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Luke 18:9-18:14
Key Verse: 8:14

Thank God for giving us his words, “See, I am doing a new thing!” May we perceive the new thing God is doing and follow it up with faith. In the previous passage we studied about Jesus’ parable of a persistent widow. After the parable Jesus said, “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night?” The answer is “Yes, and quickly.” Today’s passage is Jesus’ another parable about prayer. In this parable Jesus juxtaposes two types of prayer, the prayer of a Pharisee and that of a tax-collector. It teaches us what kind of attitude we should have in coming to God and how much God blesses such an attitude.

First, the prayer of a Pharisee and of a tax collector (9-12). Look at verse 9. “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:” In time past and present there are people who are confident of their own righteousness. In this world, it seems to be very important to be confident of one’s own righteousness and trust in himself. Otherwise how can they survive in the world of the survival of the fittest? It is likely that each one needs to struggle to be righteous and build up his life by making every effort. However, the problem is that when people form their own righteousness through their own effort, in most cases they become proud. They don’t think they need God. Human righteousness or achievement develops human pride, which directly stands against God. And human pride looks down on other human beings. This is true individually and any group or nation-wise. The best example was the Israelites. Undoubtedly they were chosen people of God. Especially the Pharisees regarded themselves as elites, chosen for God’s special purpose. They struggled very hard to keep all the laws meticulously, including Sabbath law. As we studied, they did not allow any work, even not letting the sick be healed on the Sabbath (Lk 6:2,7; 13:14). In this way they tried to build up their own righteousness with no love of God in their hearts. Then it turned out that they were the ones who crucified Jesus, whom God sent into this world to save sinners. So Paul wrote in Romans 10:3, “Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Paul himself was a Pharisee. He was a very promising young man, climbing up the ladder of success in the world. He said of himself, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel…a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee…as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Phip 3:5-6). In that self-righteousness what he did was to persecute the people who belonged to the sect of Jesus the Nazarene (Ac 24:5,14), even capturing and putting them in prison (Ac 9:2). Later he confessed that he was blind and ignorant, so a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man (1 Tim 1:13). Human righteousness is defiance to God and a great hindrance in coming to God.

Now let’s think of Jesus’ parable. Look at verse 10. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” We can notice here that in the temple there was a place for private prayer as well as for public prayer. Still in Jesus’ time the temple in Jerusalem was a substantial part in the lives of the Israelites. A Pharisee and a tax collector, both, went up to the temple to pray. But their prayers were different.

Jesus speaks of the Pharisee’s prayer in verse 12. “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself (or to himself in the footnote): “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” In his prayer posture he stood up, whereas later the tax collector stood at a distance and would not even look up heaven. He seemed to be confident in what he was doing. He must have felt that he was deserving to pray to God. Then he prayed about himself or to himself. Prayer is to talk to God, but he was not. He addressed God, yet this call of God did not seem to bring God’s presence. Rather the calling, “God” was like a flowery word as an opening of his prayer without the true meaning of it. And then he thanked God that he was not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even the tax collector. He compared himself with other people, not with truly devote men like Samuel or Simeon (Lk 2:25-32), but with those of bad reputation. He was the one who was confident of his own righteousness, his own morality, as if he earned the privilege of prayer by his own good life. And he looked down others who could not reach his moral standard. He could be better than so-called public sinners, keeping the Ten Commandments outwardly. According to his standard he did not steal or rob others’ property, but in truth he stole God’s honour, as he was congratulating himself. He did not cheat others, but he must have cheated his conscious, In a literal or legalistic sense, that is, outwardly he did not commit adultery, but how about inwardly? For Jesus said, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28). Furthermore, spiritually he adulterous departing from God, which is the vilest adultery according to Hosea 1:2. Here we see that he did not keep the commandments of God before God, but to try to appear as a distinguished and holy guy before people. In short he did not know how to stand before the Holy God as an individual.

Then he said in his prayer, “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Here he boasted about his own righteousness of his religious activities, his fasting and offering. According to Leviticus 16:29, the Israelites were required to fast one a year at the Day of Atonement. Fasting twice a week was awesome, if it were done with a right motive as an expression of his desperate need of God. But again it became his own righteousness with their fasting record to be recognized as very religious and devout before the eyes of people. And giving a tenth of all one gets is excellent. Yet, a tithe also cannot be one’s own righteousness. It is an expression of one’s faith that all he has belongs to God and all his provision is from God and out of thanks he gives a tenth to God. We sense that as for the Pharisee, whatever he thought was his good deed became his own righteousness. So he was not truly in the need of God, not to mention God’s mercy.

When we think of our generation, it is the generation of amorality. We hear about early sex education, online date and drastic change of the concept of gender, marriage and family concept. People say of sex revolution. In this atmosphere morality seemed to be gone. However, we know that keeping morality matters before God. We should encourage young people to keep their purity in both body and spirit. Yet, it cannot be one’s self-righteousness. We should all the more stand before the holy God as an individual, not comparing ourselves with others. And we should watch out any kind of self-righteousness.

Now let’s see the prayer of the tax collector. Look at verse 13. “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast.” His standing at a distance, not even looking up to heaven showed that he was humble and felt undeserving, unworthy to come to God. As he beat his breast, he was the expression of his repentance of his sin broken in spirit and contrite in heart. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” And he addressed God, truly being aware of his presence. And he only asked God for his mercy, for he knew he was a sinner who deserves God’s punishment. He had nothing to boast about himself. His prayer was that God might not deal with him as his sins deserved. He wanted God to turn from his wrath, as he asked for God’s mercy. “God”, “mercy”, and “a sinner”, his prayer consisted of these three words, and this is all about his prayer.

Sinners are terrible before God. However, sinners’ heart is beautiful like this tax collector. Luke’s gospel well depicts the beautiful heart of sinners. The angels do not know sinners’ heart. So they only envy redeemed mankind. Sinners’ heart moves God’s heart. We saw this also in the prodigal son, who came back to his Father as he was after squandering all his wealth in a wild living. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer worthy to be called your son” (Lk 15:21). A man who was covered with leprosy came to Jesus, falling with his face to the ground and begging Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” As a man with leprosy, he felt totally unworthy to stand before the Holy Son of God. So he fell with his face to the ground and begged Jesus for his cleansing. Yet he was not sure whether Jesus was willing because of his wretchedness, although he believed in Jesus’ healing power. In truth he came to Jesus as a wretched unworthy sinner for his mercy. Then, Jesus was willing and cleansed him (Lk 5:12-13). A woman who had lived a sinful life came to Jesus, standing behind him and weeping and wetting his feet with her tears and wiping them with her hair, and pouring perfume on the feet of Jesus (Lk 7:37-38). This well shows a sinner’s beautiful heart in repentance and contrition and devotion. People around her criticised her, but Jesus knew her heart and said to her before the public, “Your sins are forgiven” (Lk 7:48). This is the reason Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt 5:3-4). There was a robber who lived a terrible life throughout his life. As a result he was sentenced to death was dying on a cross. There he met Jesus, who was also hanging on a cross though he had done nothing wrong. He could see in the crucified Jesus, true King and his kingdom. He wished to enter kingdom. But he knew that was totally unworthy. Yet, breathing last, he asked for Jesus’ mercy, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Then sparingly Jesus welcomed him into his kingdom, saying, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:41-43). God never rejects anyone who asks for his mercy coming to him as a sinner.

In truth “God”, “mercy” and “a sinner”, the combination of these three words can be the whole point of the Bible. All human beings are sinners before the Holy God (Romans 3:23). All sinners deserve his punishment to eternal condemnation. But in his mercy he sent his Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins so that we might be saved from our sins and the dreadful judgment of God. Now anyone who comes to God as a sinner can receive his mercy in Christ Jesus. Apostle Paul was a matchless servant of God in history. But he said in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” He said this, not because he committed the worst crime like murder, but because he was that much aware of his sin before the Holy God. A sinner needs a Saviour. When I confess, “I am a sinner,” It means I need a Saviour from the time of believing to the time of departing from this sinful world and from this sinful body of sin. Here we learn that the prayer, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” should remain in our hearts from start to finish in our journey of faith in this world.

Second, one justified before God (14). Look at verse 14. “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” Jesus could have said, “This man, rather than the others, received the answer of his prayer from God.” But Jesus said, “…went home justified before God.” This shows that God’s blessing upon this man is truly amazing. Here the word “Justified” is used in the forensic (legal) sense. This word is very significant in the Bible. It is to be declared, “Not guilty.” It is to get into a right relationship with God. The tax collector was a notorious public sinner. Everybody knew that he was guilty in his many sins. But God accepted him as one who is “not guilty.” This man’s sins have been blotted out (Ps 51:1,2). His transgressions have been removed “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12). They have been cast into the depths of the sea (Mic. 7:19). When God regarded him as one who is right with God, he could have peace with God and must have gone home in peace. What a blessing he received! According to the Bible being justified before God means all the blessings of God are restored including becoming the children of God and inheriting the kingdom of God. God’s justification is followed by his sanctification and glorification, which is true exaltation.

It is God who justifies sinners. This is the reason God sent his Son Jesus into the world. It is well expressed in Romans 3:23-25, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood…” God’s justification was costly. The cost was the blood of his own Son, who became atoning sacrifice for man’s sin and God’s redemption. This grace is freely given to those who come him as a sinner in humble repentance, asking for his mercy. Then Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God wants us to enjoy his peace in the grace of justification through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Once we were enemies of God, In this grace of justification we have peace with God. Furthermore we can call God, “Abba, Father” and live by the Spirit (Ro 8:15-16). And as his children we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (Ro 8:15-16). What an amazing blessing through justification in Christ Jesus!

Still, there are many who try to justify themselves by their own righteousness like the Pharisees. But Jesus said to them in Luke 16:15, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” There are two ways of living, justifying ourselves or being justified before God. Finally Jesus said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” We could think of how much God exalted the tax collector through his justification as he came to God as a sinner for is mercy. When God exalts, no one can stop it. Also, when God humbles, no one can thwart it. When God humbles, that’s a truly terrible thing. The Pharisee was humbled with no answer to his prayer, despite all the seemingly good deeds and life. The consequence of humbling oneself or exalting oneself is so critical in life that it is written two times in Luke’s gospel. Jesus had said in Luke 14:11, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Humbling oneself is truly a blessed life. And the way to humble ourselves is to come to God as a sinner for his mercy, having confidence in our Lord Jesus Christ. So Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” And Isaiah 57:15 says, “For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

May we watch out any kind of self-righteous and have the prayer, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” so that we can live in his blessing of justification and exaltation in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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