Him in prayer.

God of all grace, we need Your help. We are weak people. We are needy people. Some of us doubt that this prayer is even getting above the ceiling. And so we need good news tonight. We pray that You would surprise us with Your grace and we pray that You would make the words on this page, that You would make them come and dwell into our hearts. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Luke chapter 18, beginning in verse 9. This is God’s Word:

“He 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.’”


In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Voyage of the Dawntreader, there’s a character in the book named Eustace. And the story really follows Eustace and his cousins’ adventures, the sea adventure in Narnia. But as you read the story, you cannot stand Eustace. He is a miserable boy who is self-absorbed and he’s self-focused and he is full of pride. And in the story they end up on an island where they have to make repairs to their ship. And Eustace wanders off by himself and eventually he stumbles upon a dragon that’s dying. And as he watches this dragon breathe its last and he ventures into his cave and he sees all kinds of treasure. There is gold as far as the eye can see and he is obsessed with it. He’s obsessed with it, he’s mesmerized by it, and he puts this gold bracelet on his arm that he cannot take off; he can’t leave it alone. And he falls asleep in the midst of all of that gold. And later in the story, Eustace wakes up and he has this really strange feeling. And so he goes to a stream to drink some water and as he looks into the water he is startled by the reflection that he sees, because instead of seeing his familiar face he sees the face of a dragon; he sees the face of a dragon that owns all of that gold. 

And some of you are probably familiar with that story or at least with the ending of that story, which is often used in sermon illustrations. But it’s the beginning, I think, that’s often neglected, it’s often forgotten, because one of the main things that’s going on is that Lewis, C.S. Lewis is trying to get you to see. He’s trying to give you a vision of what pride does in your life. And so he’s saying that pride has this power to twist you and pride has this power to turn you into a monster. And your pride is best imagined, Lewis is saying, as this self-absorbed and fire-breathing and out of control dragon. That’s what pride can do to you. 

The Bible is well supplied with instructions on humility. God loves the humble. There are over 200 references to humility in the New Testament alone. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” “Humble yourself under the mighty hand of the Lord.” And even here in our text, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” the Bible is well supplied with instructions on humility but it is hard to be humble. It’s hard to get those truths from your head down into your heart. It’s hard to get those truths to drip down. It’s hard to preach on humility. What if I do a really good job? What does that do inside of me? What do I do with the pats on the back? It’s hard to preach on humility. It’s even harder to actually be humble. And often I am tasked with speaking about things that I don’t understand or where there is a big deficit in my life and in my heart and this evening is no different. It is hard to be humble. Humility before God, a posture of humility before His face – that’s what we’re talking about.

Occasionally I visit other churches, and when I do, if I drive in and I see the choice parking spot, the most important parking spot with a sign that says, “Reserved for the Pastor,” there’s something inside of me that loathes that and I can get really prideful about my humility. When I see that sign I think, “I would never do that. I would never do that,” and I get really prideful. I get really prideful of my humility. It’s actually hard to be humble. Humility is elusive, and so how do we find our way back to humility? 

Our parable tonight is really simple. Jesus introduces us to two characters, these two men who go to church but only one is accepted. And so who gets to be in the kingdom of heaven? Who gets the smile of God? Who gets a seat at His table? Who is exalted before Him? What kind of person? What does it take? And this parable is saying that God loves the one who comes to Him with empty hands and says, “You should not love me.” That God approves of the one who comes to Him with empty hands and says, “You should not approve of me.” That’s what we’re going to learn tonight. 

The Pharisee

Let’s start by looking at this Pharisee. This is one of the few parables where we actually get a setup. We get a setup that explains why Jesus is telling the story. Look back at verse 9. Luke gives us a little setup here. Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” And so that’s the reason that this Pharisee goes home not right with God. Because even though a Pharisee was perceived by his peers as a spiritual giant, this Pharisee didn’t trust God. He trusted himself. And we see that very clearly in verses 11 and 12. Notice we read the Pharisee standing by himself. And so we get, even before getting into the content of his prayer but simply by the Pharisee’s posture, we get that he thinks he’s something. He’s standing by himself, which could mean he doesn’t want to bump into others who are unclean, or it could mean, it could be translated that the Pharisee took a stand, that he took a stand. He stands up to pray so that everyone can see him. In other words, there’s no quiet devotion here, but he seeks to draw the limelight off of God and onto himself. This is in worship. He’s in the temple. He seeks to draw the limelight off of God and onto himself.

Before we look at the language of the Pharisee’s prayer – what is prayer? There’s an acronym for prayer that’s often used – “ACTS.” A-C-T-S. A for adoration. C for confession. T for thanksgiving. S for supplication, asking God for things, requesting things from His hand. I want you to notice when the Pharisee prays he doesn’t actually pray. I don’t know if you caught that. He starts this way, “God I thank you,” and so he tips his hat to God and it sounds like one of the letters of the acronym; it sounds like thanksgiving. But notice he uses the prayer to congratulate himself. He kind of leaves God behind the rest of the prayer. “I” is his favorite pronoun. He uses the personal pronoun five times. “I fast twice a week. I give tithes,” and so on and so forth. Five times as he is recounting the laundry list of all he has done, as he’s telling his resume. His prayer is laced with self-justification and pride. 

And I think it’s important, I think that we have to see the Pharisee is doing all the right things. He’s not an adulterer. He tithes. He doesn’t steal. And so he’s not just keeping God’s Law but he’s exceeding God’s Law. And yet it’s not his vices but his virtues, it’s his pride in his virtues that keeps him, Jesus says, from being justified in God’s sight, that keep him away from God’s heart. And as you peel back his prayer, you feel it’s hollow; it is empty. There’s a hollowness that’s underneath this. That’s why one author said, “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.”

Does any of this, does any of this hit home with you? The puritan, William Plummer, as he looks at this passage, he says, “The Pharisee glances in the direction of God, he glances in the direction of God, but he contemplates himself.” Is that your story – that you glance in the direction of God but you contemplate yourself? I remember years ago hearing Brian Habig pose this question in a sermon that I have never forgotten. He asked, “What if your biggest spiritual problem is the thing that you like about yourself the most? What if your biggest spiritual problem is the thing that you like about yourself the most?” The places where you put your trust, that which you cling to, what you do, what you have – is that your story? What if your biggest spiritual problem is the thing that you like about yourself the most? Does this hit home with you? The Pharisee is busy and he’s important and his community admires him. And yet, his soul is in great danger. Is this your story? He’s doing the right things but it’s all so far from his heart. Is this familiar to you? There’s something that he’s missing. There is a deficit. He’s doing the right things but he is starved for acceptance. Is this story close to you? There is no joy. It’s hollow. It’s empty. Does this hit home? He never stops. He never stops playing the game. He never stops playing the game of self-justifying. 

I think that we have to see this is the road well-traveled, that this, this is the road well-traveled. We’re just moving along and it doesn’t seem that dangerous. It looks like the flow of traffic, and yet Jesus is saying the one who is justified, the one who gets His smile, the one who has a seat at His table, who is exalted in God’s sight is the humble, is the one who puts no confidence in the flesh, is the one who puts no weight in his resume, who spreads his trophies at the Lord’s feet. The humble.

The Tax Collector 

And that’s the other character in the story – the tax collector, the tax man, the IRS agent. Jesus points us to him. So how, how in the world can the tax collector teach us what it means to be safe and secure and stable in God? How can the tax collector teach us this? Regarding moral performance, the tax collector is the opposite of the Pharisee. In the Roman Empire – many of you know this – they would often contract out tax collecting. And so they would find a local man who knew the community who would find the people and he would find the money and he would collect taxes. And then he would take or he would steal what he wanted on top of the flat fee that the Romans required. And so this man is viewed as the lowest of the low. He’s viewed as the lowest of the low. He was not allowed to give testimony in a Jewish court of law. They were often excommunicated from the synagogue. He’s a cheat; he’s a traitor. He has nothing to bring to the table. 

And that’s why this would have been received – that’s how this would have been received by the original audience. But this man, according to Jesus, was accepted in the sight of God, for the tax collector, unlike the Pharisee, he seems himself for who he really is. He comes to terms with who he really is. I want you to notice the humility of his demeanor. He comes to the temple, and notice verse 13. Jesus says that he is “standing far off.” He’s not coming near God’s people due to his shame. He’s not taking a stand. He can’t, we’re told, “lift up his eyes to the heavenlies” because he knows who he is. 

Many of you know this. In late August, we had our third child, baby Jane. And a question that I’ve gotten often this fall is, “How are the older two children adjusting? How are Marshall and Finley, how are they doing with the baby?” And the short answer is that they are great and they love their baby sister. But the drama in the house and the approval-hungry heart in the house and the emotional needy one in the house is our dog, Trooper. And there have just been numerous times this fall where we come home and Trooper does not run to greet us like he normally would. And that means that we probably accidentally left food on the counter or on the kitchen table and Trooper knows that we’re about to find out and so he’s hiding from us. And when I find him, he will tuck his head; he won’t even look at me because he knows that he wasn’t supposed to do that. He knows that he was wrong. I know that he was wrong. He knows that I know that he was wrong. And he tucks his head and he cannot look at me.

That’s the posture that Jesus describes in this tax collector – that he’s guilty, that God knows that he’s guilty, that he knows that God knows that he’s guilty. He’s not playing any games. He cannot even look up. And then verse 13 says that he “beat his breast.” We see this only once more in the gospels in Luke chapter 23, in Luke 23 verse 48 as men beat their chests as they leave the crucifixion, as they experience that horrible day. And so you see the humility of his demeanor. This is affecting him, body and soul. He beats his breast. But then notice the desperateness of his cry. He comes and he casts himself on God’s mercy. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And this doesn’t come through in our English translations, but the tax collector actually calls himself, “the sinner.” “God, be merciful to me, the sinner,” because there’s a definite article in the original language which conveys the idea that he’s only concerned with himself. Before the face of God, like the apostle Paul, he is the chief of sinners. And so, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” 

And in asking God to be merciful to him, he’s not using the word “mercy,” commonly used in the Greek throughout Luke’s gospel. The one Luke commonly used for the normal definition of mercy, which I think we would say is not to receive what it is that you deserve. That’s mercy. But that’s not the word that is used here. It’s a different word. It’s a different word. This word, which literally means “atonement.” And so, “Lord, atone me. Lord, atone for my sin.” And so he’s not crying for mercy in that he’s trying to dodge God’s standard of holiness. “God, can You be merciful? Can You overlook this? Can You pretend like it’s not a big deal?” No, it’s the opposite. He says, “The only hope I have is if You atone for me, if You pay my debt in my place.” In other words, “This is something that You must do. This is something that You must accomplish for me.” And very simply, what he’s saying in the prayer, he’s saying to God, “I have nothing to offer You. I am spiritually bankrupt. I have nothing to offer that You should accept me,” and he desperately throws himself on the mercy of God.

One of the hymns that I love that we sing from time to time is, “Come, Ye Sinners.” And there is a line that I especially love that invites us to come to God because, “all the fitness that He requires is to feel your need of Him.” “All the fitness He requires is to feel your need of Him.” In other words, you don’t come because you have measured up. You don’t come because you have measured up. You don’t have the currency. You can’t play or perform your way. You’re not attractive enough or faithful enough or productive enough. The clothes in your closet are not sufficient to wear to be the bride of Jesus Christ. But what you need is, you need the humility of empty hands. You need the humility of need. You need the humility of lack – lack of resources, lack of fitness. Your need. That’s what you need to get right with God.

Well what do you do with this? I think instinctively what we want to do is we want to say, “Well I’m going to start humbling myself. I’m going to humble myself right now before the Lord’s table.” And that would be to go against everything that we’ve been talking about. You are trusting again in your efforts and in your stubborn pride and that will lead to joylessness and crippling anxiety. And so how do you become humble?

There’s a story that I love to think about and a number of years ago three ladies from this church – Martha Wilson, Glynda Mosby and Maury Ball – they were in Starkville, Mississippi. And I didn’t give them a heads-up. I didn’t give Maury or Glynda a heads-up that I was telling this story. I think we’ll be okay! They were lost in Starkville and they were trying to find their way around town. And they were at a former beloved restaurant in Starkville called City Bagel. And they bumped into my mom and they had never met her before and they asked her, they asked my mom for directions and when my mom found out they were from Jackson she asked, “Well do you know my son, David Felker? Do you know David?” And they said, “Well yes, we know David. Are you David’s mom?” And they said that she beamed, that she beamed. And when she told me about that story – I love her retelling of it – she said, “All of my life I’ve been known as Rockey Felker’s wife, I’ve been known as my dad’s wife, and I loved being known as David’s mom.” And that story is precious to me.

If you’re sitting here and wondering, “How do I humble myself? Have I humbled myself enough? Have I laid my deadly doing down and surrendered to the love of God?” I think here is a question to consider – “Is being God’s child precious to you?” And that sounds like a simple question, but it can be hard to bear the embrace of the Father, especially when you feel unworthy, especially when you feel unwanted, that you have such a hard time believing He could think of you and beam. Well you have to come to the end of yourself. And you can either go there or be brought there, but you have to get there, the end of yourself, before you will ever feel like you belong in the arms of the Father. Have you humbled yourself enough? Have you humbled yourself? The real question – “Is being God’s child precious to you?” 

And if it’s not tonight, if being God’s child is not precious to you tonight, then you have to see the One who humbled Himself. “From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride,” and He bought her with His blood – “Not my feet only, but my hands and my head” – He sought her and He bought her and He brought her into His family and He gave her a seat at His table. And that’s where He washes all of our deadly doing and we are completely undeserving, but we are preciously loved. “God opposes the proud, but He gives grace to the humble.” Amen. Let me pray for us. Let’s pray.

God of all grace, we pray that You would be merciful to us as sinners before You, and we pray that You would make humility beautiful to us tonight. And we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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