In our passage this week, the great reversals continue in the Gospel of Luke. One of the challenges we have as modern readers is that we know what to expect. For instance, those of us who have encountered these stories many times know that it is likely that the Pharisee is going to be revealed as getting something warped, and that the underdog is going to be shown faithful. As Justo González points out in his commentary (see the Illustration Idea below), our familiarity with the story can actually hinder us from getting the message into our hearts.
A few things will help. First, we want to pay attention to the details of the story Jesus tells here. Second, we may find it helpful to re-tell the parable to ourselves with modern examples. Third, we can make sure we don’t glide past the point: asking ourselves in whom, or what, we trust.
So first, the details. I identify and outline Luke’s use of the perfect tense in the textual point below. This story is about who—or what—we trust. The Pharisee has done all the right things: he has kept the commandments. He is not a thief or an adulterer, nor does he cheat people of their money. He participates in the religious rites of fasting and tithing, making sacrifices of his comfort. None of these activities are bad, and they are definitely not sinful in themselves.
But how the Pharisee starts his prayer gives away his sinful state: he thanks God that he is “not like other people” and he even calls out the tax collector he passed by on his way to find a place to pray where he wouldn’t be contaminated by the less righteous. This, at least, is implied by the detail that the Pharisee was “standing by himself” while praying. He does not associate with such as these in life, nor will he associate with them in worship!
However, the human habit of comparison seems to have subtly shifted his religious allegiance to a distorted sense of being “set apart.” The Pharisee views himself as set apart, not because of what God does for him, but by what he has accomplished himself. Revealed by his humble brag—to God of all people—the Pharisee has fallen into the trap of vainglory.
Vainglory is that odd vice that takes a good thing and makes it bad. It spoils the fruit of righteousness in the Pharisee’s life because it becomes the seedbed of pride in himself and lessens his sense of how much grace from God he truly needs.
The details of the tax collector’s prayer are in stark contrast. He stands far off, seemingly so aware of his sins in the face of God’s holiness that he knows he does not deserve to be near God’s presence. Even more so, he is physically downcast, averting his eyes from where his help will come from and making a physical demonstration of his inward sorrow and sense of responsibility for his sinfulness. And when he prays, he prays the penitent prayer heard throughout the Psalms, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
He knows he does not deserve it, but this tax collector will get it. He trusts in God to be who God said God is. The tax collector goes home “justified”—the same word used last week to describe the widow’s receipt! This detail, as connection to the previous verses where the central activity was also prayer, underscores the need to trust in the character of God above all.
Secondly, it may be helpful for you to consider new characters for the parable. Instead of two lowly-regarded positions, maybe it will help to get a sense of the message Jesus is giving here with modern stand-ins. For instance, maybe instead of the Pharisee, we picture one of our favourite preachers or Christian conference speakers. The posture of the tax collector, it seems to me, is more like what we might hear at an AA meeting: honesty, admission of powerlessness, a desire for something different. Through the support of the network, out of the public eye over a long obedience in the same direction, connecting with and relying on God, the Higher Power, the humble are exalted and made righteous.
Third, in whom (or what) do we trust? The implied warning is to be careful about how we start to think of ourselves, and how that translates to what we think of God. In essence, the Pharisee thanks God for nothing: the Pharisee was the one who did all those things he prays about. There is no mention of how he knows God’s hand of discipline or transformation. He thinks he’s so good that he doesn’t need hope.
But the tax collector shows us someone who appears to be on the beginning of the road of transformation. If the tax collector did not trust God, he would not turn to God in prayer about his sin. The tax collector could have fallen to the other extreme of the same sin of the Pharisee. The tax collector could have come to trust that what he believed about himself was true: that he was unworthy of God so much that there was nothing else God could do for him. That he was so bad there was no hope. Instead, even with eyes downcast, God lifts him up.
This is the promise and proof we have in Jesus. May we trust the Spirit of God to do the same.
There are three perfect participles in the Greek grammar of this text:
- The story is lesson for those who trust in themselves.
- The tax collector is standing far off from the temple while praying, implying his sense of self before God.
- The tax collector went home justified…
The first two participles are active, and the last one is passive—that’s because God justifies the tax collector. Listeners are linked to the example of the Pharisee, who, through his prayers, shows what he trusts in. In contrast, the prayer of the tax collector shows that he trusts in God’s mercy alone for his salvation as he turns himself, with all his flaws, over to God. As such, Justo González helpfully reminds us that more than this passage is about hypocrisy, it’s about where (and in whom) our trust lies.
In his commentary on Luke (Belief Series), Justo González talks about how this parable is one that will likely catch us in the act. Then he retells an anecdote: “There is a story about a Sunday school teacher who, after a great lesson on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, led his class in prayer: ‘Lord, we thank you that we have your word and your church, and that therefore we are not like the Pharisee…’ The contradiction between what the parable says and what this teacher did is obvious. But we fail to see that in the very act of pointing to that contradiction, and perhaps even chuckling at this teacher’s incomprehension, we are secretly saying, ‘Lord, I thank you that I am no like this teacher, who did not even understand your parable…’!”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 23, 2022
Luke 18:9-14 Commentary