Luke 18:9-14 is a place where Jesus Christ gives a well-known parable about two different approaches to God with strikingly different results. This passage is sufficiently well known that songs have been written about it, and that many people who do not know the Bible well are still able to recount its plot faithfully. Yet every day when I look at my Facebook page (perhaps this says something about many of the people I know), I can generally find at least a few people here who claim to know the Bible well and obey it and yet who fall right in line with the behavior of the Pharsiee in this parable. How is it that a passage can be so well known that even people generally unfamiliar with the Bible can quote or paraphrase the message while the point of this straightforward parable can be so woefully missed by those who claim and have a much greater knowledge and appreciation of God’s word?
Luke 18:9-14 reads: “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.””
The purpose and motive of this parable is stated very clear at the outset. Jesus Christ gave this parable because some in his audience (like some of the Pharisees) trusted in their own works of righteousness and looked down on others as being unrighteous. This was not a problem that is confined to ancient Israel. As soon as someone thinks that their own conduct is righteous and blameless before God, they tend to lose solidarity with other repentant sinners and look down on them. Instead, they look to their own deeds of righteousness, done through the knowledge and power that God has given them, and look to God to show appreciation for what they have done rather than to show appreciation for what He has done. This is an error on at least two counts–an error in not giving praise or gratitude to the God from whom all good gifts come, as well as a failure to recognize both the sin that we are still struggling with as well as the fact that all human beings, even rebellious and iniquitous ones, are created in the image and likeness of God and therefore ought to receive our respect and love on those grounds alone, apart from any merit from their deeds.
In fact, the Pharisee, in showing his meritorious deeds, lists his following of both man-made traditions (fasting twice a week, something God only regards, per Isaiah 58, when that fast is one to loose the bonds rather than to show oneself righteous) as well as divine commands (tithing) as signs of his righteousness but he shows immense moral blindness by thanking God for the one thing that God did not do, and that is not making him like other men. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and sin merits death. Therefore all human beings, whatever relative righteousness we may possess, are in the same boat of being sinners worthy of death who are in the position of humbly seeking God’s mercy rather than in the position to look down on the worse criminals one is in prison with. The fact that this particular parable is nestled between the persistent widow who receives justice from an unjust judge and the blessing of the little children (as well as the young ruler told to sell all that he possesses so that he may gain treasure in heaven), we see that this particular parable fits alone the line of the reversals of expectation between how God views us and how we view ourselves, if we trust in our own works to save us from the common fate of humanity.
In many ways, the Pharisee’s behavior is much like that of a beloved and intrepid hunter kitten who goes outside or into the barn and bravely slays a mouse or rat and then drags the bloody carcass of that vermin into the house, strutting around as if he (or she) is special and worthy of praise for fouling up the carpet or tile by showing off his (or her) deeds. What is our likely response to that kitten? “Shoo, and take that bloody mess out with you.” We see that God is presented as not being particularly pleased with our deeds either, as we preen and strut to Him and with each other over what we have done (thanks to His help and thanks to the gifts and talents and abilities He has blessed us with in the first place) rather than to show appreciation and honor for the love and favor He wishes to show to us.
It is in this that the tax collector, for all his sins, is superior. He recognized that he could not go to God and seek His favor based on his good deeds. He knew he was a sinner in need of pardon, as we all are. It is for that recognition of his own state before God that he was exalted, not because God does not appreciate our good works, but because He makes them possible through the gifts He gives to us. Therefore all of our good deeds are of glory to Him, not to ourselves. There are basically three approaches to God. One of them is a desire to earn the favor of God and earn salvation through the collection of meritorious deeds that we judge as sufficient for the task, and that we judge as outweighing our sins and faults and errors. This is the idea of salvation by works, and is a basis of many religious practices in the fallen systems of the world. A second approach is a wallowing in our sins after claiming belief in God because God loves us just as we are, and knows that we cannot help ourselves, so why try anyway so that we may be self-righteous legalists like those Pharisees, whom we praise God that we are better than. The third approach is to recognize that we cannot earn what we seek from God because we are fallen and rebellious and wicked, and yet to seek God’s merciful pardon and to allow Him to work through us that we may demonstrate His righteousness and His noble character through our loving service to Him and to others.
That is the reason why the tax collector was blessed, because he humbled himself and sought the mercy of God rather than coming to God as if God owed him His gratitude for his belief and practice. God owes us nothing except for death and punishment, which we have all earned. Everything good we receive from God is a gift. God does not give us gifts so that we may feel uncomfortable and indebted to Him, but rather to express His love for us. We can choose to respond to that love or not, but we cannot deserve or merit that love, no matter what we may do. Love is not a matter of merit; it is the choice of a loving heart to show love and kindness and grace and mercy to others and it is the choice of a loving heart to respond with love and kindness and grace and mercy to those who love us. No matter what we do, we can never coerce or earn the love of someone else, but neither ought we to despair or reject love that we need simply on the grounds that we do not deserve it either.
Let us therefore reflect seriously on the fact that if we humble ourselves and seek God’s mercy, we will eventually be exalted. If we lord it over others and look down on others, we will be humbled in our turn, either now or in the world to come. All of us have dark corners of our lives and dark corners of our minds, and even if we were entirely perfect and blameless in our conduct, we would merely be unprofitable servants because we were only doing what we were told (see Luke 17:10). Since God does not owe us anything, and since He is the one who gave us the gifts and talents and strength and knowledge that we possess, let us not look down on others because our actions are more righteous than they–we have simply received more help. And let us not look down on others because we think ourselves as possessing knowledge that others do not possess. Rather, let us practice that which we know to be true (no easy task), and let us show love and honor both to God who has blessed us abundantly as well as to our fellow brothers and sisters created in the image and likeness of our Heavenly Father above.