Self-righteousness is a problem which many people struggle with in one way than one, sadly this also applies to some Christians, who start measuring their righteousness against others, they start measuring how many times they attend meetings comparing themselves with others, how much money they put in the offering, how well they know the Scriptures etc.
In the context here in Luke’s account, it was all about those who had become legalistic and measured their religion by the things they were doing, law-keeping, fasting public praying etc, Matthew 6:1-18 / Luke 10:29 / Luke 16:16. See Proverbs 30:12.
The mindset in Jesus’ day with the Scribes and Pharisees was very much like measuring their religion against others and if you didn’t match up to theirs, then you were condemned, Colossians 2:20-23.
This is what the whole point of this parable is about, it’s about those who are self-righteous and trust in their good works to be right before God and those who are humble enough to rely on God and His righteousness because they understand that they can never be right before God no matter how many good deeds they do. Isaiah 64:6.
The word Pharisee is derived from an Aramaic word meaning, ‘separated.’ Over the years, they believed in the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and punishment in the future life. They believed that punishment was based upon how a person behaves in this life. They believed that the souls of the wicked would be in prison forever under the earth but those who were righteous would live again.
If you remember this was the opposite of the Sadducees, who taught that there was no resurrection, no angels, and no spirit but the Pharisees believed in all of these things. Acts 23:8.
When we read through the Gospels we can clearly see that the Pharisees practised righteousness externally, and it appears they were more concerned with the outward appearance than the inward feeling, Matthew 23.
It was the Pharisees who introduced traditions to the Jewish religion, Matthew 15:2-6. There’s no doubt when it came to persecuting Jesus and His followers the Pharisees were leading the way.
Most people know that a tax collector wasn’t highly esteemed in Biblical times, in fact, most were hated because they were considered either a traitor or a thief. This is because Israel was occupied by Rome and all the taxes collected went to Rome. The Romans demanded a certain amount of tax, but the tax collector could add more to bump up his wages, Luke 3:13.
The tax collectors were called ‘publicans’, which is the equivalent of what we would call the Inland Revenue. Their job was to collect not only Roman taxes but the temple tax which was paid yearly, about a month before Passover, in order to support those who worked with the religious services of the temple, Exodus 30:13-14.
Remember the Pharisees were an elect group of Jews, who were of the ruling class of people, he truly believed that what he practised was right before God. Notice that he wasn’t all that bad either, he wasn’t a robber, he wasn’t an evildoer and he wasn’t an adulterer, those are positive things. His devotion to keeping God’s commands was ‘good’ in his eyes, as he practised and did more than what God required.
Those are the ‘positives’, but when we read the words of the Pharisees it’s clear that all that matters to him is his own self-righteousness, he went through his religious checklist, I’m not a robber, check, I’m not an evildoer, check, I’m not an adulterer, check, I fast twice a week, check, I give a tenth of my income, check.
Notice also that he ‘stood’ this suggests that he struck ‘the pose’, the idea of doing this so that others could see him doing it, it’s like he is saying, ‘look at me, look how wonderful I am’. Matthew 6:5
Just as a side note to show you just how self-righteous the Pharisees had become, he mentioned that he fasted twice a week, well according to the law of Moses they were commanded to fast only one day a year and that was on the Day of atonement. Leviticus 23:26-28.
The Pharisee says that he gives a tenth of all he gets but again the law of Moses only asked for tithes from the production of the field and cattle, not from all grains, not everything. Leviticus 27:30-33.
Despite acknowledging God in his prayer, the Pharisee’s prayer is interesting because he doesn’t ask for his needs to be met, he doesn’t ask God for a blessing, he doesn’t admit he’s a sinner, he doesn’t ask for mercy.
We really get the idea that this is all just lip service with no heartfelt meaning behind them. In fact, we could say that even though he had two eyes, both of which should have been on God, one eye was on himself and the other eye was on the tax collector, whom he insults.
In other words, he was measuring himself by his deeds and comparing himself to others and thought that he wasn’t as bad as some other people, Luke 7:41-42, and thus came to the conclusion that all his law-keeping would satisfy God and God would have no choice but to accept him because he was so good. Romans 3:20 / Galatians 2:16.
Remember that the collectors were social outcasts, and no doubt he felt ashamed of the part he was playing in the oppression and humiliation of his own nation by the Romans. No doubt he was well aware that he was nothing like the Pharisee in terms of law-keeping and good deeds. He couldn’t keep up with the Pharisees’ righteousness and may have looked at him as the example of righteousness and he was failing miserably.
Whilst the Pharisee proudly stood publicly to be seen and heard, the tax collector ‘stood at a distance’, why? Simply because he was judged as unrighteous by the Pharisee. He may have stood at a distance from the Pharisee, but he certainly stood close to God because he recognised his own spiritual shortfalls, Matthew 5:3-10.
He couldn’t even bring himself to look heavenwards, because he recognised his sinfulness, he beat his chest, showing his sorrow and remorse Luke 23:48.
Notice the Pharisee used 33 words, but the tax collector only used 7 words, again this shows the character difference between them both. It’s so often the case that fewer words speak a lot more, his prayer was informal, it was warm and honest, and it was prayed by a man who was burdened with sin. The tax collector first asks God for mercy.
You see, justice is when we do get what we do deserve, mercy is when we don’t get what we do deserve, and grace is when we do get what we don’t deserve. He then admits his sinfulness before God, Romans 3:23.
It’s interestingly, the Pharisee received nothing after praying, although we could say he didn’t ask for anything. The point is that his prayers weren’t accepted by God because his prayers were insults to God.
The tax collector’s prayer resulted in him being justified before God because his prayer was short, honest and to the point. Notice Jesus didn’t say the tax collector went home justified before God because of his perfect law-keeping or his good deeds, he went home justified because he recognised he was a sinner who was in need of God’s grace. Romans 1:17 / Galatians 3:11 / Hebrews 10:38.
In other words, he recognised his own spiritual unworthiness but trusted in the grace of God for justification which simply means ‘just as if I’ve never sinned’.
Make no mistake about it Jesus, saying that anyone, who practises self-righteousness will be brought back down to planet earth with a thump but those who humble themselves will be raised up by God. James 4:6. I believe it’s always a wise choice to humble ourselves, rather than God having to humble us. John 17:1-17.
I heard many preachers and teachers using this text as an example of the ‘sinner’s prayer’ where they teach that the tax collector’s prayer is an example of a prayer for salvation. Like the Pharisee in the parable, well-intentioned people are simply going beyond what is written, 1 Corinthians 4:6 or in the case of the ‘sinner’s prayer’, not going far enough.
First of all, we need to notice that the tax collector was already a child of God, he was Jewish and after his prayer, he was still a Jew, still under the old law. He didn’t become a Christian because Jesus hadn’t died on the cross yet, Colossians 2:14.
In fact, there is no example of the ‘sinner’s prayer’ anywhere in Scripture, even after Jesus died on the cross. The Scriptures clearly teach us what a person must do in order to be saved, we must hear God’s Word, Romans 10:17, we must believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, John 3:36, we must confess His name before men, Romans 10:9-10, we must repent of whatever sin that is in our lives, Luke 13:3 and we must be baptised for the forgiveness of our sins, Acts 2:38.
If we’re honest with ourselves, when we look at the Pharisee and the tax collector’s attitude, maybe there are times when we see a touch of both of them in us.
What I mean is that we sometimes can just go through the ‘routine’ of worship, we hear the same old sermons being recycled, but we leave and go back to ‘normality’ without being moved in our hearts, we hear the same prayers being led week in and week out.
We sing the same hymns without the words moving us and we partake of the Lord’s Supper without giving any thought whatsoever as to what it really means to us as individuals.
To the Pharisees it was, ‘them’ and ‘us’, but as Christians, humility is a virtue which must be practised, otherwise we too can fall into the trap of self-righteousness religion. We must accept that everyone, including ourselves, are sinners who have fallen short of God’s desire for us, Romans 3:10 / Romans 3:23.
When we pray we must remember that the only audience we’re praying to is God Himself, He’s not interested in hearing long-winded prayers about how wonderful we are, and He certainly doesn’t need to be reminded of what His Word says.
The prayer of the tax collector was honest, short and to the point and maybe there are times when we’re ‘broken’ and honest with ourselves about our own sinfulness, we just don’t have the words to express ourselves and all we can do is ask for mercy while admitting our own sinfulness.
As the chorus says, ‘humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up’.