The Man Justified Before God

9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10″Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’13″But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14″I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14)

This parable is on the subject of prayer and concerns itself more with the inner attitude or heart of prayer. In this parable, the contrast is between a self-righteous Pharisee and a penitent tax collector; no two people could be further apart than these two. Jesus shocks his audience by saying that the penitent tax collector went away justified rather than the Pharisee.

Both men were praying in the temple precincts. From the way the passage reads, I can picture the Pharisee standing up close to the front of the Temple Courts. His posture was that of standing up straight and looking up to heaven, congratulating himself out loud. I’m sure that others nearby could hear how he so righteously lived his life. It is mentioned that the penitent tax-collector stood at a distance, perhaps at the back of the Temple courts near the entrance, because he felt so unworthy. He could not even look up to heaven, which was the normal posture of prayer. (Our tradition today when called to prayer is to look downward, mainly due to the words of this parable.) It is interesting to note that often when Jesus is mentioned praying, it records that He “looked up to heaven.” In the Pharisee’s case, his posture of looking up to heaven is seen as his own self-righteousness and self-importance, which the parable later points out.  In the Pharisee’s prayer, the Greek words record him saying 5 times “I—I—I—I—I.” We find him praying “about himself” (verse 11), the literal rendering of the Greek is that he’s praying to himself. This man certainly was not maximizing his time of prayer, his prayer never got off the ground! His self-righteous attitude never brought him into a true relationship with God, he has no appreciation for grace, and in fact he disdains it. He’s far too righteous to need the grace of God! His life is all about keeping various laws to earn his right standing before God. He fully expects that his eternity is secured with a great mansion, but fails to look deep within himself to see his own character flaws. His boast was that he fasted twice a week. William Barclay tells us:

“The Jewish law prescribed only one absolutely obligatory fast- that on the day of Atonement. But those who wished to gain special merit fasted also on Mondays and Thursdays. It is noteworthy that these were the market days when Jerusalem was full of country people. Those who fasted whitened their faces and appeared in disheveled clothes, and those days gave their piety the biggest possible audience.”[1]

Like a good Pharisee, he tithed even on his spices, the mint, dill and cumin (Matthew 23:23), but yet he had no regard for the tax collector, in fact he despised him as he looked back at the man who could not even hold up his head. The man who has standing before God is one who has genuine humility and sees his need for mercy and grace from God:

“These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).

Keith Thomas

[1] The Daily Study Bible, Gospel of Luke, William Barclay, Page 223.

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