Building on last Monday’s posting, where we looked at the way in which the worship of the Gentiles was being disrupted because the Jews looked upon them as inferior and unimportant beings, we now look at the concept of righteousness, how it is misunderstood, and how that misunderstanding can cause us to look upon others with disdain.
And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
– Luke 18:9-14, NASB
Pride and Humility
This parable is almost always read, and presented, as one teaching us about pride and humility in prayer. This view makes sense, given the parable’s audience as it is identified in verse nine, “…those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” The Pharisaic character in the story is repulsive and arrogant, and we know God’s viewpoint on that.
- In James 4:6, God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
- In 1st Peter 5:5, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
And just so we are clear that this is not merely a New Testament idea:
- In Proverbs 3:34, we learn that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.
- In Psalm 5:5, the arrogant cannot stand in God’s presence.
Between David, James, Peter, and Jesus, we have a strong representation of God’s disdain for arrogance, and his graciousness toward humility.
There is a way for a person to present themselves as though righteousness is a sort of personal attribute. It is not that I do righteousness, or that I have some level of righteousness. It is more that I am the essence of righteousness within myself.
For the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, his righteousness quotient is a given, and from that arrogant, albeit misguided self-view, it is natural for him to view others with a condescending snarl. When we view ourselves as living in a tiered system of righteousness, it is only natural to view those on upper tiers with envy, and possibly resentment, and to view those on lower tiers as somewhat lesser beings than ourselves – unworthy.
This offensive attitude is not theoretical with Jesus. While the Pharisee in Jesus’ story is fictional, the men to whom Jesus is telling the story are very real. They were real in Jesus’ day, and they are equally real today.
It is not considered virtuous to trust in my own righteousness, as though I even have any personal righteousness in which to trust. Neither is it a virtuous thing to look upon others with contempt or disdain. Disciples of Jesus know that without Christ, we are nothing. We do not relate to any man or woman as though we are superior because of our plane of personal righteousness. This is true when relating to those within the body of Christ, and to those outside the body of Christ. The only difference between me and the man or woman outside of Christ is that I have trusted in the freely-given blood of Jesus that washes me clean. I did not buy that, I did not earn it, and I do not deserve it. It was gifted to me.
Setting the Context
Jesus began his parable by telling us that two men went up to the temple to pray. It used to be that I envisioned these two men going to the temple for some private devotional time, but further study has persuaded me that this is likely not the case. In the Middle East, when a Christian assembly occurs, one believer does not say to the other, “I went to church.” What they say instead is, “I have been to pray.”
When Jesus says the two men went to the temple to pray, he does not qualify that in any way. Just as Peter and John went to the temple to pray at the ninth hour in Acts 3:1, I suspect the minds of the audience moved to the ninth-hour prayer and sacrifice for the sins of Israel. Since Jesus did not specify the event, we cannot know this with certainty, but we do know that there is something about the ninth hour that is significant to God.
- It was at the ninth hour that Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”1 Jesus made this desolate cry at the very hour of this sacrifice, when prayers were being made for the people of Israel.
- It was the ninth hour, the hour of sacrifice, when Elijah prayed on Mount Carmel against the prophets of Baal, and God answered with fire from Heaven.2
- Hearing of the horrifying unfaithfulness of the people of God, Ezra tore his robes and pulled hair from his head and face. He sat in that condition, appalled, until the ninth hour when he fell face down in fervent prayer before God.3
- Daniel was deep in prayer and confession at the ninth hour when the angel Gabriel came to him, bringing the vision of the seventy sevens.4
- It was at the ninth hour that Peter and John were headed to the Temple to pray. While on that journey, they healed the lame man begging in the Temple courts, thus performing the first apostolic miraculous healing recorded in scripture.5
- It was the ninth hour that the Gentile Centurion, Cornelius, had his visit from an angel of God who told him to call for Simon from Joppa.6 Simon came and preached the good news to Cornelius. He and his entire household came to know the Messiah.
The text does not tell us so, but I have come to believe that it was Jesus’ intent, as he tells his story, that his audience would hear the story with the ninth-hour sacrifice in mind. Furthermore, we do not know what exactly happens in the temple during this ninth-hour ceremony, and it is something that is the subject of much debate. Even so, what follows will provide us a flavor at least, for the type of activity that was likely going on in the temple when these two men went there to pray.
The Ninth Hour Prayer and Sacrifice
Anyone who wishes to attend the prayer and sacrifice may do so, respecting the courtyard boundaries established within the temple. The altar of sacrifice is there, and as the priest prepares to make the sacrifice, the people draw near to the altar. There is something about proximity to the sacrifice that causes us to want to get as close as possible. We have this unsustainable idea in our heads that God is more intensely present the closer we get to the altar, as though God is more available at the front of the worship center than he is from the back pew.
When everything is ready, the priest sacrifices the lamb. At some point, he will turn and go to offer incense in the Holy Place, a place only he can go. Upon returning, he may pronounce a blessing over the crowd as the people prostrate themselves. He will declare that God has accepted the sacrifice and perhaps recite a psalm. The people will prostrate themselves again as the trumpets blow, and then they will go home.
Everything in that paragraph is speculation, but it is highly likely that this is the sort of activity that was taking place as these two men went to the Temple. Close your eyes and imagine that scene. Listen for the noises, smell the odors, feel the crowd as they bump into you while attempting to establish their position within the throng. With that scene in your mind, let us look more closely at the story Jesus related, and glean what we can from the two men and their participation, or lack of participation in the events taking place.
The Pharisee stood and prayed – but, more than that. The literal reading of the Greek text runs like this: “The Pharisee stood thus to himself praying.” There is something important in this brief statement that does not easily come through in our English translations, but it makes sense when we understand that this is not just a come and go time in the temple, but rather an established, public ceremony of worship.
What we see is that the Pharisee stood to himself. He positioned himself away from the commoners. The unrighteous rabble is pressing toward the altar to get as close to the altar as they possibly can. It is like the mosh pit at a rock concert where every attendee is maneuvering toward the stage in the hope that they might catch a guitar pick, or some other memento thrown out to the crowd by the star of the show.
This Pharisee has no intention of getting in the middle of all of that. These are commoners. They are the impure horde. They may even be ceremonially unclean. That is certainly how they see themselves. They know they are unclean because the righteous people, like this Pharisee, are always telling them that they are unclean, and it is probably this chronic uncleanness that compels the crowd to want to be so close to the altar.
If the Pharisee gets in the middle of the throng, he will defile himself, and so he stands to himself, fully confident in his own righteousness. He is on a tier well above these sinful middle and lower classes of people. Being as righteous as he is, the Pharisee does not sense the need to stand so close to the altar. He can participate from a distance and be just fine. So, he stood “to himself,” praying.
Prayer is typically viewed as adoration of God, magnification of His majesty – His splendor. It is in prayer that we confess our sinfulness to God and ask for his grace, mercy, and forgiveness. We thank God for his blessings, and we petition him for our needs. It is a real challenge to see any of that in this man’s prayer.
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.”
– Luke 18:11-12, ESV
Here is a man who is so enamored with himself that he is essentially saying to God, “Thank you for me.” He thanks God that he is righteous, that he is not like other men, not specifying what he means by “other men,” so it seems he is comparing himself against the whole of humanity. He even offers God a list – swindlers, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, and then, to really drive the point home, offers God a concrete example, “…or even like this tax collector over here.”
Lightfoot humorously observes, “But these are only his moral excellencies. His religious merits complete his grounds for congratulation.”7 This Pharisee is like the Ginsu knife8 salesman saying, “But wait, there’s more,” and in the continued prayer of this man, we are shown the climax of his arrogance before God. Just how is it that he is so righteous? He fasts twice a week and he tithes all that he possesses.
The Law does not require this man to fast twice a week9 but, in his personal righteousness, he does so by aligning himself with the most devout, those who fast on the second and fifth days of the week.10 Furthermore, he tithes all he possesses, which again is beyond what the Law requires, but this man, through his clever insights and savvy dealings, is able to tithe well beyond what is prescribed.
As though God is unaware of his extensive giving, the Pharisee offers this gentle reminder, believing that God grades on the curve. He most certainly believes himself to be in the top ten percent. It is possible, if this man’s prayer were to continue, that he may have been establishing the platform upon which to make a claim of God’s debt to him – the basis upon which to lay out his forthcoming demands or requests.
The Christ-follower understands several realities that have escaped this arrogant Pharisee. When we compare ourselves against other believers, we can always find some poor sap who looks worse than we do. This is not righteousness. It is hubris. What this Pharisee has failed to remember is that according to Isaiah and Zechariah, God looks at humanity and sees that all man’s righteousness is as filthy rags.
I do not mean to be indelicate, but the word used by Isaiah for filthy rags11 is the term for menstrual cloths,12 and the term used by Zechariah13 refers to clothing that has been smeared with excrement.14 As revolting as those word pictures are, these are the terms chosen by God, through his prophets, to describe the way we appear to him when we try to rely on our own achievements as the basis for claims of righteousness. It is repulsive to God and it should be embarrassing to us.
The apostle Paul used similar terminology when he listed all of his accomplishments as a Pharisee, prior to becoming an apostle. Having listed his impressive accomplishments as a Pharisee, Paul said the accomplishments were nothing but dung.15 My accomplishments are dung. Your accomplishments are dung.
Comparing ourselves to other men and women is beyond silly. It is dung. It is disgusting, repulsive, and it smells. Who in their right mind appeals to dung in an effort to declare their pristine appearance? But that is what we do when we begin to take account of our personal righteousness, a righteousness apart from the cleansing work of Jesus.
Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae says, as we received Christ, so walk in him.16 We received Christ as sinners, undeserving, unworthy, unable within ourselves to accomplish anything righteous. We received him in his righteousness, and thus we should walk in his righteousness alone.
Let us look one last time at the Pharisee’s prayer to glean a bit more about his attitude.
God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.
This Pharisee has an I problem. One of the dangers of viewing life through this lens is that it makes it terribly difficult for me to repent because I cannot fathom the idea that I have anything of which to repent. During the 2015 Iowa Family Leadership Summit, presidential candidate Donald Trump revealed a similar arrogance regarding his own personal level of righteousness. In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, then-candidate Trump said the following:
“I am a religious person. People are so shocked when they find this out – I’m Protestant. I’m Presbyterian. I go to church. I love God and I love my church.”
And later in that same interview, when asked about seeking forgiveness:
“If I make a mistake, yeah, I think it’s great. But I try not to make mistakes. Why do I have to repent, why do I have to ask for forgiveness, if you are [sic] not making mistakes? I work hard. I’m an honorable person. I have thousands of people who work for me. I have employed tens of thousands of people over the years.”17
Remember to whom Jesus’ parable is spoken … to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. Our Pharisee said to God, “I thank you that I am not like other men.” Yes, he is. He is exactly like other men. He is lost in sin and in need of a Savior.
The Tax Gatherer
But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
– Luke 18:13, NASB
Again, we see a man standing off from the crowd, but it seems this man stands apart for a very different reason. Where the Pharisee did not see himself as needing to approach the altar, this man does not see himself as worthy of approaching the altar. To him, the altar is holy, and he is anything but holy.
There are times when we become so intensely aware of our own sin that we feel too dirty to come to church, a little unworthy to be around the holy folks. Our Christian assemblies must always be the most welcoming places for those who see the extent of their own sinfulness, and who cry out for cleansing from that. Our gatherings are not stages for strutting before others, displaying our holiness like righteous peacocks. They are hospitals for spiritually sick and dying men and women.
Blessed are those who see the extent of their own sinfulness and their complete inability within themselves to do anything about it. Not one of us comes to Jesus with clean hands. We judge no man and no woman because our only claim to righteousness comes from Jesus. This tax-gatherer is spiritually destitute, and the beauty of his situation is that he knows this to be true.
Where it is typical for the Jew to raise not only his eyes but also his arms toward heaven when praying, this man would not lift even his eyes. Instead, as the King James Version says so poetically, “He smote his breast.” And as the man strikes himself on the breast, he cries out ἱλάσθητί (hilastheiti).
Almost every English translation renders this cry as “be merciful.” The Aramaic Bible in Plain English says, “have pity.” While the Jubilee Bible says, “reconcile me,” the Weymouth New Testament flips that saying “be reconciled to me.” A really interesting one is Young’s Literal Translation that renders it, “be propitious to me.”
Thayer says hilastheiti is a term used to describe “a priest offering an expiatory sacrifice.”18 If it is true that Jesus is describing the ninth-hour prayer and sacrifice for the sins of Israel, then the cry of hilastheiti fits what the man is seeing played out before him. While propitiation and mercy are legitimate translations of the term, there is a third option – I believe a better option – that for some reason no translator has chosen. “Make an atonement!” What a beautiful cry for the man to make. “Oh, God, make an atonement for me, the sinner!” I believe this translation captures the heart of what this man in Jesus’ story is saying.
Just a little later in this same chapter,19 a blind man will cry out to Jesus, asking for mercy, but he does not use the term hilastheiti. He says, instead, ἐλέησόν (eleison). While at the university, in choir we sang a song with the refrain “Kyrie eleison, Christei eleison” – Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. The blind man cries out for mercy and for relief from his affliction, but not the tax-gatherer in Jesus’ story. He wants something different.
I am convinced the tax-gatherer in Jesus’ story is asking for atonement. Atonement goes far beyond mercy. Atonement is the satisfaction, the reparation for a wrong committed. Atonement makes amends. This man is crying out for that specific cleansing that satisfies the justice of God. If we see the man’s cry in context – the altar, the sacrifice, the atoning for all Israel – his plea, “Make an atonement for me,” makes perfect sense.
Moving From “We” to “Me”
Fans of professional sports often say the silliest and most revealing things. When our team has a particularly fine win, fans will say, “We won.” Following a Seattle Sounders’ match, my friends and I might say “We won the MLS Cup,” when the reality is that we had nothing to do with that MLS Cup win. Now, if the team does not do well, the phrasing is a bit different. We say, “They lost another one.” But as fans, we identify so closely with our teams that we see their accomplishments, their victories, as our own, as though we are a part of the team. “We had a great season this year!”
It is possible to do this with our faith as well. Ninety-six times in the English Standard Version, I find the phrase “save us.” Repeatedly, the nation of Israel cried out to God, “Save us O’ Lord.” They would fall deeply into sin as a nation. Things would go badly for them. Through a prophet or a king, God would call them back and save them, as a nation. They were God’s chosen, his people. He loved them. Similarly, those in Christ today are God’s people, his chosen, a royal priesthood, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ. We, plural, all of us.
This man in Jesus’ parable has grasped something that is far too easy to miss when we have this myopic view of our faith that does not extend beyond the group experience. His cry for atonement is very personal. “Make an atonement for me – alone.”
I recall a conversation I had years ago with a single woman who had an interest in a particular man. As she began describing her desire to be with this man her narrative became rather sexualized and quite inappropriate. She caught herself, realizing how inappropriate it was, and in response to that she said, “I probably sound to you like I don’t even go to church don’t I?”
Go to church?
This woman’s faith-identity was completely wrapped up in the idea of a group experience, rather than a one-to-one relationship with the creator of the universe!
“Tell me about your faith”
“Oh, yeah, I go to church!”
The tax-gatherer above smites his breast and cries out to God to make an atonement, not for us – that is what the priest is doing – but for me, personally, singularly. The man sees the group experience. He sees the crowd pressing against the altar. He sees everything the priest is doing, atoning for the crowd, the nation of Israel. He sees the sacrifice, but he also sees the depth of his own impurity; and he cannot fathom how that sacrifice on the altar could possibly extend all the way down into his core, his uncleanness.
The man hears the pronouncement that God has accepted the sacrifice, and he believes that. At least he believes it for the nation. But standing far off, and realizing the extent of his uncleanness, he does not see how that pronouncement could apply to him as an individual. So, he smites his breast and pleads with God, “Make it personal. Make it for me, an atonement specifically for me, the sinner.” Unlike the Pharisee, here is a man who realizes that he is completely dependent upon what someone else can do for him. He has no righteousness within himself.
It is true that, in many ways, Christianity is a group phenomenon. However, sin, and salvation from it, are issues of acute singularity. As much as I love being a part of my local family of believers, and as much as I feed on the energy of each gathering . . . when it comes to my salvation, the only characters involved are God and me.
We can say with certainty, “Jesus died for us.” What the disciple of Jesus says with conviction is, “Jesus died for me.” It is at that point we understand E.W. Kenyon’s proclamation, “My righteousness is just as good as Jesus’ righteousness, because it is Jesus’ righteousness.”20
Jesus tells how two went up; he tells how two went down. One was justified.
1. Matthew 27:46b (ESV)
2. 1st Kings 18:20-40
3. Ezra 9:1-5.
4. Daniel 9:20-27
5. Acts 3:1-10
6. Acts 10:1-8
7. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 118). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
8. Originally branded Quikut, the Ginsu knife was a product hard-sold through infomercials from 1978 – 1984. The infomercial sales approach was still considered novel at the time, and the Ginsu commercials were frequently lampooned on other programs.
9. Leviticus 16:29
10. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 118). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
11. Isaiah 64:6
12. Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
13. Zechariah 3:4
14. Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
15. Philippians 3:8
16. Colossians 2:6
17. Clark, H. (July 14, 2015). Presidential Candidate Donald Trump: ‘Why Do I Need to Repent…If I Am Not Making Mistakes? Retrieved 9/10/2016 from http://christiannews.net/2015/07/24/presidential-candidate-donald-trump-why-do-i-need-to-repent-if-i-am-not-making-mistakes/.
18. Thayer, D. D., (1979). The New Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon. (p. 301). Lafayette, IN: The Book Factory.
19. Luke 18:38
20. Kenyon, E. W., (1989). In His Presence. (p. 108). Lynnwood, WA: Kenyon’s Gospel Publishing Society.