The following is the text of a sermon I had the privilege to preach at Cornerstone Community Church in Montgomery, TX on November 22nd of this year. Even though it’s a bit late for the Thanksgiving holiday, I hope it blesses you anyway. Thanks.
When I started thinking about what I wanted to study and preach on this week, I couldn’t help but think about the upcoming holiday: no, not the A&M-LSU game. Thanksgiving.
Now, I’ll admit, folks: normally, in my family, we start our Christmas holiday decorations and celebration on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but we’ve had our tree and lights up for over a week already (partly because my 3 year old is OBSESSED with Christmas lights). It seemed appropriate in a challenging year to spend some extra time celebrating the coming of Jesus to dwell among us. But I recognize that doing so gives short shrift to Thanksgiving, so I started thinking about what passages might be appropriate for the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
And for some reason (the providence of God, ultimately), I landed on Luke 18. If you’ve looked at the passage already, you know that this is…not exactly what you’d call a “Thanksgiving” passage—and I agree, it’s a bit of a stretch. But I think it’s what I needed to hear, so I suspect some of you may benefit as well.
Today, we’re looking at the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. And it’s a story that has something to teach us about how we should—or rather, how we should NOT—give thanks.
Here’s the big idea we will consider this morning: True thanksgiving – true Christian thanksgiving – begins with a recognition that, if we are in Christ, we have not gotten what we deserve for our sin, but have instead gotten what we do not deserve. We deserved judgment, but received mercy. We earned wrath, but were given grace. True thanksgiving from the heart is fueled by this fundamental reality.
Let’s look at the text: Luke 18-9-14. I’ll read it in its entirety and then we’ll take a look at it verse by verse.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”Luke 18:9-14
Luke describes this story as a parable (the stories that Jesus told that taught spiritual truths using symbols and veiled language that could only be discerned by those given “eyes and ears” to do so). But this is less of a parable and more of a straightforward (if likely fictitious) description of 2 mindsets or approaches to worship.
Setting the Scene (v. 9-10)
Notice from the very beginning that Luke clues us in on EXACTLY what Jesus is doing here. This isn’t like some of Jesus’ other parables or stories where he has to decode for us what He means. He is speaking plainly, and both we and his original hearers knew what he was getting at. If anything, what Luke gives us here is a peek into the hearts of the hearers more than the point of the parable. Notice that he describes these people 2 ways: “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” and “treated others with contempt.” As we will see, these two traits are connected, with one often flowing into the other. While there are other applications to be made with this parable, Jesus’ primary target audience thought they were as holy as they needed to be, and that somehow God owed something to them for their good works.
Jesus sets the scene in verse 10: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” They went up to the temple because the temple in Jerusalem was built on a hill. That’s why we see some psalms are called Songs of Ascent—they were literally sung by pilgrims who travelled to Jerusalem to ascend the temple mount for yearly sacrifices and feasts of worship. So these 2 men went up to the temple.
They went up to pray because it was at the Temple where they believed their prayers would be heard. In I Kings 8:27-30, when Solomon dedicated his temple to God on this spot, he prayed that it would be a place where God’s name and heart will rest, so that His servants may come to this place to pray and he would hear and forgive them. God responded in the next chapter (9:1-3) that His eyes and heart would be there for all time. In Isaiah 56:7, the Lord says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” So it was at the temple that faithful Jews believed God would be most attentive to their cries.
Consider our two characters: the Pharisee and the tax collector. While we in later generations have been trained to eye pharisees with distrust, and to use the term as an insult, remember that, in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the theological elite—the trusted theologians, preachers, teachers, highly respected in their community. Contrast them with the tax collectors—Jews who have colluded with their Roman oppressors and collect taxes on their behalf to fund their military war machine. Tax collectors routinely extorted money from their fellow Jews (beyond the already oppressive taxes) and grew rich off the grift. They were held in contempt in their day, the lowest form of scum, because they defied the Mosaic commands against extorting and oppressing their countrymen. Jesus often used social contrasts like this to shock or surprise his audience, in order to reveal truth. Here was no exception, and it would do us good to consider this contrast with fresh eyes. On the one hand, a revered spiritual father and pillar of the community—on the other, a low-life who was distrusted and avoided because he was known (or at least assumed) to take advantage of his poor neighbors to fill his pockets.
But when they open their mouths, everything changes. And it’s here were Jesus shows us the dangers of the wrong kind of thanksgiving.
First, we see the danger of treating others with contempt.
1) Beware Treating Others with Contempt (v. 11)
Notice the Pharisee’s posture: “standing by himself.” Standing was a common prayer posture in that culture, but the implication here was that this man was standing apart from others, not one of the crowd of worshippers. He set himself apart physically—presumably to be seen and/or heard more clearly. Jesus warns about this in the Sermon on the Mount:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”Matthew 6:5
Some translations even word verse 11 as such: the Pharisee “while standing, prayed to himself” (which may be more of an editorial comment than a straightforward translation!).
Listen to the opening words of this Pharisee’s prayer (a prayer in which we hear the word “God” used one time and the word “I” used 5 times, by the way): “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
The Pharisee “thanks” God by bragging about who he is not—and lists off a handful of notorious sins and sinners (including the tax collector who he likely passed by on his way to the front of the room!). The Pharisee prides himself on not being guilty of gross, scandalous, public sins—yet he doesn’t mention any of what Jerry Bridges called “the respectable sins” like anger, lust, jealousy, greed, or pride. But Scripture is clear that these sins are no more acceptable than others in terms of God’s holiness. Just a few chapters earlier, we see this, in Luke 16:
“The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things [Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager], and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”Luke 16:14-15
While Pharisees were careful to keep a holy external appearance, that holiness sometimes didn’t penetrate to their hearts. This is why Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Something more than external piety is needed.
The Pharisee had no awareness of his own sin and unworthiness. He judged himself against the worst sins of others—and in a sense used the known (or assumed) sins of those around him to make himself feel even more holy by comparison. It’s almost as if he were glad they were so bad, because it made him look all the better.
The Apostle Paul sternly warns against such judgments in Romans 2:1-5:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.Romans 2:1-5
We should pause in this moment and examine ourselves: have we been guilty of this? Perhaps we have said in our hearts, “God, I thank you that I’m not like this pastor fallen into disgrace, or like that politician surrounded by scandal. I thank you that I am not like those people on Facebook or these people on Twitter. I thank you that I’m wise enough to vote the right way and have the sensible position about pressing social issues and political topics, unlike those with whom I disagree who are being led around by the nose and haven’t thought things through properly.”
The scary thing about this first part of the pharisee’s prayer is that he *is* like those notorious sinners—he’s just as prone to fall into temptation and a snare. And so am I. And so are you. It is only the grace of God that we do not destroy ourselves in our sin.
But let’s keep looking at the pharisee’s speech (I hate to call it a prayer!). Next we see that we should beware trusting in our own righteousness.
2) Beware trusting in your own righteousness. (v. 12)
The Pharisee follows up his favorable self-comparisons by giving evidence of his personal piety: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” On the surface, these are laudable actions—actions that go beyond even what the Mosaic law required. The only mandatory fasting day was the yearly Day of Atonement, and the tithe was mainly intended to be from crops/income in order to provide the material needs of the Levites and care for the poor and sojourners. So on the surface, what the Pharisee says should be met with praise. You did pious works; good for you.
But Jesus is never satisfied with mere ritual or surface-level obedience. Again, from His Sermon on the Mount, He says that giving to the needy should be done in secret, and that fasting should be a private act of worship between you and God. Why? Matthew 6:1 says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” That’s the problem with the Pharisee’s prayer. He’s bragging about his piety in order to be seen by others—and worse than that, in order to be acknowledged by God. He’s listing off his religious practices as if to remind God how good he is, while at the same time dismissing the sin that may yet be in his heart. That’s why in Luke 11, Jesus pronounced woe upon Pharisees who “tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
What a contrast to Jesus’ teaching in the previous chapter of Luke, in which he states that obedient servants of God should be satisfied that they have simply done their duty!
Such self-confidence also misses the point that our good works fall so immeasurably short of God’s standard—Jesus said we must be perfect! And of course, in our fallen state we cannot be perfect, which is precisely the point. We need a righteousness outside of ourselves, because all our best works are stained by sin. That’s the whole message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—we will never, ever, ever be good enough to earn or maintain our place before God. We have all broken His law and disobeyed His commandments, and we deserve punishment for our offenses against a holy God. But because God is gracious, He sent Jesus to live the perfect life we couldn’t live ourselves, completely fulfilling all of God’s commands and the demands of the Law, and then dying in the place of sinners, to become “sin” for us so that we might become the righteousness of God. The perfect record of Jesus is transferred to sinners who turn to him in repentance, and all of their guilt is put on Jesus, who pays for it all with his precious blood.
If you’re hearing this and you know that you are guilty before God but you have been trying to do good works to make up for it or wash away your stains, listen to me closely: you can’t clean yourself. You can’t pay for your own sin. There’s nothing you can do to take away your shame and guilt. But there’s something that can be done for you. What can wash away your sin? Nothing…but the blood of Jesus.
Let’s turn our attention away from the preening Pharisee to the downcast tax collector in verse 13.
3) Be Humble before the Mercy of God (v. 13)
What a contrast we find here.
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
Note the difference in posture: The tax collector stands afar off—not in an area of prominence, possibly trying to avoid other people who are there in the temple court. His hands are not upraised, and his face is not lifted. Perhaps this is an unspoken recognition that he knows he does not have “clean hands” before God. Psalm 24 says, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
The tax collector cannot bring himself to look upward to heaven in the normal posture of prayer, but keeps his eyes on the ground, beating his chest in an outward sign of deep sorrow. He prays a prayer of just 7 words (even fewer in the original Greek) but those seven words are powerful and are weighted with importance: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Charles Spurgeon quoted another unnamed pastor who said this prayer is a “holy telegram”—condensed and compact with no unnecessary words. In our hours of desperation, sorrow, and exhaustion, all of the flowery language is stripped away and the cry of our heart is laid bare in its simplest form. And this is the type of cry that we see throughout the gospels would stir the heart of the savior. Jesus seems to have a particular care for tax collectors and outcasts, because those are the type of people he came to rescue: the sick, not the well; sinners, not the righteous.
What does this simple seven-word prayer of the tax collector show us about his faith? Seven key truths:
- He knows who God is—perhaps an artifact from his upbringing or just the gracious reminders of God throughout his life that kept the reality of the Judge of all the earth in his mind.
- He believes God answers prayer—if not, he wouldn’t be praying.
- He recognizes that he must answer to this God for his actions—the tax collector calls on the one to whom he knows he must give an account.
- He believes this God is merciful—otherwise a plea for mercy would be pointless.
- He believes this God is even merciful to sinners—God does not just show favor to the righteous but to the unrighteous who call out to him.
- He confesses that he himself is a sinner who needs God’s mercy—unlike the pharisee, the tax collector has no illusions about his standing before God.
- He recognizes that the mercy of God is his only hope for dealing with his sin—in his state of despair, he turns to God in faith, asking for clemency. He doesn’t try to bargain or impress. He doesn’t claim pious deeds as his access to God. He brings only his need and his faith that God will respond.
There is no indication of how the tax collector came under such conviction, but the fruit of the conviction is plain in his demeanor and his prayer.
Do you need to pray this kind of prayer today? You’ve been trying to earn God’s approval with pious activity. You’ve been trying in your own efforts to improve yourself, to be a good person, in the foolish hope that such labors will balance out the ledger in your favor. If that’s you this morning, you need to stop what you’re doing and just come to God in faith. As the old hymn says, “nothing in my hands I bring / simply to the cross I cling.” You’ve got nothing to bring to God. All your best works are infected with sin, until you are given a new heart and new desires and the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit to work in and through you to do God’s will.
If you need to call out to God in mercy this morning, you’d be in good company. Prayers for mercy are shared throughout the Old Testament, as God’s people call out to Him in faith, asking for His patience, His forgiveness, and His help in times of distress. In Psalm 79, the psalmist Asaph writes, “Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake!”
In Daniel 9, Daniel prayed on behalf of his people:
“O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us. Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.”Daniel 9:16-19
Notice in both of those examples that the person praying is not telling God how good they are and how much they deserve. They recognize they have nothing to offer and that God’s mercy and forgiveness aren’t owed to them. They also call out that God’s mercy comes from His nature and the point of it is ultimately that it gives Him glory to be merciful to us, and that mercy is for our good as well.
So how does God respond to these 2 prayers? Jesus says the humble tax collector went home justified, rather than the pharisee.
This word “justified” is important. It carries a legal designation of “not guilty”—but there’s more to it than that. The tax collector wasn’t just forgiven of his sins, though he was. He wasn’t just shown mercy—the judgment he deserved being withheld. He was declared righteous before God. To get the full weight of that, we need the rest of the New Testament to flesh out its implications—this parable wasn’t intended to provide us a full theology of justification. But we see pretty clearly in this story a contrast of works-based righteousness versus a righteousness that is received by grace through faith in the God who shows mercy on those who call to Him in repentance.
Paul expounds on these monumental truths in his letters to the Romans and Galatians, among others. That’s why he writes in Romans 3:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”Romans 3:21-26
And in Romans 8:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.Romans 8:1-4
And in Galatians 2:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.Galatians 2:15-16
I don’t mean to beat this point home more than that, but I think too often we run past this and risk taking it for granted, especially if we have been in the church for a long time. If you are a Christian here this morning, I have to ask you: Have you forgotten what you’ve been saved from? Have you forgotten what that means? If you have repented of your sin and put your full hope and trust in Jesus’ work on the cross, then you are forgiven—declared not guilty—and even declared righteous before God, wrapped in the spotless white robes of Christ. And that’s not even to begin describing the benefits of adoption into God’s family, the inheritance of the saints, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the gradual and inevitable work of that Spirit in sanctifying us to make us like Jesus, and the countless benefits and beauties of knowing God as Father!
Christians, do you remember these precious truths? Do you dwell on them in your thoughts? Do you treasure them away in your heart? Because if you do, you will respond with true and lasting thanksgiving!
Let’s consider Jesus’ summation of the story as we close this morning: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The tragedy of this parable is that the Pharisee is so blind to his sinful pride that he goes into the temple and, rather than being forgiven of his sin, heaps more sin and more judgment upon himself, before going away oblivious, thinking he had done his pious duty. The very Law that should have brought him to a place of recognition that he could never stand on his own works before a holy God became a tool that he used to justify himself in comparison to others. And on the last day, when Jesus Christ judges the living and the dead, those who walk in the way of this pharisee will be brought low, while those who humble themselves before the Lord Jesus will be lifted up.
Consider Paul’s words from Romans 10:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [his fellow Jews] is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”Romans 10:1-13
If you have received this salvation, then let this Thanksgiving week be a week in which you remember that what you have to be thankful for goes so much deeper than the good gifts of physical provision and the gift of family. Let your thanksgiving well up from a recognition and remembrance of how much you deserve the wrath of God, and how much mercy you have been shown in Christ Jesus.
And let us all heed the warning of Jesus’ parable and humble ourselves before the Lord, so that He may lift us up. If you stand guilty in your sin, call out to him for mercy, in repentance and faith, and He will cleanse you of all unrighteousness, and declare you not-guilty before Him. If you do that, I suspect this Thanksgiving will be a truly joyous one for you as well.
God bless you all in this Thanksgiving season.