It is quite common today to hear people say things like, “I don’t believe in any one religion, but I am a very spiritual person
.” People are simply perplexed about what spirituality really is or isn’t, yet they want to appear to be “spiritual.” They don’t understand what that really means, but this only aids them in thinking that they ought to be the ones who define it for themselves. As George Gallup wrote in an online article back in August of 2013:
As described in The Next American Spirituality, which Tim Jones and I wrote, the pendulum may be swinging away from what is beyond us to what is within us. In the 1999 survey, we asked, “Do you think of spirituality more in a personal and individual sense or more in terms of organized religion and church doctrine?” Almost three-quarters opted for the “personal and individual” response.
In a January 2002 poll, 50% of Americans described themselves as “religious,” while another 33% said they are “spiritual but not religious” (11% said neither and 4% said both). When respondents to a 1999 Gallup survey were asked to define “spirituality,” almost a third defined it without reference to God or a higher authority: “a calmness in my life,” “something you really put your heart into,” or “living the life you feel is pleasing.”
As further evidence of the focus on self in spirituality, many people today appear to be practicing a “do-it-yourself” faith — taking pieces from various traditions and building their own kind of “patchwork” faith. For example, according to a September 1996 Gallup Poll, one-fifth of people who describe themselves as “born again” also say they believe in reincarnation. (Americans’ Spiritual Searches Turn Inward
Such findings are really no surprise to those of us who have been paying attention to what has been happening in our culture. But, sadly, many professing Christians are just as unaware of what true spirituality is or isn’t. They often know that what they are hearing around them is wrong, but they aren’t always sure how to respond to it. However, I think the parable before us today may help us to get to the heart of the matter. For in it our Lord Jesus directly challenges the false spirituality of the Pharisees of His day, and He offers us a picture of what true spirituality really looks like. I hope to demonstrate this for you as we make our way through the parable. In the process, we will examine 1) the context of the parable, 2) the communication of the parable, and 3) the application of the parable.
I. The Context of the Parable
The context of the parable is found verse 9, where Luke tells us what we need to know about who Jesus was speaking to and why He was speaking to them.
NKJ Luke 18:9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others ….
Right away Luke wants us to understand the problem Jesus is addressing. There were people around Him who thought they they could be righteous in and of themselves, and these people tended to despise anyone who didn’t measure up to their self-defined standards of righteousness. They were self-righteous people who didn’t really love others, but the real problem behind this is that they didn’t really love God. That this is the problem will become even clearer as we examine the parable itself.
II. The Communication of the Parable
The communication of the parable is found in verses 10-13. Although it has been my habit to follow a verse-by-verse format when teaching the parables of Jesus, I prefer to teach this parable in such a way as to highlight the comparisons Jesus wants us to make between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector presented in the parable. He introduces these two main characters in verse 10.
NKJ Luke 18:10 Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
Notice that Jesus tells us that both men went went up to the temple to pray, not only the Pharisee but also the tax collector. Thus Jesus indicates that both men were ostensibly engaging in spiritual activity, even though this might have come as a surprise to most of His hearers. In fact, most of those who were listening to Jesus would have expected to hear about a Pharisee who went up to the temple to pray, but they would have been quite taken aback to hear about a tax collector who did so. You see, the tax collectors were not typically religious people. In fact, they were typically greedy and crooked men who actually collected taxes for the Romans and for this reason were often considered traitors to their people. As the IVP Bible Background Commentary observes:
Pharisees were the most pious people in regular Palestinian Jewish society; tax gatherers were the most despicable, often considered traitors to their people. Pharisees did not want tax gatherers admitted as witnesses or given honorary offices. To catch the impact of this parable today one might think of these characters as the most active deacon or Sunday-school teacher versus a drug dealer, gay activist or crooked politician. (e-Sword)
So you can see why most people who listened to this parable would already have been surprised – perhaps even a bit shocked – by what they were hearing. They would have expected a story about a Pharisee who went up to the temple to pray, but they would have been surprised to hear a story about a tax collector who went up to the temple to pray.
Yet the real surprise of the parable still hasn’t come. For Jesus actually goes on to reverse what they would have expected. He goes on to show that the Pharisee was the spiritual fraud and the tax collector was the one who was spiritually genuine! In doing so, he sets up a contrast between them in order to make His point. So, in order to highlight the comparison and contrast that Jesus wants us to see, let’s examine first two indicators of false spirituality exhibited by the Pharisee, and then we will examine two indicators of genuine spirituality exhibited by the tax collector.
1. Two Indicators of False Spirituality
These indicators are seen in Jesus’ description of the Pharisee in verses 11-12:
NKJ Luke 18:11-12 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.”
The first indicator of false spirituality is trusting in one’s own ability to conform outwardly to religious requirements.
Luke has already indicated that the Pharisee stands for those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (vs. 9). In doing so he has prepared us to understand what Jesus says here as a description of the way in which their trust in themselves could be seen. Notice especially the way the Pharisee talks about himself and about his own actions:
I thank you I am not like other men … (vs. 11a).
I fast twice a week … (vs. 12a).
I give tithes of all that I possess … (vs. 12b).
In fact, Jesus says that the Pharisee’s prayer isn’t really a prayer at all, but rather a self-congratulatory pat on the back. For Jesus specifically states that the Pharisee “prayed thus with himself” (vs. 11a, italics mine). That is, although the Pharisee was trying to appear pious, he was actually talking to himself and about himself.
The NET Bible notes offer a couple of options for understanding the Greek phrase that describes how the Pharisee prayed with regard to himself:
… two different nuances emerge, both of which highlight in different ways the principal point Jesus seems to be making about the arrogance of this religious leader: (1) “prayed to himself,” but not necessarily silently, or (2) “prayed about himself,” with the connotation that he prayed out loud, for all to hear. Since his prayer is really a review of his moral résumé, directed both at advertising his own righteousness and exposing the perversion of the tax collector, whom he actually mentions in his prayer, the latter option seems preferable. If this is the case, then the Pharisee’s mention of God is really nothing more than a formality. (BibleWorks)
As William Hendriksen also aptly observes:
Outwardly he addresses God, for he says, “O God.” But inwardly and actually the man is talking about himself to himself …. Moreover, having mentioned God once, he never refers to him again. Throughout his prayer the Pharisee is congratulating himself.
That this is the true state of affairs follows also from the fact that nowhere in his prayer does the man confess his sins. Nowhere does he ask God to forgive him what he has done amiss. Now if he had had any sense of the divine presence, would he not also have had a sense of guilt? (e-Sword)
We may also see the Pharisee’s lack of awareness of his own sins when we consider the way he views others, which leads to our next characteristic of the self-righteous.
The second indicator of false spirituality is gauging one’s spirituality by comparison to the perceived lack of holiness in others.
Again, Luke has already indicated that the Pharisee stands for those who “despised others” or, as the ESV renders it, those who “treated others with contempt” (vs. 9). So he has again helped to prepare us to understand what Jesus intended when He offered His portrayal of the Pharisee in this parable. Notice especially how, while pretending to give God the glory, the Pharisee says, “I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector” (vs. 11b).
Application: This portrayal of the Pharisee should lead each one of us to examine himself or herself in order to see how much we might be like this Pharisee. For example, we might want to ask ourselves questions like, How often do I say “I” when speaking of the good things in my life or of ministry accomplishments, as though the credit belongs to me rather than to God? Or, perhaps worse, how often do I pretend to credit God but don’t really man it? You see, we may know the right things to say in order to sound spiritual to others, but whether or not we mean what we say is the true test of genuine spirituality rather than hypocrisy, and – one way or another – who we truly are will eventually show through, just as it did with the Pharisee in the parable.
2. Two Indicators of Genuine Spirituality
These indicators are the opposite of those pertaining to the false spirituality of the Pharisee, and they may be seen in Jesus’ description of the tax collector in verse 13:
NKJ Luke 18:13 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!”
The first indicator of genuine spirituality is an awareness of one’s own inability to live righteously.
Given that the tax collector is contrasted with the Pharisee, and that the Pharisee illustrates “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (vs. 9), we may assume that the tax collector represents those who do not trust in themselves that they are righteous. We see his awareness of his own inability to live righteously both in his actions and in his confession. For example, Jesus says that the man confessed his sinfulness to God, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” But He also says that he “beat his breast,” which is a sign of intense sorrow. Jesus wants us to see clearly, then, what a recognition of one’s own inability to live righteously entails. It entails a clear understanding of our own sinfulness in the sight of God and a corresponding sense of sorrow for our sins. As the Apostle Paul would later write to the Corinthian believers:
NKJ 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. 10 For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.
Unlike the Pharisee, who should have understood such things himself, the tax collector in the parable serves for all time as an example of such a godly sorrow for sin. He is the kind of person about whom Jesus spoke when He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:3-4).
The second indicator of genuine spirituality is gauging one’s spirituality by comparison to God’s holiness.
Jesus says that the tax collector was “standing afar off” and that he “would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven.” These actions again indicate a sense of humility and a recognition by the tax collector that he was not worthy to enter the presence of God. He clearly understood that the standard by which he was to be measured was the holiness of God rather than the morality of those around him.
Application: This portrayal of the tax collector should lead each one of us to examine himself or herself in order to see whether or not we exhibit characteristic of genuine spirituality. For example, we might want to ask ourselves questions like, When was the last time I really saw my own sin for the terrible thing that it is? Or, When was the last time I truly sensed my deep need for God’s grace and forgiveness? The answers to such questions might just reveal the last time we had a clear vision of God’s holiness.
But what if such self-examination reveals that you have never experienced any such remorse for your sins? If this is the case, then you must face the fact that you may be a spiritual fraud and are not really a Christian at all. I think this is a possibility our Lord Jesus would have you consider for, although I have suggested some application of the parable up to this point, we should not miss the most important one, and that is the one made by Jesus Himself, which leads us to the last point.
III. The Application of the Parable
We find Jesus’ own direct application of the parable in verse 14:
NKJ Luke 18:14 I tell you, this man [i.e. the tax collector] 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.
Remember that the Pharisee represents those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (vs. 9). This means, given the contrast Jesus draws between the Pharisee and the tax collector, that the tax collector must represent those who trust in God for their righteousness. Thus when Jesus says that the tax collector “went down to his house justified,” He speaks of the man being justified in the same forensic sense that the Apostle Paul later described at length when he proclaimed the Gospel that he had gotten directly from Jesus Himself (Gal. 1:11-12). For example, in his Epistle to the Romans Paul declares:
NKJ Romans 3:21-26 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
This “righteous of God … to all and on all who believe” was the basis upon which the tax collector in the parable was said to be justified – declared righteous – in the sight of God. Although since then we have seen even more clearly how this righteousness comes “through faith in Jesus Christ,” the doctrine of justification was the same under the Old Covenant as it is under the New Covenant, a fact which is assumed by our Lord Jesus in the telling of this parable.
But what about Jesus’ statement that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted”? What does Jesus mean by this? In answer to answer this question, I would suggest that the context indicates in what sense one who humbles himself will be exalted. Jesus is speaking about two men standing before God and being judged by Him. The one who humbles himself by recognizing his own sinfulness and unworthiness – the one who is thus sorrowful for his sins and repents – this is the one will be exalted by being declared righteous in the sight of God. But the one who exalts himself by trusting in his own ability to attain righteousness (vs. 9) – the one who is thus prideful and does not repent of his sins – this is the one who will be humbled in the future judgment of God.
You see, although the final judgment of God is future, those of us who have trusted in Him as the source for our righteousness may know now what that verdict will be, for it has already been pronounced on our behalf. Thus, just as the tax collector in the parable was able to return to his home already justified in the sight of God (vs. 14), even so we who have trusted in the righteousness of Christ are justified even now. As the Apostle Paul said:
NKJ Romans 5:1-2 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
This is why Jesus told this parable. He wanted us to know how we can be justified in the sight of God, that we can only be justified by Him if we leaving off trusting in our own righteousness and instead trust in the righteousness that only He Himself can provide for us. As Paul said to the Corinthian believers:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – 31 that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.”
Conclusion: Have you trusted in Christ as the source for your righteousness? For He alone has lived a sinless life, so He alone can provide for you the righteousness that you need in the sight of God. As Paul again said:
NKJ 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. 21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
This is the happy exchange by which our sin was reckoned to Jesus Christ when He died on the cross and by which His righteousness is reckoned to us through faith in what He has done for us. For He died on the cross for sinners like you and me, and He rose from the dead that we might have everlasting life. Will you abandon your own false spiritually now and cry out to God for the genuine spirituality that recognizes both the greatness of your own sin and the greatness of His grace in Christ as the answer for it?