In Mere Christianity CS Lewis comments, ‘According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride…. It was through Pride that the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind’.
Consider Jesus’ parable recorded in Luke chapter 18, from verse 9: He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector”.
In Jesus’ day the Jewish people considered tax-collectors traitors and thieves – traitors, because they were employed by the Romans; thieves, because they took a percentage of all taxes they collected. Yet the Pharisees at that time were regarded as exemplary, morally upright people.
The context of the parable suggests that the two men had gone to the temple for either the morning or the afternoon ritual sacrifice. Yes, both offer their own prayers during the service, but it seems this was customary at the time the priest was offering the sacrificial lamb.
Religion. It seems that the Pharisee stood at the front of the temple, apart from the main body of the congregation. This is consistent with the content and tone of his prayer. Reckoning he was righteous before God he considered himself superior to everyone else.
Indeed, in his self-conceit he didn’t pray for the tax-collector but rather prayed so that the tax-collector might hear him: “God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers or even like that tax collector” (18:11). He moved from what he no doubt considered to be the general sins of his fellow-worshippers to a ruthless denigration of the tax-collector.
And he did not stop there, but outlined his own credentials: he fasted twice a week – whereas the Law required fasting only once a year (on the Day of Atonement); he gave ten percent of all he earned – this too was beyond the Law’s requirements.
Despite all of this the Pharisee, Jesus tells us, had a very real problem: he had the outward form of religion but no personal relationship with God.
Relationship. Jesus’ story does not stop here: “But the tax collector, standing far off would not even look up to heaven” (18:13). Standing, as was the Jewish custom, the tax collector was at the back of the temple. He was under no illusion about his moral and spiritual condition. There’s no self-congratulation: rather, he beat his breast.
There are only two places in the New Testament where people ‘beat their breast’ – here and in Luke 23:48, where men and women went away from the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion. Only in times of deep emotional stress and grief would people, men especially, beat their breast. Clearly the tax collector was aware that his broken relationship with God was real and that it arose from deep within his heart. Elsewhere Jesus identifies the heart as the seat of all human sin (Mark 7: 21-23).
We can imagine his words bursting out in gasps expressing his inner torture: “‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’” He felt as if he were the only sinner in the universe.
There is something else significant: merciful here is not the usual Greek word. Have mercy on me is normally, eleeson me (as in Luke 18:38). Here the wording is literally, God, make an atonement for me…! It is a reference to the sacrifice of atonement.
The tax collector very specifically asks that God will turn away his just anger through a sacrifice of atonement (or propitiation) so that he might be forgiven. Unlike the Pharisee, this man knows that his only hope is to throw himself totally upon God and God’s heart of mercy. Mercy is the only thing he knew he could ask for.
Jesus’ concluding comment is breath-taking and would have shocked his first hearers: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (18:14). The tax collector’s prayer is the kind of prayer God hears.
Significantly there is a change in the order as the two men walk away from the temple. The tax-collector now leads the way. He is the one who is justified.
Justify is the language of the law courts and is central to the Apostle Paul’s teaching about salvation. Significantly it is found first on the lips of Jesus. The tax collector is reckoned righteous in the same way that a judge declares or acquits an accused person of charges against them.
Kenneth Bailey comments: ‘For centuries the Church debated whether the sacraments have an automatic effect on the believer irrespective of their spiritual state. Here in this simple parable we already have an answer, and the answer is no!’ (Bailey, Peasant Eyes, p.155)
The parable goes to the heart of our relationship with God. And this includes our attitude when we attend church. It is only when we come into God’s presence honestly and with a repentant heart, that God in his mercy declares us pardoned and absolved of our sins. Yet, how often when we go to church do we leave with the same mindset with which we came? Our pride and self-worship have not been challenged by the Scriptures stirring us to confess our true state before God.
The tax collector had gone to the temple that day because he knew he needed a relationship with God. He knew he was unworthy of any good thing from God. The encouraging news is that God always hears and answers the honest and humble prayers that come from our heart.
It is so easy to be proud of our good works, thinking they give us credit with God when compared with the seemingly godless lives of others. We forget it is not religion that God wants of us but relationship.
A prayer. Almighty and everlasting God, look with mercy on our infirmities; and in all our dangers and necessities stretch out your right hand to help us and defend us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Note: Today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my book in the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ series, Luke: An Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2018.