There is no question that Jesus was the worlds greatest story teller. He told stories about ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems and challenges of life and in the stories taught us about the kingdom of the Lord and how to live for him. One of my favorite of the stories of Jesus is a rather short one found in Luke 18:9-14. Luke introduces the story like this: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” Knowing the background and the audience to which Jesus pointed the story helps us see the point of it even more clearly. Think about the two people who were the actors in his story. One was a Pharisee and thus from the highly respected religious class of the day. The word Pharisee means separate and shows the character of these people in that they tended to separate themselves from others whom they considered less righteous and less scriptural in their thinking. In our time we would likely refer to these people as the religious conservatives. They were sure that the Bible they had was right and that they had a true handle on how to interpret those Scriptures. The other person Jesus mentioned was a tax collector and this was a class of people who were looked down on by society in the whole Jewish world. They were regarded as traitors to their people who worked for the Romans and were usually seen as being dishonest as well and probably as thieves. You would naturally expect if a story was told of these two people then the hero would be the Pharisee and the culprit the tax collector. But Jesus stories seldom went the way people expected.
Here is the story: “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 think 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.”
What did Jesus want us to learn from this story? No doubt he intended it to be a shock to the crowd. Pharisees were the spiritual elites. They were the leaders whom people listened to, imitated and sought out their advise. But Jesus longed to get us to see that a religion that leads us to arrogance is a false religion and our faith is more in ourselves than in God who saves. Our faith should never lead to feelings of superiority where we think we are better than other people around us. Instead our faith should lead us to be more aware all the time of our own sins and failures and how amazing God’s grace really is that he would save someone with all the problems and sins that we have. Every time a person begins thinking that they are really good, righteous and exemplary in their faith and service to God it leads to treating others with contempt. So, today, because of stories like this and other encounters Jesus had with the Pharisees, these religious leaders that were so highly respected then are seen as nothing but hypocrites. One of the worst insults you can use is to call a person a Pharisee.
Notice how the man spoke even to God. He stood, praying to God, about how thankful he was that he wasn’t like other men. He wasn’t an extortioners. Likely he was thinking, “Like this tax collector.” I’m not unjust, or an adulterer. Then he really became clear in his thoughts, “I’m not like this tax collector.” You can visualize the poor tax collector standing off by himself, hearing this religious teacher praying and feeling all the more down on yourself as a sinner. It is always a dangerous thing when we use our prayers as a forum to tell God and the world how great we are. Too often we stop making our pleas to The God of the Universe and began making speeches to him or more likely to the the people who can hear us. In such prayers we use the mode of prayer to preach to the crowd rather than appeal to God.
Why would anyone begin to think of themselves as being better than others and even one that God should respect for how good we really are? Look at his reasoning. “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” So his fasting and giving were the positive points he had to offer to show that he was superior to others in faith. What is the purpose of fasting anyway? Fasting was taught by God through the years as a way to give complete focus on God and his will for our lives. Jesus warned us when we fast to not look like we are fasting and not to go around announcing our fasting to others. Look and act as though nothing is happening so that your doing without is between you and God, not some bragging point for you. When fasting becomes a means of comparison to others of faith it is being abused and doing far more harm than good.
God also always taught people to give to the Lord. The tithe typically had to do with giving ten percent of our income to the Lord. He declared that he paid tithes of all that he had. On another occasion when Jesus was talking to Pharisees and other religious leaders among the Jews he said, “Woe unto you scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites for you pay tithes of mint, and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without leaving the other undone. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel “(Matthew 23:23-24). Both giving and fasting should draw us closer to God, should show appreciation to God for his blessings and acknowledge that all things come from him. But when they become matters to brag about they are completely off the chart of what God asked of us. So the Pharisee informed God and the world how great he was and that wasn’t very great at all.
The tax collector reacted to God in the very opposite way. He felt deeply his guilt. He couldn’t even raise his eyes to God but beat his chest praying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” He didn’t claim any merit. He didn’t see God as owing him anything. He was instead overwhelmed at the thought that God could love and show grace to him in spite of the sin and failure in his life. The world would likely have looked on the Pharisee and thought how great he was and went away admiring him while looking at the tax collector with contempt, wondering how he could even bear to come into the house of God and offer up prayers or giving to him.
Jesus gave his clear assessment. “This man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone that exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” We might think that it is hard to impress God. We can’t give him anything he needs. We can’t tell him anything he doesn’t know. We can’t show him anything he hasn’t seen many times before. So to exalt ourselves in his presence is one of the most foolish and ridiculous acts we can ever imagine doing. What does touch and move the heart of God? When we humbly cry out to him for mercy and declare our unworthiness, he hears and answers us. As a matter of faith, when we humble ourselves God exalts us but when we exalt ourselves he will humble us.
Maybe we should take a long, hard look at who we admire and who we look down on with contempt in life. We may find that we are honoring ones God holds in contempt and showing contempt toward those whom God exalts and honors in this world and the one to come.