Luke 18 is where we find Christ’s “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” It provides a number of lessons, namely on prayer, humility and grace. Luke’s one-sentence introduction to the parable gives us a clear picture of what it is like when our understanding is devoid of the concept of grace.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:
What are such people thinking? And what corrective would Christ offer to their error? We are now ready to understand the parable.
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.”
The Pharisee in the story does in fact think himself to be righteous. He seems to be trusting in himself and, in his heart, treating the tax collector with contempt. The man is convinced that God must be looking upon him favorably, since he is extra holy in all that he does. No doubt the Pharisee really was more righteous than the tax collector in all of his outwardly visible behavior.
The tax collector comes to the temple with a sense of need. We might add that there is no other way to come before God. Neither gratitude nor worship make much sense if we are not needy at some deeply known level. Prayers of petition express our need most directly. A request for mercy from God is perhaps the ultimate petition, since our very lives and standing before God are hanging in the balance. At the white throne of judgment we won’t be thinking of Aunt Betsy’s headaches.
Yet the tax collector is at least confident enough to go to the temple. He is not so ashamed as to run and hide and refuse to pray. He has a basic understanding of grace and his need for it. This is the perfect place to begin.
Performance-based religion places numerous obstacles on the path to a reconciled and satisfied soul. On our bad days, we can find ourselves striving in futility in an attempt to get right with God. On our good days, we can feel confident, but deep down we are trusting in ourselves. Neither end of that spectrum leads quickly to grace.
Grace reminds us that our best behavior is still somehow tainted by sin, even if only by a sliver of a wrong motive lurking in our heart. Grace also give us confidence, when we know we have not measured up, to go into God’s presence and seek his mercy. Like the tax collector who went down to his house justified.
Your worst days are never so bad that you’re beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you’re beyond the need of God’s grace.*
– Jerry Bridges, author, Navigators staff member (1929 – 2016).
* from Bridges, 2008. Holiness Day by Day, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 19. Originally in The Discipline of Grace