The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' 13 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!' 14 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."
As an aside, one of Dr. Abney's comments was that as Jesus got closer and closer to the day of his crucifixion, his parables and lessons became more intense, more controversial (to the Pharisees), or as I wrote down, more "in your face." He knows the time is short, and He is trying to get his message across any way he can.
And what is the message in today's parable?
Just because you are religious, it does not mean you are righteous.
In most parables, the targeted audience is mentioned at the end, or the primary object lesson is saved until the last. Not so in this parable. The message is so controversial, such a reversal of the perceived right of it all, that Luke prefaces the parable with the warning that it was targeted at those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt." (vs. 9).
The first point Dr. Abney made is that they prayer of the Pharisee is not the problem. It is theocentric. He starts out by thanking God, and then praising God for the blessings (or lack of bad things) in his life. The problem is best seen by comparing it to the prayer of the tax collector.
The tax collector is in a state of utter humility. He cannot even lift his eyes to the heavens. Instead, he beats his breast and asks God for to be merciful to him, a sinner (vs 13). Dr. Abney pointed out two key linguistic elements of this verse. First, the "a sinner" is a definite article, probably better translated as "the sinner". It is an absolute acknowledgement of the tax collector's condition, and his separation from God. Second, the word "mercy" used in this verse is used only one other time in the New Testament, in Hebrews (I cannot remember the precise word used). It is referring to a mercy of atonement, of a blood covering that removes all sin. This same word is used in the Old Testament to refer to the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant. This is where the priests would sprinkle the blood sacrifice once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The tax collector does not compare himself to anyone else other than God. He acknowledges his condition, that he is a sinner separated from God. He recognizes that his righteousness comes solely through the atoning mercy of God. The Pharisee, on the other hand, finds his righteousness in his religion. He fasts twice a week, and tithes on everything he receives (vs. 12). The study notes in my bible indicate that this level of fasting is above and beyond anything ever required in Scripture. This Pharisee is not just doing the minimum required by his religion, he is going above and beyond.
Besides missing the mark on God's plan, there is another problem exposed by the Pharisee's prayer, and mentioned in Luke's introduction to the parable. This focus on process or works leads to an attitude of contempt. In his prayer, the Pharisee went so far as to single out another person there in the temple to say "God I thank you that I am not like [...] this tax collector" (vs 11). Because his focus is on his works, and his ability to comply with the law, it hardens his heart against those who cannot do the same as he.
In what areas of our lives are we guilty of that same contempt? In our work, are we "thankful" that we're not a temp employee, or a contractor, or on a foreign visa? Are we "thankful" we can afford to eat out every day, or wear the newest fashions, or drive the latest car? In our communities, are we "thankful" that we don't go to that school, or shop at that store, or live in that neighborhood?
If your relationship to God is characterized by what you do or don't do, that is not the Gospel. An honest relationship to God is characterized by our recognition and acknowledgement that we are sinners and separated from Him, and that our only righteousness comes through His atoning mercy.