The story has a sting in the tail. Two very different people went to the Temple where they prayed two very different prayers. God was watching and listening. At the end, he delivered two very different verdicts. One man went home justified: God accepted him. Not the other.
It was not the religious man who was accepted. It was the sinner.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.
There is a connection between this verse and verse 9 (“he told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous..”) that we easily miss in our English translations. The word righteous in verse 9 and the word justified in verse 14 actuallt belong to the same family of words in Greek. By verse 14 the people who thought they were just in verse 9 turn out to be so only in their own eyes and not in the eyes of God.
The self-righteous find themselves alienated from God.
So, of course do the unrighteous.
But the answer to unrighteousness is not self-righteousness: it is the justifying mercy of God. God is not impressed by our self-righteousness. He is not impressed when we pride ourselves in our achievements and highlight all the things that we believe make us different from and superior to everyone else.
God is more impressed by a humble confession that neither tries to hide nor make excuses; it simply cries for mercy.
It’s worth looking more closely at this tax collector’s prayer.
For one thing, he had no spiritual credentials or worthiness. The Pharisee, as he stood by himself, praying about and probably to himself, may have thought that the tax collector had no right to be there. He certainly had no right to stand in the same place as him. Instead of protesting, the tax collector agreed.
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.’
Whereas the Pharisee had stood on his own because he was better than everyone else, the tax collector stood on his own because he acknowledged that he was more unworthy than everyone else. He too was in a league of his own and he didn’t dare come close.
He didn’t even look up: how could a sinner lift his head in the presence of God? Distraught and deeply disturbed by his guilt, he beat his breast. He had nothing to say in his defence. Nothing to boast about, no achievements to list and no excuses to offer.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Actually, the translators of our English Bibles could equally have translated that “the sinner.”
It might seem a small detail but there can be a world of a difference between a generic admission that I am a sinner, like everyone else, because after all, no one is perfect, and a confession that I am the sinner, in a league of my own.
Had the tax collector overheard the prayer of the Pharisee? Had he heard his own dishonourable mention in that prayer – “God, I’m especially grateful that I am not like that reprehensible tax collector who is standing down at the back”? Was he saying, in terms reminiscent of Nathan’s confrontation of David, “I am the man”?
That was a sordid tale. King David had been one of the great figures in the Old Testament story. King. Poet. Writer of some of the best-loved parts of Scripture. A man after God’s heart. Ancestor to a future Son who would come as God’s anointed. But guilty of a terrible double sin when he took another man’s wife and then had that man killed.
Nathan’s story got under his radar. The rich farmer with his plentiful flocks. The poor man whose family had one little lamb. David was so enraged when he heard that he decreed the severest punishment for the rich thief.
Until Nathan floored him.
You are the man.
It’s one thing to say that nobody’s perfect; it’s another to have to accept that you are the man. That’s what David did and that’s what the tax collector did. A king and a tax collector both discovered that there is mercy for broken sinners who are out of excuses.
There is another detail about the tax collector’s prayer. Later in Luke 18 a blind beggar asks Jesus to have mercy on him, to show him pity. When the tax collector called out for mercy in his prayer, he was not talking about the same thing. The Greek word used in his prayer has to do with sacrifices for sin. It occurs on one other occasion in the New Testament: in Hebrews, were the anonymous writer is talking about what Jesus did in making atonement for the sins of the people.
The tax collector knew that he needed the kind of mercy that would restore a relationship that had been broken by sin.
Of course what had just taken place at the Temple was one of the two daily sacrifices that the priest offered for the sins of the people. The Pharisee seemed to think he was beyond needing such sacrifices; the tax collector knew that his life depended on something to cover his guilt.
We are beyond the need of daily sacrifices today. Not in the way that the Pharisee believed his righteousness put him beyond needing them, but because Jesus himself has offered one perfect and completely sufficient sacrifice. No one can add to what he has done. Twice in the book of Hebrews, the writer says that when Jesus offered his sacrifice, he sat down. His work was done. Mercy came at a price, but for us it is free for the asking.
The sting in the tail of this story is that the sinner found mercy while the apparently righteous man was left high and dry. Self-righteousness does that: it leaves us high and dry while other people delight in the mercy and love of God.
Once again – as he did in the story of the two lost sons – Jesus shows that it is not just someone’s sinfulness that keeps them away from God; their self-righteous goodness can be an even harder barrier to break through. The tax collectors and “sinners” were more ready to listen to Jesus than the religious Pharisees.
Of course, just as returning younger brothers can sometimes forget their dent to mercy and morph into righteous elder brothers, so tax collectors need to be careful that they don’t morph into Pharisees. The sense of amazing grace is replaced by a sense of smug complacency. Self-righteousness creeps in. It is subtle. We become proud.
Jesus ended his story with this warning and promise:
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
It is just a few months since John Stott went home to be with Jesus. Years ago, in one of his commentaries, he wrote this:
Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, ‘I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’ Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size.
The cross of Jesus is a cure for self-righteousness.