I think that this story serves well as another reminder of the ongoing personal battle between pride and humility. This battle takes place in our minds and hearts every day. Christ will always oppose a man-oriented religion of works. So let us read J. C. Ryle’s explanation of the following verses:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “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 thank 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.” (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)
[L]et us attend to the difference in the PRAYERS of these two characters. Hear the PHARISEE: “God, I thank you that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers—or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all I possess.” Mark these words: there is no expression of any need here; he seems perfectly self-satisfied; he recites complacently what he is not, and he proudly brings forward what he is. Remember, beloved, there is ground for much thankfulness if God enables us to resist gross sins—but then there is no excuse for boasting. None of us have anything which we did not receive, and we cannot do better than follow the example of Paul, who said, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”
But the Pharisee had none of this spirit. He was wrong on every point. He was wrong in supposing, as he evidently did, that his own power and strength had kept him from these vices; he was wrong in believing that he could lay any claim to the title of a perfect observer of the law on these points. It is one thing to keep God’s commandments in the letter, and another to keep them in the spirit. The one may think they do, like this Pharisee—but the other no man ever did but our Lord Jesus Christ. “In many things we offend all,” says James. “Who can tell how often he offends? O cleanse me from my secret faults,” is the language of the psalmist.
Lastly, he was wrong in supposing that his external fulfilment of the law would give him a title to justification in the sight of God. Salvation is all of grace, not of works, lest any man should boast. “By the deeds of the law shall no flesh living be justified.”
But the Pharisee, besides this, was especially wrong in going out of his way to make unnecessary and uncharitable remarks upon the tax collector. He talks like one who had no account to settle about his own soul; he assumes as a matter of course that the tax collector was more vile in God’s sight than himself. And he proves himself a child of the devil by usurping Satan’s office—he becomes an accuser of his brethren. “I am not as other men are—or even as this tax collector.”
Beloved, I must call your particular attention to this language, for I declare unto you with grief that I have heard people say things, which in effect are very much the same about themselves, who yet profess and call themselves Christians. Many say, if they are urged about their own sinfulness in God’s sight, “Well, at any rate I am no worse than my neighbors: I am thankful I do not drink, like such a one next door. I am no fornicator, like such a one down the way. I do not miss church altogether, like such a one who lives down the road.” Listen to me, I beseech you: is not this the very mind of the Pharisee? You are not to be judged by the standard of those around you; it will be no excuse before God to talk about your neighbors—sin is sin whether you live in it in company or alone. Be sure that it will not diminish your misery in hell, to find that all your neighbors are there as well as yourself. Oh, beloved, beware of this delusion; not a few allow such thoughts to dwell within them, who never express them with their lips, and even in the presence of God they flatter themselves they are acceptable to Him, because they are free from open and gross vices, and perform certain known duties. All such are Pharisees; they use the Pharisee’s prayer, and they will meet with the Pharisee’s reception at the hand of God.
Hearken now to the TAX COLLECTOR. “He smote upon his bosom, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” He does not say “Be merciful to all sinners,” thus leaving it doubtful whether he means himself or not—but “Be merciful to me,” a sinner in whom there is no health, in whom there is no good thing—a sinner in thought, word and deed; and he gives the ground of his hope too, not like some among you, who hope to be forgiven without exactly knowing how or why. The words translated “be merciful,” go further. They mean, “offer an atonement for me, be reconciled unto me, through the sacrifice You have appointed.” Do you think he would have been offended, as some are now, if he had been called a child of the devil, utterly corrupt, full of iniquity and worthy of nothing but wrath? Far from it: he knew he was a sinner, he felt his lost condition, he made no excuses, he offered no justification, he did not talk about his temptations, he did not make great professions of amendment, as if that could make up for the past; he presented himself at the throne of grace, as he was, weary and heavy laden, casting himself on the mercy of God with all his iniquities, and pleading the blood of the atonement. “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Blessed indeed are all among you who have done likewise! (“Self-Righteousness”)
Filed under: Bible, Christianity, Faith, God, Grace, Holiness, Holy Spirit, Humility, Jesus Christ, Prayer, sin | Tagged: Christ, J. C. Ryle, Pharisee, Tax collector | 5 Comments »