9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ 13 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!’ 14 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.”
A Sinner’s Prayer – Luke 18: 9-14
This parable was aimed at the self-righteous. Those ‘who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others’ – v 9. They needed to learn this unchanging principle: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” – v 14.
To teach and highlight this truth the Lord Jesus contrasts a tax collector with a Pharisee in the context of prayer. The Lord shows the type of prayer that counts with God as opposed to what is meaningless trite and in so doing, He again reminds us of the need for repentance.
A parable is a story from everyday life which the Lord Jesus told to convey gospel truth and teach spiritual lessons. In this story, a Pharisee is presented praying as a self-conceited, self-centered, self-congratulating hypocrite. His prayer amounted to a monologue with God about ‘me’. He thanked God for nothing other than himself! “God, I thank You that I am not like other men” – v 11. The Lord Jesus was exposing the pride, foolishness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees and making them stand out for what they were. At the same time He wants to teach them about the prayer that God will hear and answer for He wanted to save the Pharisees as much as the tax collectors.
Pride is a problem in the heart of man. It is at the root of human sinfulness and wears many guises including the cloak of religion. C. S. Lewis said of it:
'There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad tempered, or that they cannot keep their heads about girls or drink, or even that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at same time I have seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian, who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.
The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called humility …
According to Christian teachers the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison. 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' (Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis).
The tax collector provided a stark contrast to the Pharisee. Standing at a distance, bowing his head and earnestly smiting on his chest demonstrate that he was offering the prayer of a penitent sinner. Here is what repentance looks and sounds like. With simplicity and sincerity he prayed – “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” – v 13.
Notice three things about his prayer.
A repentant sinner understands that he or she is accountable before God for their sin. Everyone is. Many don’t know, believe or care that they are, but the soul who is gripped by this truth will humbly and genuinely repent before God and desire His forgiveness. This tax collector went to the temple, to God's house in order to meet with Him and face the reality of his sin before Him.
But we may well ask, ‘Why does sin matter before God?’ Two reasons. God is the Creator and God is holy. As Creator He made the universe, the world and us. Everything belongs to Him. Humans were created for His glory and relationship with Him. Man does not live apart from God. Regarding His holiness the prophet Habakkuk said of God that He is ‘of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness’ – Hab 1 v 13. Therefore all sin is a direct challenge to God’s authority. It is rebellion against the Creator and, since God is holy, every sin is an affront to Him and a violation of His holy standards of righteousness and truth.
King David in a penitential prayer said to God: ‘Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight’ – Psa 51 v 4 (KJV). David knew that though he had sinned against others very grievously, ultimately his sin was against God.
But, while God our Creator is holy, He is also love and therefore merciful. The psalmist wrote:
‘If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared’ – Psa 130 vs 3-4.
This man’s appeal was for mercy. Like David he is appealing to God on the basis of His grace. David prayed: ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions’ – Psa 51 v 1 (KJV). The tax collector knew as David did, that the only grounds of appeal a sinner has before God is grace. He extends it to us out of love. While God holds us accountable for our sins, He knows we cannot undo our past nor can we relive our lives, but what we can do and what God wants us to do is repent of our sins and receive His forgiveness.
This man was certainly asking for compassion from God, but he was looking for more than just pity. When he said, “be merciful” he was asking for acceptance with God; he wanted to be forgiven of his sins and brought into right relationship with God, permanently. Clearly, based upon what the Lord Jesus said at v 14, what he prayed for he received. He certainly would have known based on the word he used and where he was that for his sins to be forgiven they needed to be atoned for. That said, the focus in the story is on the manner in which he prayed and the outcome. But we do need to ask, 'how does a holy God forgive and justify sinners?' He does so because of sacrifice. At the temple in Jerusalem there was an hour of prayer at 9am and 3 am. At those times in the inner court of the temple on the bronze altar was sacrificed the daily burnt offering. Blood was shed and animals died to satisfy God’s holiness and justice. At the same time incense was offered on a golden altar in the first holy room of the temple building. The animal sacrifice at the bronze altar was necessary for worshippers to find acceptance with God while the incense offering represented the fragrance of prayer before Him. The offering of blood sacrifices over the centuries before the Cross ever pointed to the ultimate, supreme and once for all sacrifice of the Lord Jesus who was telling this story. He was on His way to Jersualem soon to sacrifice Himself on the Cross. Every sinner ever forgiven from Adam forward has been forgiven because of His once for all offering. It's because of His Cross, because of His life given and blood shed, because of His death and resurrection, because He satisfied God’s holiness and justice once for all, God can be merciful toward every repentant sinner and will be ‘the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ – Rom 3 v26.
Here was a man who referred to himself as a ‘sinner’. This is humility. He acknowledged what he was before God. The Bible says that ‘there is no difference for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ – Rom 3 v 23. God wants us to face the truth with honesty and humility in order to experience His acceptance and the assurance of forgiveness. As David said: ‘Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom’ – Psa 51 v 6. Being humble is not the same as being humiliated. Humility is what I do, being humiliated is the result of what’s done to me. God does not humiliate people rather He calls for voluntary humility in repentance. Humility is the response of honesty and submission on my part in line with the truth of God. Pride of course hates humility and in its resistance to truth may cause a person to feel humiliated, but that’s the fault of a proudful person, not God.
May we be like this tax collector and appeal to God as a sinner for His mercy in faith and sincerity assured that because of the sacrifice of Cross, He will forgive me. Said the Lord Jesus of this tax collector: “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” – v 14.
A trembling soul, I sought the Lord, My sin confessed, my guilt deplored; How soft and sweet, his word to me, “I took thy place, and died for thee.”
No other hope, no other plea; He took my place, and died for me; O precious Lamb of Calvary! He took my place, and died for me. Elizabeth E. Hewitt (1851-1920)