Piety, Persistence, Penitence, and Prayer (Luke 18:1-14)
1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ 4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’ “ 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” 9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
In studying Luke chapter 18 it may be good to pause and look back on the gospel of Luke from the vantage point of the Book of Acts. Dr. Luke wrote both of these books as companion volumes. We seldom study or teach them as such, although we probably should. These books were written a number of years after the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of our Lord. They were written at a time when the church was born and was rapidly growing. It was also a time when the church was predominantly Gentile, but when the Judaizers were working very hard to make law-keeping Jewish proselytes out of Christians and treating them as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Furthermore, it was a time when the first generation of believers, including the apostles, were about to pass from the scene.
The Books of Luke and Acts made a great contribution to the church in many ways, but pause with me to consider two specific areas which will shed light on what we are about to study in Luke. First, it was becoming evident that the kingdom of God was not likely to commence as quickly as some thought and hoped. As we now well know, there was to be some period of delay between the first and second comings of our Lord. The kingdom of God would be established, but not immediately. When Luke wrote this gospel the saints were coming to this conclusion, and Luke’s writing was intended to demonstrate that this delay was hinted at, indeed clearly implied, by our Lord’s words to His disciples. Our text in verses 1-8 points to this delay and to its implications.
Second, the church Luke described in the Book of Acts was constantly hounded, resisted, and rejected by the legalistic Jews who wished either to Judaize Gentile saints and the church or to keep them at arm’s length as second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. This opposition to the church by the Judaizers is a frequent theme in Acts, and Luke sets out to describe its roots and its remedy in the gospel account which he penned. By describing the opposition to our Lord by the Pharisees in the gospels, Luke prepares us for the opposition to the church by the Judaizers in Acts. Just as the Pharisees looked down on Jesus and the “sinners” He attracted and received in the gospel of Luke, the Judaizers looked down on Paul and the Gentile Christians. Why, after reading Luke, should we be shocked to see the opposition of the Jews to the church in Acts? Furthermore, in his gospel Luke sets out to show us very clearly that while the Pharisees (not to mention the Jews in general, including the disciples) rejected and resisted the grace of God being bestowed on Gentiles (especially Samaritans!—cf. Luke 4:16-30; 9:51-56), Jesus from the very outset purposed to save them, and He would not be hindered from doing so (cf. Luke 4:24-27).
My point is to establish that we are intended to understand this passage in Luke and, indeed the whole gospel, not only in the light of what has gone before but also in the light of what is going to happen (which is dealt with in the Book of Acts). We should understand the Book of Acts in the light of the preparatory writing of the gospel of Luke. Thus, Luke is indeed a prerequisite to understanding Acts. Much of the error in interpreting Acts may be the result of an inadequate grasp of Luke and its preparatory message.
Our text contains two major paragraphs. One unifying element is the common ingredient of prayer, which is a theme in both paragraphs. In the first (verses 1-8), we have the prayer or petition of the persistent widow which is constantly put before the unjust judge. In the second paragraph (verses 9-14), we have the prayer of the self-righteous Pharisee contrasted with the penitent prayer of the tax-collector.
Take note that in our text the Lord Jesus is teaching His disciples two lessons in contrast. The first lesson, that of perseverance in prayer, is taught by contrasting God, the righteous Judge who will speedily bring justice to the earth, with the unrighteous judge who reluctantly and only under duress gives the persistent widow the vindication and justice for which she petitioned. In the second paragraph, Jesus taught the attitude which is prerequisite for all prayer—humility. Thus, we see the smug self-righteousness of the Pharisees contrasted with the repentant contrition of the tax-collector. The underlying spirit of both is revealed by their prayers.
In this text we can learn much about ourselves from our prayer life. We will also find that Jesus has much to teach us about the kind of prayer befitting the saint who awaits the coming kingdom. We should consider carefully these words spoken by our Lord and recorded under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by Luke for our instruction and edification so that we may live in a way that is pleasing to Him, by His grace.
The Context of the Text
The gap between Jesus and the Pharisees began early in Luke’s gospel (chapter 5) and has been ever widening as the ministry and the message of the Lord Jesus Christ has unfolded. The Pharisees have already decided that Jesus will not be their Messiah, and thus they have begun to seek various occasions to renounce Him publicly (11:53-54). Their opposition to Jesus has progressed from questioning (11:53-54, etc.) to grumbling (15:1-2), to outright scoffing (16:14). Jesus has not been taken back by this nor has He in any way let up on them. He has already spoken some scorching words, directly renouncing their pride and hypocrisy (cf. 11:37-52). But in addition, He has spoken numerous parables which put the Pharisees in a bad light (cf. chapters 15 and 16).
One of the problems of Pharisaism was that it was hypocritical (12:1, etc.). Their hypocrisy was rooted in a desire to please men rather than God, which resulted in a conformity to human standards and values rather than God’s law (16:14-18). This resulted in an emphasis on appearances rather than on the attitudes of the heart (16:15). Thus those whom Pharisaism and others would have praised, Jesus cast in a very different light. Of those who would have been condemned on the basis of external appearances, Jesus spoke favorably. Talbert points out the way in which our Lord has consistently been overturning the contemporary value system, as outlined by Luke:
“The story fits into the general theme of status reversal in the third gospel. The New Age will overturn the values and structures of the present evil age. We meet this theme in the birth narratives (1:51-53) and in the Sermon on the Plain (6:20-26). In the travel narrative (9:51–19:44) Jesus’ teaching anticipates this eschatological reversal even now in overturning the estimate of what is virtue and what is vice. Consider 10:29-37 (good Samaritan/bad priest and levite); 10:38-42 (good inactive Mary/bad active Martha); 11:37-41 (good unclean/bad clean); 12:13-34 (good poor/bad rich); 14:7-11 (good humble/bad exalted); 15:11-32 (good prodigal/bad brother); 16:19-31 (good Lazarus/bad rich man); 18:18-30 (good poor/bad rich). Into this thematic context 18:9-14 fits (good tax collector/bad Pharisee) as another example of Jesus’ reversal of values. How can it be? What is wrong with so obviously good a man as the Pharisee? What can be right about so obviously perverse a person as the publican?”27
In the 17th chapter of Luke’s gospel, the focus has changed to the coming kingdom of God, introduced by the question of the Pharisees concerning the timing of the coming of the kingdom (17:20). Jesus briefly answered their question and then turned His attention to His disciples, instructing them concerning the kingdom. The topic is still the kingdom of God when we come to chapter 18. Verses 1-8 have to do with the disciple’s need to persist in praying for the coming of the kingdom (even though its arrival may appear late), and adversity, persecution, and injustice may suggest that the coming of the kingdom and the establishment of justice on the earth therefore seems unlikely. The second paragraph in chapter 18 turns from prayer for justice to prayer for mercy. Here, the self-righteous prayer of the Pharisee is contrasted with the penitent prayer of a tax-collector. Jesus turned the tables once again by saying that it was the penitent tax-collector who went away justified, rather than the pious-appearing Pharisee.
The Unjust Judge
and the “Won’t Quit” Widow
1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up [“lose heart,” NASB]. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about [“did not respect,” NASB] men. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ 4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’ “ 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
The rendering of the NIV above indicates that Jesus was still speaking to His disciples, and so it would seem, though the text literally says that Jesus “was telling them a parable.…” The coming of the kingdom of God is still in view, and the disciples are Jesus’ primary audience. Before we consider the meaning of the parable, let us be clear in our minds what the telling of this parable and its message implies. Luke begins the parable, untypically, by telling us what its meaning will be: “to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart”28 (v. 1).
The parable of the “unjust judge,” so-called, is more accurately (so far as the emphasis of the parable is concerned) the parable of the undaunted widow, or as suggested in my title above, the “won’t quit widow.” The application which our Lord made was to unceasing prayer. But implied in this are several realities, realities already apparent at the time of the writing of this gospel. First, the coming of the kingdom was not going to be immediate as the disciples surely wished it would be (cf. Acts 1:6). There was little need for our Lord to teach His disciples persistence and perseverance in prayer if the kingdom were quickly coming. The implication here is that there will be some delay (humanly speaking) before the kingdom comes.
Second, there were to be some difficult days for the disciples prior to the coming of the kingdom. The reason the disciples might “lose heart” (v. 1) is that persecution and opposition and injustice would be intense, and thus they may be inclined to wonder (from outward appearances) whether justice will ever be established on the earth. The use of the term “lose heart” in the rest of the New Testament is often closely linked with adversity, and so it is here as well in my opinion (cf. 2 Cor. 4:1,16; Gal. 6:9 (note, “in due time”); Eph. 3:13 (“lose heart at my tribulation”); 2 Thess. 3:13 (“do not grow weary of doing good”).
The parable of the persistent widow is occasioned by the fact that Jesus’ coming will not be immediate but that it will occur later on in time. In addition, during this time of “delay” men will react to and resist Christians just as they did Christ. Thus, there is a real danger of Christ’s disciples losing heart and ceasing to pray for the coming of His kingdom as they ought. This is suggested at the beginning of the paragraph and at the end as well. The last words of our Lord in this paragraph are, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”
I believe Jesus is saying something like this: “You can count on the fact that I will return and that I will bring about justice on the earth when I come. The issue for you to concern yourselves about isn’t whether I will fulfill My promises, but whether you will be found faithful when I return.” We need not worry about our Lord’s faithfulness, but only our own.
There is another inference from this paragraph we need to note carefully. The words of our Lord indicate there will be no real, complete, and ultimate justice on the earth until He does return and establish it on the earth. The reason we must persistently pray for justice and not lose heart is that there will be much injustice until He comes again. There are some who seem to be saying these days that Christ will only come to the earth after we (the church) have established justice. That simply is not true, either to this text or to the rest of the Scriptures pertaining to the coming of His kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount speaks of present pain, mourning, persecution, and sorrow, and of ultimate blessing when He comes with His kingdom. Let us not be confused on this point.
One last introductory observation: Jesus did not draw the disciples’ attention to the words of the widow, but to the words of the unjust judge: “And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge said … ’” (v. 6).
Why would Jesus draw attention to the words of the judge who was unrighteous, rather than to the woman whose example the disciples were to follow? Let us bear this question in mind as we study this parable.
Luke’s account of the telling of the parable begins, quite untypically, with the interpretation already given (v. 1). The actual parable begins not with the widow but with the unrighteous judge. Given the attention focused on this judge both at the beginning of the parable and at the end, I take it Jesus wants us to view him as the central character. This judge, both by our Lord’s analysis (v. 2) and by the man’s own reckoning (v. 4), was not a very savory fellow; he neither feared God nor respected man. It is this dimension of the judge’s character on which our Lord focuses.
That unrighteous, uncaring judge was continually pestered by a widow. It seems she was being unjustly dealt with by another, and she thus appealed to the judge for justice to be carried out. It was expected that the judge, in the name of justice, would pronounce in her favor and would compel the one who had wronged her to make things right.
The judge frankly did not care about God nor about men. He was thus moved neither out of fear for God nor out of any love for mankind. He could have “cared less,” we would say. It seems that some time passed. The wrong done the widow was ignored by the judge, as well as her frequent petitions. If he could have gotten away with it, the judge would have ignored this woman. But she would not have it so. She persisted, and pressed, and persevered. She pled for justice.
The judge became weary of her frequent petitions. He also came to view her actions as potentially damaging to him. She was certainly a nuisance, and she may even have posed some kind of threat to him. The expression translated “wear me out” in verse 5 is literally rendered “hit me under the eye” in the marginal note of the NASB. I doubt that this woman actually posed a physical threat, but she did seem to pose some kind of threat. It was now to the best interest of the judge to give the woman what she wanted, so he granted her request, not out of a positive motivation but out of a selfish, defensive one.
Jesus, at the request of one of His disciples, has already taught them a lesson in persisting in prayer (cf. Luke 11:1-13, esp. vv. 5-9). The disciples were told the story of the friend, who by persisting at knocking at the door of a friend, would eventually get what he needed. Why then is He teaching this lesson here? The issue in our text is specifically prayer related to the coming of Christ’s kingdom. I believe here it is not the persistence of the widow which is in focus, but rather the character of God which inspires and rewards persistence.
The unrighteous judge granted the widow justice, not because it was the right thing to do, not because the Old Testament law required it, and not because a helpless widow requested it, but simply because it served his interests best to do so. The unrighteous judge administered justice on the widow’s behalf because he was selfish.
The focus of this parable is not on the widow but on the unrighteous judge, because his character is then used to teach us by contrast about God’s character. The woman persisted in her petition because that judge was a wicked man who would act only out of self-interest, and she literally wore him down. She got what she wanted from him because he was evil and would put his ease and best interests above anything else.
In sharp contrast, the Christian is taught to persist in prayer because of the character of God, which is the opposite of that of the judge. God is righteous; the judge was unrighteous. God has chosen His disciples—they are called “His elect” (v. 7), and He cares about His disciples because He has chosen them. But the unrighteous judge has no feelings and no relationship to the widow. He has no compassion toward her, while God has great compassion on His elect. The unrighteous judge delayed because he didn’t care about God or man; the Lord Jesus delays out of compassion on guilty men, giving them time to repent and be saved. The unrighteous judge only cared about reducing his “pain,” while the righteous Judge came to suffer the greatest pain of all—the just wrath of God—in order to save fallen man. The unjust judge brought about justice slowly and reluctantly, but the Just Judge of all the earth will hastily bring about justice when He returns to the earth.
It is time to be realistic about why sinful men ever bring about justice. To be quite frank, they only do it for their own self-interests. It is not righteousness which prompts men to act in favor of justice, but self-interest. Government officials are looked upon as duty bound to promote justice, but if the justice they are obliged to administer is not in their own self-interest, don’t plan on it taking place, at least quickly. If unjust men will not bring about justice because it promises them no pleasure or benefit, then persistence may force them to act in self-interest to reduce the pain of our persistence.
How very different with God. God is good. God is righteous and just. God does not need to be forced to bring about justice by His saints. God has promised to do so, and He will. His love of justice, His love for His own (and His compassion for the oppressed) predispose Him to act to bring about justice. It is this positive aspect of His character which promotes the perseverance of the saints in prayer, while it is the very wickedness of the unjust judge which required the same perseverance from the widow. The character of God is our motivation not to lose heart and to press on in prayer for His coming and for the establishment of justice on the earth.
The Pompous Pharisee
and the Penitent Publican
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
There are a number of critical differences in this second paragraph when compared with the first. Both paragraphs share the common theme of prayer, but the differences are great. In the first paragraph, the disciples are addressed; in the second, it is the self-righteous. These are those “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (v. 9). While this category includes more than Pharisees, it certainly does include the Pharisees. In the first paragraph, it is the character of the One Who is petitioned that is in focus; here, it is the character of the one praying who is highlighted. In the first paragraph, it is justice that is sought; in the second, it is mercy and forgiveness.
There are three characteristics of this group Jesus is addressing:
(1) They were trusting in themselves and not in God.
(2) They were trusting in their own righteousness, not in God’s mercy and grace.
(3) They were looking down on others.
Jesus painted a verbal picture of two men, teaching a lesson by way of contrast. Both men came to the temple to pray. The first man was a Pharisee. He was clearly the one who displayed all three of the characteristics described by our Lord as outlined above. The other man was a tax-collector. By all outward appearances and in accordance with the value system of the Pharisees, there was no question as to who was the righteous man and who was the sinner, no doubt as to who would enter the kingdom and who would be excluded.
Jesus had a surprise in store for His audience, as usual. He went on with the story, beginning with a description of the prayer of the Pharisee. This Pharisee came to the temple and stood in prayer, as was the custom, and as the publican did also (v. 13). The Pharisee stood some distance from the publican (v. 13) and from all that we know from other contexts (e.g. Luke 14:7), I would suspect that this Pharisee found a very prominent place, while the publican found a place out of the public eye. The Pharisee wanted to be seen and approved by men (16:15); the publican did not, not even daring to look upward towards heaven (18:13).
The words attributed to this Pharisee are not, as I understand our text, the words which he spoke but rather those which he thought to himself. Jesus knew the thoughts of men (5:22; 6:8; 12:16-19) and could thus reveal them. The Pharisee was too shrewd to say what he was thinking. His words were not pious-sounding enough. He wished, hypocrite that he was, to appear to be very pious and godly to those who could only view the outward appearance of things. Thus, in Matthew’s account we read this accusation from our Lord:
“Woe to you; scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widow’s houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation” (Matthew 23:14).
Jesus stripped all this away by revealing what the Pharisee was really thinking as he appeared to be praying. Luke therefore tells us that this Pharisee was “praying thus to himself” (v. 11). From all outward appearances, the Pharisee could have appeared to be repentant. From the length of his prayer, one might have thought he was confessing many sins or at least praying for the “many sins” of others. It was not at all as it appeared.
Consider with me several characteristics of the “prayer” of the Pharisee:
(1) The attitude of the Pharisee was one of self-trust, self-righteousness, and contempt for others. These are the very attitudes which Jesus underscored at the beginning of the parable. These were the attitudes which characterized Jesus’ audience and the Pharisee.29
(2) The standard by which the Pharisee judged righteousness and unrighteousness was external, focusing only on outward deeds rather than on the heart. It was a very selective list of sins which the Pharisee listed, just as the “righteous deeds” were selective. It is no surprise that this man chose to major on what he thought to be his strengths and to minimize or ignore his sins.
(3) The Pharisee judged himself in terms of those sins which society found unacceptable, rather than in terms of what offends God. Put differently, the Pharisee thought in terms of “crimes” more than in terms of “sins.” Swindlers, unjust, adulterers, and tax-collectors were all looked upon as “crooks.” Once again, human standards are in view. The things which the Pharisee looks down upon as sin are those things which society shuns as unacceptable (cf. Luke 16:14-18).
(4) The standard which the Pharisee used was comparative, not absolute. The Pharisee did not use the Law as his standard of measuring righteousness; rather, he compared himself with the publican. He saw himself as righteous simply because he was, in his opinion, better than the publican.
(5) The Pharisee boldly approached God, seemingly without regard for His holiness or with a sense of his own unholiness. He almost seems to expect God to be grateful for his presence and prayers.
(6) The Pharisee thanked God for nothing other than what he was, in and of himself. There was no mention of God’s graciousness, no realization of having been blessed by God. All this Pharisee thanked God for was that which he had achieved for himself.30
(7) The Pharisee did not ask God for anything, because he did not believe that he lacked anything. The Pharisee was self-sufficient. He trusted only in himself, and he found himself sufficient; thus he asked nothing of God. While some of us may ask for too much or too often, this man didn’t ask at all.
(8) This Pharisee not only saw himself as fully complying with the law, but he actually thought he had gone beyond it.31 The law did not require all that this Pharisee claims to have done for God in the keeping of the law, with respect to his outward acts of religious worship and service.32 Here is the epitome of arrogance. The law was given as a standard of righteousness, to show all men they are sinners. The law presents men with an impossible standard, which shows that works cannot save and that men must cast themselves upon the mercy and grace of God. But this Pharisee not only gets an “A” in obedience to the law, he thinks he has an “A+.”
(9) This Pharisee is overflowing with self-love but is desperately lacking in love for God and love toward man. In our day we are being taught and told that man’s problem is that he thinks too little of himself. Low self-esteem has been identified by some as the cause of virtually every human malady. This Pharisee has more than his fair share of self-love, but he has all too little love for either God or man. Those who tell us that we must first love ourselves, before we can love God or our fellow-man, may need to look again at their creed.
The tax-collector is just the opposite. He seems to have avoided public notice, and his only audience so far as he is concerned is God. He dares not look up to heaven. He knows he is a sinner33, and he is genuinely repentant. He is one of the blessed who presently “mourns,” as our Lord has said in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:21). He looks not at any righteousness which he has earned, but only for that which God may grant out of grace and mercy. He offers nothing to God, except his penitence. He asks God for mercy and forgiveness of his sins. He is neither conscious of the Pharisee who is present afar off, nor of any other. He has no comparisons to make between himself and others. He only sees himself against the standard of the Law and of the holiness of the God in whose presence he stands. Indeed, he sees his sin as so great that he refers to himself as “the sinner.” In his mind, there is none who compares with him in his fallenness, while in the mind of the Pharisee, there is none to compare in his righteousness. The publican does not even dare to make any promise as to what he will do in the future. Here indeed is humility, honesty, and genuine repentance.
Just as Jesus could speak, revealing the thoughts of man, so He now will speak for God.34 The Pharisee will go home just as he came, proud, self-righteous, and condemned. The penitent tax-collector will go home justified, because he has come to God as a sinner on the basis of His character—His grace, His mercy—and His provision (of salvation through atonement).
According to Jesus, no man is too sinful to be saved, only too righteous. The Pharisee not only does not want God’s grace, He disdains it. The reason, in his mind, is that he does not need it, for his righteousness (in law-keeping as he defines it) is sufficient, indeed, more than enough. The penitent sinner goes away justified, by grace, while the Pharisee goes away condemned, by his own works and words.
There are two very fundamental elements which are to be found in our prayers. The first, according to verses 1-8, is persistence based upon the character of God. The second, according to verses 9-14, is penitence (humility, repentance, based upon our character, or should I say the lack of it.) The two passages on prayer must go together I believe, because there must be a balance in the way we approach God. On the one hand, we can pray with persistence for the coming kingdom of God and for the establishment of justice on the earth, knowing that the character of God assures us that He will come, that He does hear and answer our prayers, and that He will quickly bring about justice.
On the other hand, we must not lose sight of the fact that when we come to God in prayer we must also come with an awareness of our own fallen character. Thus while we pray for justice, we also pray for mercy, for we are totally unworthy of anything but divine wrath. I suspect that a self-righteous Pharisee could have said “Amen” to what Jesus taught in verses 1-8. Perhaps they prided themselves in their persistent prayers for the coming of the kingdom. But the kingdom they sought was a totally different kind of kingdom. It was a kingdom which they earned and which in their minds, they deserved. It was a kingdom which God brought to the earth as an obligation based on their full (indeed, beyond full) obedience to the law.
Let us never suppose that self-righteous Pharisees are beyond saving. They are not! By his own confession, one of the most self-righteous of all Pharisees was saved to become an apostle to the Gentiles, an apostle who was captivated by the grace of God. But in order to be saved, Saul, who became Paul, had to reckon all of the “assets” of his self-righteousness in which he had formerly taken great pride as liabilities, as “dung,” no less. Paul now warns his readers against those who would teach a righteousness by works:
Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:2-14).
The Pharisees’ kingdom was a segregated one. It was a kingdom from which “sinners” were excluded. The likes of the tax-collector and, worse yet the Samaritans and Gentiles, would have no part in this kingdom. Their kingdom allowed, in fact encouraged, them to look down on those who were not so clean on the outside. Their kingdom had nothing to do with grace and mercy, but only with merit, and so those who failed to live up to the standards of the Pharisaic system were shunned, and rightly so in their minds.
A works-oriented system of salvation leads to pride, and pride leads to contempt for others. Grace is the opposite. It sees all men as condemned by the law, without distinction, without exception. It sees all as being saved only because of the grace of God, by means of the shed blood of Christ:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 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 (Romans 3:19-24).
This is the reason Paul reacted so strongly to Peter when he withdrew from eating with the Gentiles, in deference to the Jews who arrived and who looked down upon Gentile saints. To Paul such action was an error of the worst type, because it was a denial of the gospel and of the equality which it brought to all who were saved by grace alone (cf. Galatians 2:14-21).
One of the commentators on this passage has pointed out a very interesting “twist” on the interpretation and application of this text concerning the self-righteous Pharisee. To show that in our culture the Pharisee and the publican have changed places, T. W. Manson cites that now the sinner thanks God that he is not smugly and hypocritically self-righteous, as the Pharisee is:
“‘It is one of the marks of our time that the Pharisee and the publican have changed places; and it is the modern equivalent of the publican who may be heard thanking God that he is not like those canting humbugs, hypocrites and kill-joys, whose chief offense is that they take their religion seriously. This publican was a rotter; and he knew it. He asked for God’s mercy because mercy was the only thing he dared ask for.’”35
There is no virtue in being an honest, out-and-out sinner as though this were superior to being a hypocrite. Some, finding hypocrisy a frequent, but intolerable sin (in others), have come to pride themselves in being public, even to the point of flaunting their sin. There is no virtue in this.
There are a number of applications which flow out of our text. Let me conclude by pointing these out for your consideration:
(1) We should not expect a heathen governmental system to act out of character, godliness, or virtue, but out of self-interest. The heathen judge, while only a character in a parable, is nevertheless typical it would seem of those who are in positions of power in government. We deceive ourselves when we think men will do what is right because it is right. Generally speaking, men do what is right when it serves their own interests. As a friend of mine noted, congressmen do take note of letters and calls from their constituents, mainly because they want to be reelected. When we seek to persuade government officials to act in the cause of justice, let us remember that they will normally act in a way they believe will most benefit them.
(2) The evangelical movement, known as the “reconstruction movement,” does not seem to appreciate the fact that our Lord always spoke of an unjust world until the time of His coming, at which time He would bring about justice. There are those who would tell us that we must bring about justice on the earth, and then the kingdom of God will come. I understand it in just the opposite order: Jesus comes, and then He establishes justice. Until that time, we are not to lose heart, but we are to continue in prayer for the coming of that kingdom. It is not that we cease striving to practice and promote justice, but that we do not deceive ourselves into thinking that we will bring it about, apart from the return of our Lord.
(3) The parable of the Pharisee and the publican provides us with valuable insight into the very recent preoccupation with self-esteem. If anyone had “self-love,” the Pharisee had it, in abundance. If anyone had “a poor self-image,” the publican had it. Why is it then that we speak of a poor self-image as a curse and a good self-image as a blessing when Jesus spoke in just the opposite way? A poor self-concept is well-founded, for we are sinners, and it can be the beginning of the most wonderful blessing God has ever provided for man—salvation. Salvation begins with the realization that we are sinners, undeserving of God’s blessings, and thus we must seek Him on the basis of His grace and His mercy and not on our “worth.” I fear that for many, like the Pharisee, a “good self-image” is linked with self-righteousness. Let us allow our Lord to define whether a “good self-image” is really so good or not.
(4) A day is soon coming when the thoughts of our hearts will be publicly exposed. The Scriptures speak often about the fact that not all sins are immediately evident (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:24), but that they will someday be made public (Romans 2:15-16; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 10:17-18). Let us be sure that our sins will find us out, or should I say that our sins will be found out. We do not need to wait until then, for the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2) and the Word of God are given to expose our secret sins so that they can be dealt with now and not later (cf. Hebrews 4:12-13). Let us, like David, look to God to make our secret sins known to us, so that we may seek His grace in forgiveness and in forsaking them (cf. Psalm 19:12; 139:23-24).
(5) There are no “sacred” activities which are exempt from sinful motives and actions. The seemingly “pious” Pharisee is seen to be exceedingly wicked when his thoughts and motives are revealed by our Lord. Even in the act of “prayer” (or at least the appearance of it) there can be great sin. Some Christians seem to think that certain activities are automatically pious, like preaching, for example. They are shocked when the pride, or power peddling, or greed, or immorality of preachers is exposed. They should not be so naive. No act is free from temptation and the fallenness of man. Every act, even the most pious, is tarnished by our sin. Let us beware of thinking that certain activities are somehow exempt from sin.
May God give us the humility, the penitence, the prayer life, and the grace that He gave this tax-collector. And may God deliver us from the pride and self-righteousness of the Pharisee. May God bring about justice and mercy, for His sake.
28 A. T. Robertson says this term means, “Literally, not to give in to evil, to turn coward, lose heart, behave badly.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), II, p. 231.
“I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou has set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash (House of learning) and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in (street) corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labour and they labour, but I labour and receive a reward and they labour and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.” Talmud, Berakhoth 28b (Soncino translation).” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 264.
30 Praise of this same sort is not uncommon in the literature of the Pharisees. For example, note this prayer: “I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou has set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash (House of learning) and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in (street) corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labour and they labour, but I labour and receive a reward and they labour and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.” Talmud, Berakhoth 28b (Soncino translation).” Cited by Leon Morris, Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 264.
31 “Here again [v. 12], in paying tithe of everything, he seems to boast of doing more than the Law required. Tithe was due (Num. xviii. 21; Deut. xiv. 22), but not of small garden herbs (Mt. xxiii. 23). There is something for which God owes thanks to him.” Plummer, p. 418.
“Here again [v. 12], in paying tithe of everything, he seems to boast of doing more than the Law required. Tithe was due (Num. xviii. 21; Deut. xiv. 22), but not of small garden herbs (Mt. xxiii. 23). There is something for which God owes thanks to him.” Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896), p. 418.
33 Robertson comments, “A sinner … The sinner, not a sinner. It is curious how modern scholars ignore this Greek article. The main point in the contrast lies in this article. The Pharisee thought of others as sinners. The publican thinks of himself alone as the sinner, not of others at all.” ATR, II, p. 234.
Plummer notes: “He places himself in a class by himself; but he makes no comparisons… For similar self-accusation comp. Ps. xxv. 11, xl. 12, li. 3; Ezra ix. 6; Dan. ix. 8; 1 Tim. i. 15.” Plummer, p. 419.
34 Plummer comments on the significance of our Lord’s expression, “I say to you… ”: “As often, this formula introduces an important declaration uttered with authority (vii. 26, 28, ix. 27, x. 12, 24, xi. 9, 51, xii. 4, 5, 8, 27, 34, 44, 51, xiii. 3, etc.).” Plummer, p. 419.
Talbert further notes, “With the ‘I tell you’ of vs. 14a, Jesus claims to know God’s judgments and dares to say what God is like and how he acts. He claims to know the mind of God.” Talbert, p. 172.