If you have your Bibles, I invite you to turn to Luke chapter 18. You’ll find our passage on page 877 if you’re using a pew Bible; page 877 and we’ll be studying Luke 18, verses 9 through 14 together this morning. Before we listen to God’s Word, let’s go to Him in prayer.
Lord, now open before us is the Word that the Holy Spirit caused Luke to write. What we need is for it to be illumined, for a light to shine this morning so that we can understand it. We admit that by nature we will not understand it unless You act, and so we throw ourselves on You. Pierce our hearts. May Christ increase and we decrease. We pray in His mighty name, amen.
Luke chapter 18, beginning at verse 9. This is God’s Word:
“He” that is, 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.’”
The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever. Amen.
He is still the leading scorer in NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball, and he achieved that record before the three-point shot and when freshmen were not allowed to play varsity sports. So he missed a year and he still holds the scoring record. But when “Pistol Pete” Maravich left LSU, he enjoyed a great NBA career. And in his mid-forties, he was out near his home in Pasadena, California playing a pickup basketball game with his friends when he suddenly died. Later, the cause of death was revealed that he had a very rare heart condition that nobody picked up on. And in fact, a few hours before he played that fatal game he said to one of his good friends, when they asked him how he was doing, he said, “Feeling great. Never better.”
And Pistol Pete illustrates physically what can happen to us spiritually. And that's what Jesus is after this morning. Everything can look great on the outside, but on the inside, we can have a serious heart defect. Jesus is going to be a good cardiologist for us this morning – diagnose the condition of our hearts and show us the cure.
Let me set the context for you very briefly here where we are in Luke 18. The gospels usually are arranged not only thematically, in terms of the themes that Jesus teaches on, but oftentimes geographically. So Jesus is in the north at this part of His ministry working His way down south to Jerusalem where He would eventually be crucified. And on the way, He gives us these extraordinary teaching episodes. And we find Him here, beginning back in Luke 15, speaking rebuke to the self-righteous Pharisees. Again, it started back in Luke 15 and we're still in the middle of that as Jesus tells these various parables. And this is one of those parables that it's fairly easy to interpret. Parables can often time be very difficult to interpret, but Luke gives us the reason why Jesus told this parable. Look there at verse 9. "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt." So this is a parable to rebuke a self-righteous, proud spirit. And I think what Jesus is after is to give us two and only two ways to relate to God in this parable. And those will be our headings this morning. In the first place, in verses 9 through 12, relating to God by what you do. Relating to God by what you do. And then in verses 13 and 14, relating to God by what He has done. Relating to God by what He has done.
Relating to God by What We Have Done
Look at that first point – relating to God by what you do. Look again at verse 10. We’ll pick it up there. “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.’” Let’s go back in time for just a moment. If you’re read the New Testament, if you’re been around church, you know that the Pharisees are usually portrayed as kind of the black hat guys in the gospels. Right? They’re the evil bad guys and we can all kind of tell them apart as the bad guys the minute we pick up our Bibles.
It's not that simple in real life. The Pharisees were the evangelicals of their day. By themselves, they stood against cultural compromise. They were the guys saying, "We're tired of the loose morals of Rome and the loose morals of the society around us. We're taking a stand for the family, for the Bible! Let's keep it in the marketplace of ideas." That was the Pharisees. They were the ones who opposed all the theological liberalism of their day. The Sadducees were saying, "You see, the whole Old Testament is not the Word of God, just the first five books." The Pharisees were the ones saying, "No! It's all of the Old Testament; it's all the Word of God!" But as simply as I can, if you were in Jerusalem at this time and you had a son, you would pray that he would grow up to be a Pharisee. And if you had a daughter, you would pray that she would marry a Pharisee. Now Jesus' harshest words are reserved for this group of men. But before we get to those, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who first heard this. There would have been no surprise at this point. "Of course a Pharisee is at the temple! They're the best prayer warriors out there! Where else would he be?" But Jesus is going to turn our expectations upside down.
Worship of Self
Now notice what the Pharisee does. There are some marks of this way of relating to God – relating to God by what you have done. Let’s look at a few of these marks. First, it looks down on others. It looks down on others. It sees its performance as superior so it says, “I’m glad I’m not like these other people.” And don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Pharisees were the people back in their time teaching that you’re saved by works. They loved grace. They loved to talk about grace. In fact, they would tell you that these works were inspired by God’s grace. And it’s easy for us to fall into this mindset if we’ve been around church any amount of time, isn’t it? “I thank you Lord that I’m not like the homosexual out there. I do my quiet time every day. I tithe. I come to both worship services.” It’s so easy to fall into this performance mindset. A friend of mine, Seth Starkey, and I were talking about this passage this week and he pointed out something I’d missed. He said, “There’s a sincerity here to the Pharisee’s prayer. He did not think he was being a hypocrite. It’s not like he walked into the temple and said, ‘It is a wonderful day to be a hypocrite before God!’ He is totally sincere in his devotion. Mistaken, but sincere.” And therefore, he is self-deceived. Notice again he attributes all of this to God. He’s not saying, “I did this all in my own steam.” He said, “God, thank You for giving me the grace to be better than others!” Self-deception. And therefore, it’s ultimately the worship of self. Did you notice the Pharisee’s favorite pronoun? I said it five times. “I, I, I.” Self-righteous religion is nothing more than a disguised worship of self. That’s what the Pharisees engaged in. And we can sum it up this way. The Pharisee has exchanged true righteousness for religiousness; outward performance for a true righteousness which only God can give.
Trusting in Means
So what happens if we start relating to God this way? Well, we begin to judge our standing with God by our service to God. We begin to judge our standing with God by our service to God – if we do the quiet times, if we pray the right way, if we’re involved at church. All good things, all wonderful things, but if you are beginning to think that, “This is the way I’m accepted with God. If I do these things then I’ll enjoy a right relationship with Him,” we are trusting in the means and not the Giver of the means. And what happens if you do this? Well, if you’re doing well with it you’ll become proud because you’ll say, “Well why aren’t these other people getting it? Why don’t they do like I do?” But if you don’t do well you’ll be crushed. And especially if life falls apart, then you’ll be really crushed because you’ll say, “Well God, what about all the faithful years of service. I did all the right things. Why isn’t it turning out the way I expected?”
The second thing that will happen here is that we’ll begin to be judgmental of those who are not exactly like us. We develop an “us versus them” mentality. We think we alone have the exact truth. Now let’s be careful here. God cares about Truth with a capital T and He loves the Truth. Jesus said He is the Truth. But friends, we all have to allow that none of us knows everything. And there are going to be people who differ from us who will be in heaven with us. I know it’s a shock that there will not just be Presbyterians in heaven! We begin to have this self-righteous, judgmental attitude. And then we become eager to find faults with others. We become like fault detectives! Whenever we’re around somebody else we’re always looking for them to slip up. And when they do, we may not say it but we’ll kind of think deep down inside, “I always knew about that person. I always knew they’d kind of mess up in this way.” We become exhausted in our performance religion. We don’t enjoy God.
Do you know that this is so hard for us to grasp? It's hard for me to grasp, at least. God saved us to enjoy Him. God's the one who designed it that way. He's the one who says things to us like, "At My right hand are pleasures forevermore" and "The joy of the Lord is my strength." God intends for us, even in the midst of the darkest circumstances – and this is one of the things that makes Christianity unique. In the midst of everything that goes wrong, He says, "I will give you the power to be happy, to have joy!" But relating to God by what we do leads to exhaustion, not enjoyment. And notice this too, the chief error of the Pharisees was not their scrupulous or attempted scrupulous obedience to God's Law. Don't think that Jesus was coming saying to them, "Why are you tithing? Why are you trying so hard to follow God's Law?" He does the exact opposite in Matthew 23. Remember what He says there? He says to them, we never read it, here's what he says. Matthew 23:23 – He's rebuking the Pharisees – He says, "You blind Pharisees! You tithe mint and dill and cumin and neglect the weightier matters of the Law!" Notice what He says next. "These," meaning the tithing, the mint, and dill, and cumin, "These you ought to have done without neglecting the other." Tithing? Scrupulous obedience Pharisees? Good! The problem comes when you and I begin to take our performance and offer that to God as the basis for our relationship with Him. That's the problem with the Pharisees. They said, "My works secure my standing. And sure, we'll give God credit for these works but these are the reason I am acceptable before God." And Jesus says nothing is further from the truth! Nothing we do secures our standing with God, as we'll see in a moment. But keep this in mind as we think about these two different ways. The first way is saying, "I've done this. I deserve relationship, God. Here's what I've done."
Relating to God by What He Has Done
Let’s look at the second way. Look there at verse 13 at relating to God by what He has done. “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.” Let’s go to this text too and see what the tax collector was like. Here’s where everything takes a surprising turn. The tax collector – I’m trying to think of the best way to put this without overstating it. Picture a crooked IRS agent, mingled with a child abuser, who is an extortionist and mafia hitman and that’s something close to how the 1st century Jews would have viewed a tax collector! They were Jews who were employed by the Romans to collect taxes. But here’s what most of them did. Say you owned $100. They would come pulling up in their shiny new Mercedes and say, “Actually, it’s $500. I’ve got a car payment.” And you would say, “No, I thought it was $100!” And they would just say, “Yeah, I’ve got Roman troops behind me. Pay up.” They took far more than was necessary. They were hated.
So Jesus' original hearers were nodding in agreement until this point, but then they would have gone, "What? What is a tax collector doing at the temple? How dare he! What gall he has to come with their offering and he took money that we were going to give to God and we can't even give to Him now!" But let's notice the features of his way of relating to God. Notice his brokenness over his sin. He doesn't dare to draw near. The Pharisee strides in, begins to pray, stands afar off. Ironically, the name "Pharisee" means "separated one." Separate from all that was unclean. Here we have the truly separated one. The one who stands afar off – recognizes that in and of himself he has nothing to commend him to the holy God of the universe. And then he does something here that, to be honest, as I was studying I thought to myself, "I don't think I've ever been this upset over my sin." When it says he beat his breast, don't think like, Sundays, touchdowns, NFL guys in the end zone. This is an extreme expression of mourning. Picture a widow weeping over the coffin of a spouse who has died too early and this is what this man is doing over his sin. Nobody needed to tell him how sinful he was. He got it. He said, "I have no business being here."
Starting Point of the Gospel
And then his prayer. His prayer is tremendous. And it comes out well in the English translation here, but in the original here's what it reads. "God, make propitiation for me, the sinner." There's a good theological term that we don't say much – propitiation. What does it mean? A propitiation is a sacrifice that turns aside wrath. A very theological statement this humble tax collector is making. He says to God, "I deserve wrath. The only way I won't get it is if You turn it away. If You act and You save me. Have mercy! Make propitiation. Turn aside Your wrath from me!" The wrath of God – not a popular subject today or in any era. But friends, this is the starting point of the Gospel. We will never, never sing "Amazing Grace" until we start where this tax collector did and say, "I deserve Your wrath, God. I deserve Your anger. My sin rouses Your anger and that is totally just." If we don't start here, we'll end up where I heard one pastor say recently. If we don't start with the wrath of God, we'll never sing, “Amazing Grace,” we’ll sing, “Expected grace, how normal the sound, that saved a half-decent person like me.” Now it’s only “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” when we realize that it saves wretches, wrath deserving, hell deserving, God pouring out holy indignation deserving sinners like you and me. That’s the starting point of the Gospel. That’s what this tax collector got.
And notice how he puts it. He says, "to me" – in our English translation it says, "a sinner." He says, "the sinner, the chief of sinners." And this is so hard for us to grasp because here's the tension. When you're saved, God sends the Holy Spirit to live in you and you begin to more and more desire different things if He's at work. You want to follow Him; you want to please Him. And yet there's this tension with that on one side, then on the other side, we keep sinning. And you can go too far to one side or the other and you can begin to think, "Well I'm kind of getting this Christian thing! I'm not having too many bad sins! It's going okay!" And what the tax collector's prayer reminds us is that all of us, at any point, are the sinner. Our sins are awful. They never get any better in that sense. We still have a sin nature, yes, more and more praise God He works against it, but it's still there! And we are, all of us, just apart from Christ as deserving of His wrath as anybody who's lost. That's the tension we have to keep in mind.
Now, what are the results of relating to God this way? Notice what Jesus says. He says this guy, the tax collector, went home justified. Another good theological term! What does justification mean? It means to be declared righteous in a courtroom. It's a legal term. You go back to the 1st century, you read this term in the Greek and you read it in Roman court documents, it’s one person who is found not guilty was justified. Same word. And what God is saying to us is this. Propitiation leads to justification. Until the wrath is removed, we are not in a right relationship with God. And the grace of God and the amazing news of the Gospel here is – think about this, think about the One who’s saying this parable. It’s the One who’s making His way to be a propitiation. It’s the One who’s going to remove the wrath of God against all of us so that justification can come freely, so that we can be declared righteous forever in God’s sight. The only reason any of us will go home declared righteous today is because Jesus went to the cross to be declared guilty in our place and to propitiate God’s wrath.
That's what's going on here and that's why Jesus ends with that principle. If we come and say, "God, I want to relate to You by what I've done and I'll even give you credit for it," He says that person has no prayer. If we come and say, as one of the old Puritans put it, "I am nothing. I have nothing. I deserve nothing." Jesus says, "Throw yourself on the mercy of God and go home justified." Friends, that's unlike any other system ever devised by man, on offer today, on offer ever. And what this does is, it shows us something so important about God – that relationship, not rules, is what God is after in our lives. And I want to make that carefully. Of course God says, as Jesus tells us, "If you love me, you'll keep my commandments," but that's only after we know His love. It's never in order to know that love. It's first and foremost about a relationship. That's what the Pharisees lost. They said, "No, it's about rules and ritual," and Jesus pleads with them and says, "No, it's about knowing Him! It's about being in a right relationship with Him by His mercy and His grace alone!" And therefore, what Jesus is, in effect, pleading with us to understand by this parable is that the Father is so much more gracious and loving than we give Him credit for. We usually think of God as, "Maybe He's pleased with me at a given point in any day." That's how we feel, isn't it? "I think He's okay with me. I mean, I've done some bad stuff today so He's probably mildly irritated with me." And the Gospel says, "No, no! He's delighted in you because of Christ. His love sent Christ to be the propitiation. Christ didn't have to buy off the Father to make Him love us. It's His love that sent Jesus." He's far more loving and gracious than we give Him credit for.
External Tests of Righteousness
So what are some signs of self-righteousness and how do we cure them, as we finish up? Let me give you a few that I struggle with. You focus on external tests of righteousness. Here’s how it works. We tend to think somebody who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t cuss, doesn’t watch too many R-rated movies, doesn’t listen to, you know, certain kinds of music, and talks about Jesus a lot that that person is definitely “in.” That’s exactly how people thought about the Pharisees. There’s a lot more to be said about all of those subjects, but if that’s our only test, here’s one thing I would say. I’ve not been in the ministry that long; I’ve been in long enough to watch men who I knew who I thought were extremely holy and righteous and upright fall miserably. And we’ve all known people like that – where everything looks right on the outside, and then inside it’s all a mess. And what Jesus is inviting us to do, He says, “Nothing will crush your self-righteousness like beholding what God requires.” The perfection of His Law. That’s what Paul’s after when he says, “I would not have known what it was to covet unless the Law had said, ‘Do not covet.’” He says, “It showed me the depth of my sin.” We have to start there. Do we focus on external tests of righteousness?
Here’s another one. You can’t stand criticism, even mild criticism. Why? Because it’s self-righteous ways of relating to God; it’s all about what you’re doing. So the moment you succeed, you become proud. The moment you fail, you become crushed. And if anybody criticizes you, it threatens your identity. It’s a mild criticism. It doesn’t matter. It threatens who you are at your core and that’s why we take it so personally. And therefore, if this is how we’re relating to God, we can never let others see the real us. Can we? We have to always be “on.” We have to perform. Because in the most ultimate relationship of our life we think to ourselves, “I have to perform for Him to accept me.” And if that’s how we relate to God on this axis, how do you think we relate to others? We often think to ourselves, don’t we, if we’re relating to God this way, “If people only knew, if people only knew.” And so we become very protective, we become very isolated, and we become, “Fine!” all the time. “No problems here!” Until everything falls apart.
Own Your Unrighteousness
So what’s the cure? Here’s what Jesus gives us. The first step – owning our unrighteousness before God and fleeing to the righteousness of Christ. The first step in the 12 Steps reads this way: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” And the first step for the cure of self-righteousness is saying, “We admit that we are powerless over our sin and self-righteousness and our lives have become unmanageable.” We own our unrighteousness and we say, “The only hope I have is the perfect righteousness Jesus provides.” That’s where we start. That’s what comes home to us. No more covering up; no more thinking we’re half-way decent people. Just admitting, “We are wretches apart from Him.” And here’s the thing the Gospel does. When we admit that, it’s not like we become the most introspective, depressed people in the world. We say, “I’m free to admit how bad it is! And free, therefore, to admit how good He is!”
We are All Bad
And therefore, the second step is to realize that, in Christ, as one author put it, “You have nothing left to protect, and therefore nothing left to lose.” You don’t have to worry about your reputation. We all know we’re all bad. Me, you, everybody else – that’s settled. All of us are bad! That’s what Jesus says. That’s what the tax collector teaches us. Okay, we’re all there! We don’t have to be self-protective. We’re free to be the real us. And friends, as we go into this 21st century and we wonder, “How’s the Church going to make it?” one of the ways it’s going to make it is by being a community of people that are real, that are free to be real by the power of the grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ.
We Become More Gracious
And then, that leads to a third thing. As we grow in our understanding of our unrighteousness and God’s perfect righteousness and our need of Christ daily, we become more gracious people. I shouldn’t be, but I’m still shocked at how ungracious I can be when people disagree with me. Don’t you struggle with that? Graciousness begins to be the fruit of the Spirit we see here when we realize what God has done and what He is doing, we can become people who are okay if everybody doesn’t agree with us, who are okay with things not going the way we think they should, who are okay to say to others when things fall apart, “I know better. Given the right circumstances and opportunity, I’d fall just the same way. Me too.”
Say “No” to Things
And that will lead to the last thing. Here’s one other thing I would say that will help us cure self-righteousness and I know Callie would smile if she heard me saying this. You can learn to say “No” to things. Now I say that as somebody whose ministry relies totally on volunteers, so say “Yes” to church stuff! Actually, no, let me be clear on that! We should be saying, “No” to things. The reason we say “Yes” to so many things is because, I think, at least in my life, I don’t want to let anybody down. I want to be the top performer. I want to get it all done in my way and do it right. And that’s a good thing in one sense. It’s when it becomes the foundation for my right relationship with God that it goes off the rails. And a simple way to cure that is to say “No” to some things in our busy, burdened lives.
The Gospel Gives us Freedom
One word sums up what we’re after here, what the Gospel gives us that self-righteous religion never can – freedom. That’s why Paul told the Galatians it’s “for freedom that Christ has set you free.” It reminds me of a story I read this week about a guy who was the longest incarcerated solitary confinement prisoner in the history of our country. His name is Albert Woodfox and he was released in February 2016 from the Louisiana Maximum Security Prison. And he had been in a 6×9 foot concrete cell for forty-three years. No sunlight; minimal human contact. And in April of 2016, he was reunited with a friend and they went to Galveston, right south of Houston. And he was standing there looking at the Gulf of Mexico and there was a reporter there. And he was just recording the reactions and the conversations he had with Albert Woodfox as he saw this incredible view before him. Here’s one of the things he said. Woodfox said, “You could hear the tide and the water coming in. It was so strange walking on the beach and all these people and kids running around.” He was just kind of in awe. And then, one of the things that threw the reporter off was this. He said that he sometimes misses his cell. And the reporter said, “What are you talking about, missing your cell?” And he said this. He says, “Oh yeah, yeah. You know, human beings,” he said, “feel more comfortable in areas they are secure. In a cell you have a routine, you pretty much know what is going to happen, when it’s going to happen. But in society it’s difficult; it’s looser. So there are moments when, yeah, I wish I was back in the security of a cell.” He paused, then added, “I mean, it does that to you.”
Religion and self-righteous religion is routine. Relationship is scary. It’s looser. There’s going to be gray areas. It’s going to be like when the girls get in the kitchen with Callie. It’s going to be messy. We’re not going to have every question answered, but we don’t want to go back to the prison of Phariseeism and we’re tempted to say, “It’s more comfortable there.” And what God would say to us is, “Stand and witness the ocean of grace I have for you and realize that the view is always better there than the 6×9 foot cell view of Phariseeism.”
Thank You, Lord, for a Savior that actually saves, for a righteousness that will stand the test of Your judgment given freely to us, earned by Christ, bestowed by You. And for a relationship – a relationship with You who are so much better, so much better than we ever imagined. Give us a glimpse of that today. Take us home justified and rejoicing in that. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
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