The Lord's Day Morning
March 27, 2011
“The Man Who Thought He Was Righteous (but wasn't)
and the Man Who Thought He Wasn't ( but was!)”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Ducan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 18 as we continue to make our way through the gospel of Luke together. This is one of the best known stories that Jesus ever told. It is a foundational story for understanding the Gospel, and there is no possible way that I could convey, with the same effect that Jesus conveyed this story to His original audience, this story to you today, partly because you have been reading this story all your life and Christians have been reading this story for two thousand years.
And when we hear Jesus talk about two men going up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector, we immediately know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. The problem is, we have the wrong good guy and the wrong bad guy. We think that the Pharisee is the bad guy. Now of course, that's true, but Jesus’ original audience wouldn't have heard it that way. They would have immediately thought in this story the good guy is the Pharisee and the bad guy is the tax collector because Pharisees were highly respected in their time and in the Israel of Jesus’ day, Pharisees were viewed as the most righteous laymen that existed. If I were to begin telling you a story about Al Chestnut and a lawyer for Planned Parenthood, you would know who the good guy is in that story and who the bad guy was. And Al Chestnut would be your good guy and the lawyer for Planned Parenthood, I'm pretty sure, would be your bad guy in that story. And Jesus is doing something like that with this crowd. He knows that they will view the Pharisee as the righteous man and the tax collector as the sinner, and thus will assume that the Pharisee is the star of the show, the hero of the story, the good guy, and the tax collector is the bad guy. But they've got it upside down.
And Jesus does this over and over, doesn't He, in the gospel of Luke. He inverts what you normally expect to be the case, and He does that for specific reasons, not just for shock value. This would have been shocking, to be sure, for the original audience to hear, but He does it for specific spiritual reasons. And you’ll see in this passage Jesus zero-in like a laser beam onto two hugely important truths and realities that He wants to drive home to the people that are listening to the story. He will not leave you wondering what those realities are. And I trust, by God's grace, that I will not leave you wondering what those truths and realities are as we expound this passage this morning. But as we approach it, remember that Jesus’ original audience is going to assume that the just man, the righteous man, is the Pharisee, and that the unrighteous man, the man who is not justified, is the tax collector. And Jesus is going to tell a story where it's the other way around. And He's going to tell that story for a reason that is not only important for first century Jews, but very important for twenty-first century Presbyterians.
So let's close our eyes, pray to God, and ask Him to help us as we hear His Word.
Lord, this is Your Word and we need it. Every single one of us needs this Word. We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from Your mouth and this word comes from Your mouth. The Scripture is Your truth and we are sanctified by truth and we are saved by Your truth. And so we ask that You would come to us and open our eyes to see ourselves in this story and to see the Savior in this story and that You would enable us to flee from our own self-righteousness to the righteousness that is only provided by Jesus Christ and in Him. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“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.’”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Jesus told this shocking story to drive home a hugely important truth that God's mercy, God's mercy is the basis on which we are forgiven, accepted, and declared just. Not even the righteousness that we do because He is at work in our hearts and lives, not even the righteousness that we do by His grace is the basis of His accepting us and pardoning us and forgiving us and declaring us just. The righteousness that comes by God's mercy alone through the person and work of Jesus Christ received by faith on Him and on His finished work, this mercy alone is the basis by which we are forgiven, accepted, and declared just. And Jesus is driving that point home in this story vigorously and He does it by showing you two men and two prayers. And I'd like to look with you at these two men and their two prayers to see two things that Jesus wants us to understand in technicolor.
So first let's look at the Pharisee and his prayer. This Pharisee is a man who is moral and religious and he is grateful to God for his morality and his religion. Now when we read this prayer, we immediately smell self-righteousness in it and we are right to do that and Jesus intends us to smell self-righteousness. But Jesus also knew that His original audience would not have immediately recoiled with repugnance at this prayer of the Pharisee because there were going to be qualities in this prayer that they would admire. First of all, they were predisposed to admire the Pharisee because the Pharisee was a layman who was part of a “back-to-God” movement that had been going on in Israel for five hundred years. He was all about the Torah, he was all about God's Word, he was the equivalent of a godly ruling elder or deacon who's a Gideon and a Rotarian or a Sertoman or a Kiwanian who was moral. He was good in his dealings with other people, he was faithful to his wife and family, he was involved in his community — he was an upstanding man of respect. And Jesus knew that His audience would be predisposed to say, “That's a good man.” And when he starts praying, their first reaction would not be to recoil in horror at this self-righteous hypocrite but to actually admire him and notice three things in his prayer that they would have admired.
First of all, they would have admired his morality. In this prayer, notice verse 11. He thanks God that he is not an “extortioner, unjust, an adulterer, or like the tax collector.” Now he's identifying himself as a moral man. He doesn't rip people off in business, he doesn't cheat on his taxes, he doesn't cheat on his wife, and he hasn't betrayed his country like this tax collector has who is working for the Romans and probably skimming some off of the top. So he's saying, “I am a moral man.” And the people in Jesus’ audience would have said, “That's admirable. That's very admirable.”
And then he says, “I'm not only a moral man, but I'm a religious man.” Look at what he says. “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” The Pharisees were big into fasting and they were big into tithing. The Pharisees didn't just fast on certain special occasions on the Jewish calendar. They fasted on Tuesday and Thursdays and their fasts were more dramatic than the fasts that many other people in Israel did. They would not even drink water when they were fasting. Furthermore, they had gone through the Torah and they had discovered every tithe listed in the Torah and they had added them all up and do you know how much of their income they gave? They gave over twenty-percent of their income to the Lord! Now what pastor wouldn't want a leader in his congregation who doesn't cheat on his taxes, who has an honorable reputation in business, who doesn't cheat on his wife, who isn't a betrayer in his community, and who gives over twenty-percent of his income to the work of the Lord?! Boy, you've have pastors lined up for a guy like that in his church!
And furthermore, notice he not only indicates that he's a moral man and a religious man, but he does what? He gives God credit for this. Notice how he prays. “God, I thank You that I am not like other men.” This man is not saying, “God, You saved me because I am good.” In other words, he is not saying that salvation, his salvation, is by his works. We know that Pharisees, rabbis in Jesus’ time, prayed like this because we have other prayers like this. They made it a point of piety to thank God for their morality. They gave God credit that they were moral people. They gave God credit that they were religious people. And he begins this prayer by saying, “I thank You Lord that You've made me a moral man and You've made me a religious man. The credit goes to You.”
But notice my friends two things that are entirely missing from this prayer. There is no sense of sin or need whatsoever in this prayer. And by the end of the story, Jesus wants that to be screaming in your eardrums. There is not the slightest sense that this man has anything that he needs to be forgiven for. His thanks to God is all about what a great guy he is. No sense of need for forgiveness of sins. Now you’ll remember that another elder or young master or Pharisee came to Jesus once and Jesus told him, in answer to his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “Have you kept the commandments?” and he responded, “I've kept all the commandments.” Now instead of getting into an argument with him about whether he's kept the commandments or not, what did Jesus say to him? Jesus said, “You still lack something.” “What do You mean? I've kept all the commandments! What do You mean I lack something?” And Jesus said to him, remember, “Sell everything that you have, give it to the poor, and follow Me.” Now the first thing He was actually doing is He was showing the man that he hadn't kept the commandments. What's the commandment, the first commandment? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength.” In other words, there's nothing in this world that you must love and serve and worship more than God. And Jesus was putting His finger right on that young man's problem. His problem was he loved money. And He said, “Okay, if you've kept all the commands, let Me just ask you to do one thing. Give away all your money and follow after Me.” And you remember the young man said, “Well, I can't do it.” But at that point, notice Jesus indicates that despite his undoubted personal morality, he was lacking. He had a need that Jesus was seeking to make him aware of. And there is no sense of that need in this prayer. No sense of a need for forgiveness at all.
Secondly, did you notice what is present in this prayer? There is a colossal egotism in this prayer. How many times does this guy squeeze “I” into a short prayer? After he thanks God, notice what he says. He thanks God that “I am not like other men…I fast twice a week…I give tithes of all that I get.” I, I, I, I — this is a celebration of me! The prayer lacks a sense of a need for forgiveness and it has the presence of pride all through it. And those two things are what Jesus is after in this story. The Pharisee's trust is in himself. He's a moral man, he's a religious man, and his conscience is at peace, but the basis of the peace of his conscience rests squarely on the fact that he is a good person and there is no sense of his need for forgiveness of sins. And Jesus is saying, “Danger. Danger.” And accompanying that, there is a pride which expresses itself in condescension and contempt for others.
Now contrast this with the second man and with the second prayer. The tax collector stands afar off and before you even get to the one-sentence prayer, before you even get to the one-sentence prayer, look at what Jesus says about him. “He,” verse 13, “will not even lift his eyes up to heaven.” I don't know this for sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Luke 18:13 is the reason why Christians, for the last two thousand years, have bowed our heads and closed our eyes in prayer because the normal stance for prayer in the Old Testament is what? It's like this — (eyes open, head turned to heaven, arms outstretched). You remember Moses praying for the people of Israel and people holding his arms up as he prays to God? This is exactly how the Pharisee prays. He prays to God like this, with his eyes open, his head turned to heaven, and his arms outstretched, waiting for God to answer and bless him. But this tax collector bows his head. He won't even lift up his eyes to heaven we're told. And he beats his breast which is an action of penitence that would have been understood commonly to people in Israel. And he prays what? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Now notice two qualities about that prayer. First of all, there is the presence of humility and the presence of God-focused trust. Humility and God-focused trust. The humility and the sense of need is apparent, isn't it? Even before he opens his mouth, his head is bowed. He can't even bear to look up to heaven because he knows that he doesn't deserve heaven's blessing, but he has a great need. And what is that need? He's a sinner and he needs to be forgiven of his sins if he's going to be declared just by God. And so he prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He recognizes his need for forgiveness of sin. He identifies himself as a person who must either be the object of God's mercy or he is going to justly be the object of God's judgment. And he begs God for mercy.
And that leads us to the second thing. Notice that he does not ground his hope for acceptance with God on anything in him. It is turned to God. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” It reminds me of David's prayer. You remember, Derek's just been preaching through 2 Samuel. When David is caught red-handed, having committed adultery with Bathsheba, having ordered for her husband to be killed, and is confronted by Nathan the prophet, and in Psalm 51 prays for forgiveness, notice that he doesn't say, “O God, forgive me because I'm a moral and religious man! O God, forgive me because I've been faithful to You!” No, his prayer is, “Be gracious to me, O God, because of Your loving-kindness.” That is exactly what the penitent tax collector prays here. “Be merciful to me, O God, not because I am good, because I am not. I'm a sinner. But be merciful to me because You’re merciful.”
So there is both a recognition of his need for forgiveness of sins and then there is a motion away from himself in trust of God. Do you understand, the Pharisee was trusting in his own inherent, moral, religious, God-enabled righteousness, but he had no sense of sin and need in his prayer and he had a false trust in himself and in his own righteousness? And in contrast to that, you have this tax collector who is looking away from himself and to God. In fact it's a little ironic. When it comes to the issue of being accepted to God, notice that the Pharisee looks into himself and he is satisfied having looked into himself that he is right with God, whereas the tax collector looks into himself and he says, “If that's what I am, and it is, I'm in trouble.” And so he looks away from Himself to God. The Pharisee looks in himself and he's satisfied that he is right with God having looked into his own heart. The tax collector looks into his own heart and he sees himself like he really is and then he realizes, “I'm not going to get any peace looking in there. I'm going to have to look away to God.”
What's Jesus’ point? His point is that nothing that we do is the basis for God's acceptance of us. Jesus and Jesus alone is the basis for God's acceptance of us. Now you’re wondering, “Ligon, you’re reading a lot into this, aren't you?” No, I'm not. Let me prove it to you. Go right back to the beginning of the passage, verse 9. What is this parable about? Jesus has already told you. It is about “some who trust” — not God, not God's mercy, not away from themselves — “they trust in themselves that they were righteous and treat others with contempt.” You understand how that works? If you think the thing that separates you from other people is that there is some goodness in you that is not in them, you will be prideful and contemptuous and arrogant. But if you think that the only thing that separates you from those who are justly under the judgment of God is not in you but in God's mercy, what will it do? It will make you tender. It will make you humble. You’ll look at other sinners plunging their own lives into self-destruction and your response will not be, “Oh, I cannot imagine someone so depraved as to do that.” You’ll say, “That's me. That is me! O God, save him, save her, just like You did me, because I was heading down that road of destruction! That is me right there! Save him! Save her!” There won't be any imperious contempt. There will be sympathy and mercy and a desire that others would be brought to saving faith in Christ. That's what this story is about.
And you say, “Now you’re reading Pauline justification into this passage and that's not how Jesus worked and taught.” Oh, contraire! Turn back to Luke 7 and look at verse 29. Luke's already used the word “justified,” but guess who he uses it of? God. So that use in Luke 7:29 cannot mean that they made God righteous but that they did what? They declared Him righteous. That's exactly what he's talking about right here my friends. Notice what Jesus says in verse 14. “This man” — the tax collector, the sinner — “he went down to his house justified” — not made right by what he had done, but declared just, declared right with God, by God, on the basis of God's mercy, not on the basis of anything he’d done.
Turn back with me to the hymn you just sang, 499. Now this hymn, you may have sung it in your Baptist youth during the altar call. Now we Presbyterians have sung this song for a long time too, but you know what? A Baptist didn't write this hymn; a Presbyterian didn't write this hymn. An Anglican, of all people, wrote this hymn. 499 was written by a man named Augustus Toplady. He was an Anglican minister. And do you know what he called this hymn? His title for this hymn was “The Prayer of the Most Sanctified Man Who Ever Lived.” In other words, Toplady is saying, “How should the godliest person that you have ever met pray?” And what was his prayer? “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.” In other words, as he says in verse 3, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to Your cross I cling.” And I love what he says in stanza 4. Did you notice how he says it? “When he soars to worlds unknown” — when he is now, his life had ended, his sanctification is complete, he is glorified before the throne of God, he is present in the company of angels and elders, what will his prayer then be? Will it be, “I thank You that I am not like other men. I am moral; I am religious; I am just”? No, what will it be? “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.”
Even in glory, the basis of our acceptance by God will not be found in us. And that, my friends, is why the Gospel is absolutely essential to every one of us because it says that Jesus died the death that we deserved so that we could receive blessings that we don't deserve only by trusting in Him. That the basis, that the ground of our acceptance with God, is not found in ourselves. Salvation is not like acquiring the Eagle Scout badge. It is a gift given based on somebody else's work, not yours — the person and works of Jesus Christ. The way you receive it is you look away from yourself to God.
We’re going to sing in just a minute — and I'm going to ask the choir before we do so — we're going to sing number 472, but before we pray, let me get you to turn to 472 because I want you to notice something as we sing. Every stanza of this wonderful hymn – and it's sung to an old Welsh minor tune and that's why the choir is going to sing it for you first – every stanza of this hymn is beckoning you to come to the Lord Jesus Christ. And look especially what it says here. It says that “all the fitness that He requires” you to feel, to come to Him, is what? “Your need of Him.” What does Jesus require you to come to Him? Just that you need Him. And then look at the very next thing it says. “But even that is the work of the Spirit in your heart.” Even when you feel you need Him, it's the work of the Spirit in your heart. I'm going to be praying this prayer for you as we sing it. Let's pray.
Lord God, thank You for Your Word. Work it deeply into our hearts so that we do not trust ourselves but You and Your mercy held out to us in Jesus Christ and so that we have Gospel humility. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Now I’ll ask the choir first to sing number 472 through once and then we’ll stand and sing it.
The only One who can do helpless sinners good says to you: Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.