Many years ago, I was on a plane headed to Montana. My mother was deathly ill in the Billings hospital, and I was headed home to be with her, my dad, and my sister. I had brought a book along to keep my mind off the situation at hand and make the time go by fast. I planned to quietly keep to myself on the flight, but I guess God had some other plans for me.
Seated next to me was a talkative woman in her mid-50s. She introduced herself to me as Diane, and before long we were having a conversation. She told me about her background. She had lived a fairly difficult life with some broken relationships and disappointments along the way. When she learned I was a pastor, she told me that, although she was very spiritual, she was not in a church and felt no particular need to be part of one. “I figure I’m doing good enough.”
Of course, that statement opened the door for me to turn the conversation a bit. So I said to her, “That’s interesting. Can I ask you a question – if this plane went down tonight, do you think you would go to heaven?”
“Sure,” she replied with confidence. When I asked her on what basis she was so sure about her answer, she responded, “Because I’ve lived a good life.”
If you were sitting in my seat at that time, what would you have said to Diane? Nothing? Maybe nod your head in agreement, or change the subject? Well, Jesus told a parable for Diane and for us as well.
Remember, Jesus’ parables are earthly stories containing a heavenly truth. Luke 18 contains a wonderful, life-saving truth. Let’s examine what is called, The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
In this story, two people had come church to pray following the atonement sacrifices made in the temple. The first one had lived a very good life. He worked hard to keep every letter of God’s laws and statutes. He was a Pharisee, part of an elite group known for their deep religiosity.
The second man had lived a very bad life. He was a local tax collector (also known as publicans) who were known to be swindlers and cheats. People regarded him as a traitor against his own people, for he worked for the hated Roman government, which had taken over the country. This man came to pray in the temple knowing he didn’t have a leg to stand on before a holy God.
Two prayers were being offered in this parable, and they were very different from each other. The first man stood in the front of the congregation and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He’s saying, Lord, look how good I am! I’m so much better than anyone else. I’m sure you and I are good with one another. It was almost an attitude of, God, you’re lucky to have me on your team. He was self-righteous, presumptuous, and arrogant in his prayer, very full of himself.
His attitude reminds of a statement written by a pastor and author John MacArthur. “Some people get so caught up in their own holiness that they look at the Trinity for a possible vacancy.”
Meanwhile, the publican (tax collector) stood far off in the back. He knew he was not worthy to come close to the altar or the other worshipers. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven, but beat on his chest, which was a sign of contrition and anguish in the Middle East culture. “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he cried. His prayer was reminiscent of Psalm 51, written by David. He knew his uncleanliness, his sinfulness before this holy God to whom he prayed. So he came in deep contrition and faith in the mercy of God. So we have it: two men with two prayers.
Jesus ended the story by saying there were two answers to these men’s prayers. One man – the tax collector – went home justified. He made right with God, forgiven and accepted. But the Pharisee did not. Jesus concluded, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The truth Jesus is making to those who trust in themselves is this: not one of us is righteous on our own to approach our holy God at the throne of grace. It is dangerous to trust in yourself for a right relationship with God. Come humbly before your God, begging for mercy and grace.
This parable is basically about a statement Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:). Being poor in spirit means recognizing you are deeply in debt before God and cannot even begin to redeem yourself. Only God’s free generosity at infinite cost to Him can save you.
The tax collector is a picture of the poor in spirit. He sees himself for who he is – a debtor before God, unable to buy himself out of trouble, having to rest on the mercy of God. He receives God’s mercy and is justified by Jesus. He is made right with God.
Martin Luther once said, “It’s the beggars before God who are the blessed. The ones who humbly approach the throne of grace confessing that they are justified before God, who count on his mercy and grace.”
So when it comes to being right with God and receiving forgiveness and eternal life in His kingdom, this parable invites us to throw away our spiritual resumes, which we think are so impressive, because He is not impressed. All our good works are nothing more than filthy rags in His sight.
Some people have a hard time swallowing that. Perhaps it’s human pride. Perhaps it’s a lack of faith. Perhaps it’s just the way you grew up. Our culture teaches that you get what you deserve. Tim Keller, in his book, “Generous Justice” talks about people who resist Christ’s teachings concerning our spiritual poverty before God.
“On the contrary, you believe that God owes you some things—he ought to answer your prayers and to bless you for the many good things you’ve done. Even though the Bible doesn’t use the term, by inference we can say that you are “middle-class in spirit.” You feel that you’ve earned a certain standing with God through your hard work.”
They are like the Pharisees.
But Jesus shows us in this parable that it is the one who comes empty-handed, realizing the righteousness, the holiness, the purity, the mercy, grace, justice of God, the one who recognized his total unworthiness, uncleanliness, helplessness before Him, and trusts in His grace, He is the who will come away justified and made righteous. When the tax collector prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,” he showed an awareness that his very soul was in danger for eternity. He was like the prophet Isaiah who had a heavenly vision of God and cried out in the temple,
“Woe is me. I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I . . . have beheld God in his temple” (Isaiah 6:5).
The tax collector walked away justified by God, but not the poor, deluded Pharisee. He was unaware of the danger he was in before his holy God as he trusted in himself and not God.
The truth is, like the tax collector and the Pharisee, we cannot stand before our holy God on our own merit. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s standards. Not one of us is righteous before Him now, no matter how good or religious we’ve been. God is holy and just and detests our sin, which keeps us separated from Him for eternity. It is beyond our human capabilities to be right with God.
However, God is merciful and forgiving to those who come to Him as sinners in need of mercy. First John 1:8-9 says,
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
God justifies and forgives the sinner at His own expense. How so? At the cross. The Son of God, Jesus, the righteous One, who never sinned, the obedient Son, paid for the sins and debts of the unrighteous so we might be made righteous and clean in God’s sight. As we think of the horrific crucifixion of our Savior, who suffered the punishment and wrath of God toward sin, we see the serious nature of our sin and the amazing grace of God. He is the one who justifies us as we trust and receive Jesus Christ into our lives.
Perhaps you are asking yourself today, If God is so merciful and gracious, then why bother to be good before Him? Why not just live like the dickens and ask for mercy at the end? Fair question I suppose, and it’s been asked before.
If you turn to the sixth chapter of Roman, you will find the same question being asked. Theologian Donald Bloesch offers us a helpful answer.
“The Christian alternative to Pharisaism is not Publicanism but costly discipleship. The laxity of the Publican is just as repugnant to God as the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. In the parable it is not the Publican as such but the repentant Publican who is praised.”
Back to my conversation with Diane who is trusting in herself for entrance into God’s heaven. I asked, “So Diane, what do you think is ‘good enough’?”
She replied, “I don’t know. I guess I’m not sure.”
I responded, “So then, you’re not really sure that God will receive you into His heaven, right?”
“Well, I’ve tried to be the best person I can be. I figure that’s good enough for God.”
“You know, Jesus once said, ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ Would you say you’re perfect?”
“Of course not.”
“Neither am I. But here is some good news for imperfect people like us: Heaven is a gift!”
“You must have to do something for it,” she answered.
I explained, “You would think so, but heaven cannot possibly be earned. We will never be good enough on our own and have a right relationship with God.” Then I told her about what Jesus did for her on the cross and His resurrection. As we place our trust in Him and what He has done for us, as we lay down our trophies, we are forgiven. The gift of heaven is ours.
“You know, I’m going home to be with my mom. I am not sure at this point if she is dead or alive. But I’ll tell you one thing I do know, if she is dead, she is in heaven – not because she deserves it – not one of us does – but because she trusts in Jesus. That is my comfort and my consolation right now as I fly home. Diane, trust in Jesus and not yourself.”
She looked a little skeptical as she considered my words and responded, “I don’t know, but you have given me something to think about.” The conversation ended shortly thereafter. When the plane landed in Billings, we went on our own ways. I prayed for Diane as she walked away. She was in danger but unaware of it, for she trusted in herself instead of God’s grace.
The world is full of Dianes. Some are even churchgoers, I’ve learned from personal experience as a pastor. They trust in themselves to make things right with God thinking and hoping they are good enough. They set their own standards for what’s good enough, or they compare their goodness with others’ goodness and figure it is enough. But they are in eternal danger.
I end this message was two appeals.
1. If you are counting on yourself, drop the spiritual resume you’ve been depending on to impress God – it’s worthless. Instead, humbly come before the throne of grace and confess your need for God’s mercy. Place your trust in Jesus Christ, the righteous one, who suffered and died so you might have righteousness and a right relationship with God for eternity. The gift of righteousness is received through trusting in Christ alone.
2. If you have received God’s grace, His gift of righteousness, then I leave you with this little story.
A former Princeton president, who had received Christ into his life, once remarked that he was now living the rest of his life as a “P.S. Thank you, God.”
I can’t think of a better way to live the rest of your life. May your life days be a “P.S. Thank you, God, for saving me.” Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer