Grace for the Humble
Topic: Expository Passage: Luke 18:9-14
We just sang “Amazing Grace,” and I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the story behind the song, but it is such a great story, that it is worth repeating. John Newton was born in England in 1725. His life took a tough turn when his Christian mother died when he was only 6. You can imagine how crushing it was, and sadly Newton became bitter against God and grew more and more rebellious and ungodly.
To make matters worse, when he was 11, he started making sea voyages with his father, and of a bunch of very rough sailors. Eventually, Newton began to work on a slave trading ship and ultimately became the captain of a slave trading ship. Not only was he a slave trader who treated the slaves very poorly, his crew despised him as an evil captain. He stood out as an evil man among evil men.
He was the type of guy that no one would have ever expected to become a Christian, much less a prominent pastor. But when Newton was in his mid-twenties, Newton’s ship ran into a terrible storm, and God used it to break the hardness of his heart, and to bring him to salvation. This incredibly wicked man went from being an evil man to eventually becoming a pastor and a hymn writer. He even became a driving force behind the abolition of slavery in England.
But Newton never forgot where he came from, and he was always amazed at the grace God had demonstrated. It was this memory that inspired him to write one of the most famous hymns of all time, “Amazing Grace” in which he reflects, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” And Newton understood that he didn’t see because he figured God out. No, “twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”
And Newton carried his amazement at God’s grace to the grave. Here’s the epitaph he wrote for his own gravestone, “John Newton, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.” Newton never forgot how evil he was and how gracious God had been.
Everyone loves these kinds of stories, but ironically we don’t generally like to think of ourselves as nearly as bad as Newton. Therefore, even though “Amazing Grace” is one of the most famous songs ever written, most people have no idea what kind of grace they are actually singing about. But in our text for today, Jesus reminds us that the only people that God accepts are those who like Newton acknowledge how evil we truly are and how desperately we need the mercy of God. It’s only then that we will truly appreciate the amazing grace and mercy of God (read). Notice first that v. 9 tells us very clearly…
I. The Purpose of the Parable (v. 9)
Sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly what point Jesus is making in his parables, but v. 9 tells us very clearly to whom Jesus is speaking. He is speaking to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” Therefore, Luke, tells us that…
Jesus is confronting self-righteousness. That’s what Luke means when he mentions those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” They believed that their show of good works surely had earned them God’s favor.
Like many people today, they believed that they were surely going to heaven someday because they were pretty good people. I’ve heard many people say something like, “Surely God would accept me because I’m a pretty good person.” And Jesus is going to confront that assumption. But notice that they also had a secondary problem. They “despised others.” Therefore…
Jesus is confronting pride. Luke is clear that Jesus isn’t only concerned with how the Pharisees saw themselves in relation to God; he is also concerned with how they saw themselves in relation to other people. They saw themselves as superior to those on the fringe of society whom they considered to be inferior sinners.
Therefore, we ought to imagine Jesus standing in front of the snottiest crowd of religious elites imaginable challenging their pride and self-righteousness. But we also ought to imagine him confronting our self-righteousness, even if it’s not as overt as the Pharisees. And so v. 9 states the purpose of the parable, and then notice in v. 10…
II. The Context of the Story (v. 10): This verse introduces us to…
The Two Men: The first man is a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the strictest, most religious people in Israel. Not only were they the masters of obeying God’s law, they had added hundreds of other laws, just to drive home their righteousness. And the people revered them as a result. You can imagine that when a Pharisee walked in the room, people stood in honor, and the conversation suddenly became more sanctified. And so the Pharisees were on the top of the totem pole of religiosity, and we are going to see that this particular Pharisee believed that he deserved to be there.
The other man in this account is the tax collector, and tax collectors were on the other extreme end of the religious spectrum. Their job was to collect taxes for the Roman government, and the other Jews hated them for selling their souls to the Roman government.
To appreciate how much they were hated, imagine if China conquered the US, and they enlisted Americans to go door-to-door collecting taxes. We would despise those guys. And it wasn’t just that. Tax collectors typically used their authority to get rich by demanding extra tax. Not only were they traitors, they were thieves.
And if you would have asked a Jew at this point in the story which of these men were acceptable to God, they would have said without question it was the Pharisee—certainly not the tax collector. And then notice that v. 10 also tells us that both went to offer…
Prayers at the Temple: Most likely these men went to the temple during the morning or afternoon daily sacrifice. And so picture these two men entering the temple courtyard along with many Jews to watch the priests offer burnt offerings and ask the Lord to atone for Israel’s sins. Verses 11–12 then tell us that during this sacrifice the Pharisee offered his own prayer.
III. The Prayer of the Pharisee (vv. 11–12) Notice first…
His Posture and Position: Verse 11 simply says, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself,” but based on how 13 describes the hesitancy of the tax collector, we can assume that the Pharisee walked into the temple complex like he belonged. He didn’t feel the least bit unworthy to be in God’s holy presence, because he assumed he was holy himself.
Therefore, he probably stood very close to the inner court where God’s presence dwelt and looked toward heaven with a sense of pride. It never crossed his mind that he did not deserve to speak to God, even though he was attending a sacrifice that God instituted to remind Israel of their sin. And this is especially evident in…
His Prayer: He does begin by expressing thanks to God, but after that he shifts entirely to bragging on himself. Can you see what the most common word in his prayer is? He uses I 5 times as he brags on his own works. And, he doesn’t make a single request of God. In particular, he never asks God for mercy, even though he is most likely praying during a sacrifice that was intended to remind Israel of their need for atonement.
Rather, he simply boasts that he is not as bad of a sinner as other people. He follows by mentioning three types of sinners. Extortion, or theft, and adultery are both condemned in the 10 Commandments.
And the Greek term behind unjust is pretty significant in the text. The positive form of the word is translated as righteous in 9. So the Jews thought they were righteous, and in v. 11 the Pharisee boasts that he is not unrighteous. But v. 14 will say that ironically, this man who was so confident in his own righteousness did not go home justified, or declared righteous (there’s our word again). Therefore, while this man proudly thanks God that he is not unrighteous, he actually has no concept of how unrighteous he is.
To help us appreciate his true unrighteousness, notice that Luke records Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler in vv. 18–30. Like our Pharisee, the rich young ruler thought that he had kept the Law and was worthy of eternal life. But Jesus used his materialism (he was unwilling to sell his wealth in obedience to Jesus and give the money to the poor) to demonstrate that he had failed to obey the two greatest commandments. He loved money more than he loved God and more than he loved his neighbor. And so despite his show of righteousness, he had failed on the two most important issues.
His story is a powerful example of the fact that even if we can put on a show of righteousness; we all fall short of having a truly righteous heart. And the Pharisee in our text also fell short. Even as he brags to God of all he had done, he indicts himself for not loving his neighbor the tax collector as himself. He ends v. 11 by thanking God that he is better than the tax collector vs. praying for the tax collector.
Maybe there is someone with us today who has always assumed that surely God accepts me because I am a good person. I’ve never done anything that bad, and I do so many good things. It might be that you have lived a relatively moral life and done a lot of good, but you are still a sinner, and if you are honest, you know that you have often failed to love God supremely and to love your neighbor as yourself. You are not righteous.
And if you are ever going to really appreciate the amazing grace of God, you must first deal honestly with how far you fall short of God’s righteousness. You need mercy no matter how well you have lived.
This is even true if you have done works that you find very impressive. Notice in 12 that the Pharisee doesn’t just brag on what he hasn’t done but on all his positive righteousness. The Law only required that the Jews fast once a year on the Day of Atonement, but this Pharisee boasted that he fasted twice a week. He also gave tithes of everything he possessed. It seems he was saying that he tithed 10% of everything he bought, just in case the grower hadn’t tithed. Again, God never required this, but the Pharisee was proud of how he had gone beyond what God required.
Conclusion: And so this man was confident that he was righteous and that he was far better than the tax collector. But he wasn’t nearly as righteous as he thought he was. His show of righteousness ultimately rang hollow. And this brings us to…
IV. The Prayer of the Tax Collector (v. 13): Notice first…
His Position and Posture: Notice that the tax collector enters the temple complex, but he chooses to “stand afar off.” This is because God’s presence was located in the center of the temple complex in the Holy of Holies. Outside of the Holy of Holies was the Holy Place and then several courts. And the closer you came to the Holy of Holies, the closer you came to God.
But unlike the Pharisee, this man was very aware of the significance of God’s holiness and his sinfulness. He knew that he was a sinner who didn’t deserve to approach God. Imagine him standing on the outer edges of the crowd, overwhelmed by the significance of where he was.
Notice also his body language as he prays. He “would not so much as raise hiseyes to heaven, but beat his breast.” I think we all know his feeling of guilt. You have done something very foolish to hurt someone, and you are so overwhelmed with guilt that you don’t want to talk to that person or look him in the eye. That’s how this man felt as he considered his guilty. He didn’t even want to look up to heaven.
He also beat his chest as a sign of extreme sorrow. Women would often beat their chests at funerals as a sign of grief, but this was not a normal action in prayer. Jesus paints a picture of a man who is deeply grieved by his sin.
And His Prayer is profound for its simplicity in comparison to the Pharisee’s prayer (read). First, the tax collector humbly refers to himself as “a sinner.” Actually it’s better translated “the sinner.” He saw himself as the worst of sinners.
As a result, he has no other option but to plead with God that he would extend mercy to him. It’s important that we notice that he uses a theologically significant verb for mercy. The verb is hilaskomai. It is used throughout the LXX (the Greek translation of the OT) to translate the idea of blood atonement. And this idea fits very well here, since the tax collector is observing a sacrifice that is intended to atone or cover Israel’s sin. Therefore, you can imagine the tax collector watching the priest slaughter and burn a lamb to atone for Israel’s sin and then crying out, “Lord, please provide atonement for me the sinner.”
And for our purposes, it is important to note that this term for mercy is used a number of times in the NT to describe the forgiveness that Jesus provided on the cross. For example, 1 John 4:10 says, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to bethe propitiation for our sins.
In other words, through his death on the cross, Jesus made the ultimate and final sacrifice for sin. He took the wrath that we deserve so that our sin could be removed, and we could receive forgiveness and mercy. Therefore, our hope is not in an animal sacrifice that was offered over and over but in Christ, who is able to offer complete salvation.
Conclusion: And so this man knew he did not measure up, and he knew there was nothing he could do to make himself acceptable to God; therefore, he did the only thing he could do. He begged God for mercy, and praise the Lord that we know mercy is available because of what Jesus did on the cross!
The tax collector provides us with a wonderful example of the kind of humility that pleases God. Notice that Luke follows this story in 15–17 by saying that God wants us to come to him like little children. Little kids know they are needy, so they come to their parents with simple faith and trust. The tax collector exemplifies this humble, childlike faith, and he just cries out to God for mercy.
And God is saying in both accounts that he doesn’t accept the person who puts on an elaborate show of righteousness but the one who comes in humble dependence like the tax collector or a child. That’s what God wants, and that’s what honors him. Jesus then wraps up the account in v. 14 with…
V. The Evaluation of God (v. 14): Notice first…
God’s Judgment: Jesus simply states that the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee. Again, the word translated justified is the same word that was translated righteous in v. 9 and unrighteous in v. 11. The Pharisees boasted of their own righteousness and despised those they viewed as unrighteous, but God justified the tax collector, not the Pharisee.
Jesus’ audience would have been shocked by his conclusion. How could the tax collector be the righteous one and not the Pharisee? The answer is that acceptance with God doesn’t ultimately come down to how righteous I am. We know that because Jesus never disputes the fact that the tax collector was a sinner. He probably had cheated a lot of people, and he had sold out to the evil Romans. He wasn’t righteous in himself. And neither is anyone else. Like I already said, even the most religious person fails to love God and love his neighbor like he should. We are all unrighteous.
Therefore, when Jesus says the tax collector went home justified or righteous, he doesn’t mean he earned a righteousness standing somehow. Rather, he means that God declared him righteous based on his mercy, which is ultimately based on the death of Christ who made atonement for sin. In contrast, the Pharisee went home unrighteous, or under the condemnation of God, because he was still a sinner, no matter what show of righteousness he had made.
But why? Why does God justify the tax collector and not the Pharisee? The answer is found in the promise that concludes v. 14
God’s Promise: (Read) Jesus is clear that the person he accepts is the person who humbles himself before the Lord. And the tax collector is a glowing example of this kind of humility. He knows he’s a sinner. He knows he deserves nothing from God but judgment. He needs mercy, and so he simply cries out to God and asks that God would cover his sins in a way he never could. And God answered.
And so I want to ask if you have ever come to realize the weight of your sin like this tax collector? Have you ever come to grips with the fact that your sin is terrible, that you deserve God’s wrath, and that there is nothing you can do to make yourself acceptable to God?
Or would you have to say that you have always approached God more like the Pharisee? You may not be quite as brash, but you’ve always felt like God ought to accept me because I’m okay. If you have never repented of your sin, then I pray that today you will see just how sinful you are, and how desperately you need mercy. And then I pray that you will cast yourself on the mercy that Jesus provided, and trust that God will do exactly what he promises here, because Jesus’ death is fully sufficient to cover your sin.
Or maybe you identify with the tax collector in the sense that you are overwhelmed with guilt, and you can’t see how you could ever be fully accepted by God. If that’s you, notice again the promise of Jesus in v. 14. Jesus will exalt, or save, all who humble themselves at the foot of the cross. Just come to Christ today, and like this tax collector cry out to Jesus for mercy, and believe that he will save because he said that he would. If you do, you can leave today justified, or declared righteous.
And for those of us you are saved, this parable does a beautiful job of taking us back to the beginning of our faith. It’s so easy for us to sort of forget that we were that tax collector, and all that we are, we are by the grace of God. You’re not here today because you are something great. You’re here because God reached out to you, forgave you and rescued you. Don’t forget who you are. You are a debtor to mercy.
And then be sure to remember this as you look at the people around you. Verse 9 says Jesus addressed this parable to those who “despised the rest.” Folks, there’s a lot of evil all around us, and we should hate every ounce of it. But we must never forget that what separates us is not our wisdom or our discipline. We are who we are by the grace of God. So let’s glory in the grace we have received, just like John Newton did, and then let’s go out among sinners, love them, and share with them that there is salvation in Christ.