“Two Men Went Up Into the Temple to Pray”


Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 33:12-16; Luke 18:9-14 (text)

Pasig Covenant Reformed Church • February 15, 2015 • Download this sermon (PDF)

Congregation of Christ: Remember the last two parables of Christ that we studied almost a month ago? We looked at two parables about persistent prayer. The Para­ble of the Two Judges and a Widow or the Persistent Widow is about persevering in prayer until our Lord Jesus Christ returns from heaven. The Parable of the Friend at Mid­night is about a neighbor who was persistent in asking a “friend” to provide for his needs. Our parable today is also related to prayer—a contrast between the prayers of two men.

"The Pharisee and the Publican" by Gustave Doré, 1832-83 (click image to enlarge)
“The Pharisee and the Publican” by Gustave Doré, 1832-83 (click image to enlarge)

But Jesus’s main purpose in telling this parable is stated in verse 9, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Jesus was referring of course to scribes, chief priests and Pharisees, who were so proud of their self-righteousness that they looked down upon their fellowmen.

The parable’s main characters were “two men who went up into the temple to pray”: a Pharisee and a tax collector, also known as a publican. It was customary for Jews to go to the Temple, which was built upon a hill, to pray during appointed times of prayer. The prayer of the Pharisee was about himself and his good deeds, while the prayer of the tax collector was one of a repentant sinner.

One caveat though: Jesus is not saying that all Pharisees are self-righteous. We know that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were not. In fact, they most probably became disciples of Christ.

Our text this afternoon is about these two men, and how God looks upon them: (1) The Boastful and the Self-Righteous Pharisee; (2) The Humble and Repentant Tax Collector; and (3) The Reversal of Their Standing Before God.

The Boastful and Self-Righteous Pharisee

In this parable, the Pharisee went up to the Temple to pray, possibly at the set times for prayer at 9 AM or 3 PM. He could have prayed in the privacy of his home, but Jesus says that the “hypocrites” (Pharisees, scribes, chief priests) love to show themselves praying, fasting and giving alms for the poor in the synagogues or street corners (Matt 6:1-5, 16).

So he goes to the outer court of the Temple to be seen by others (because only the priests are allowed into the inner court). There, he stands as close to the inner court as possible—which means he is as close to God as possible—and prays in silence. Standing is the usual posture for prayer, “for [the hypocrites] love to stand and pray in the synagogues or in the street corners, that they may be seen by others” (Matt 6:5).

What kind of prayer does the Pharisee pray? It is a unique prayer. In Matthew 6, Jesus followed his indictment of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by teaching his disciples a model prayer (verses 9-13). The Lord’s Prayer begins and ends with praise and thanksgiving to God, and then with a petition that the kingdom of God will come. Only after this focus on God does the Lord’s Prayer goes on to a basic petition for “daily bread” and other provisions. The petitions also include the need for forgiveness of sin and protection from sin and the evil one.

How does the Pharisee’s prayer stack up against the Lord’s Prayer? He prays, “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” (verses 11-12). First, although he begins by addressing God, he does not praise and thank God for anything God has done for him. Rather, he proceeds with a self-commendation of his own good works. He does not petition for the arrival of God’s kingdom, for he is focused on his earthly life. He has no petition and thanksgiving for daily provisions, for he is self-sufficient. And the most telling aspect of his prayer is that there is no prayer of repentance and petition for forgiveness, because he prides himself in his own righteousness.

He thinks that God must be so proud of his obedience to the law. He is not aware of God’s grace and mercy that keeps him from committing gross violations of the fifth, sixth and seventh Commandments: murder, stealing, and adultery. Because of his self-righteousness, he does not have a sense of his own sin and guilt.

In verse 12, the Pharisee then tells God how devoted he is to God’s law. First, he says, “I fast twice a week.” There must have been many people who fast, so why is he so proud of his fasting? Because he fasts over and above what is required by the law. The people are required to fast only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29, 31). Anything above this once-a-year commandment is voluntary. So the Pharisees instituted twice-a-week fasting. Twice a year would already be more than acceptable, but twice a week! O, what a God-fearing devout man he is! By this rigorous fasting, he wants approbation by God and his fellowmen.

Second, he tells God, “I give tithes of all that I get.” Again, if most Jews give tithes, what’s the big deal about his tithing? The law requires tithes on certain crops (Lev 27:30-32). The big deal is that Pharisees give tithes on all that they possess, even the smallest things. Tithes have already been taken off the produce that he has already bought, but to make sure he doesn’t violate any law, he still gives tithes on them. And they are so diligent that they tithe even their smallest garden herbs such as mint, dill and cumin, but Jesus condemns them because they “have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23).

And when the Pharisee prays about his neighbors, he prays in purely negative terms. Again, he gives thanks to God, but it is a thanksgiving for not making him like others who are “sinners.” He says to himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterer.” “Unjust” is a general term for unrighteous and dishonest people. His prayer is all too similar to a common Jewish prayer, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a beast, a woman, a gentile, an uncircumcised, a slave.”

We see Christians today who trust and pride themselves in their own good works. They feel good about themselves when they diligently do their daily devotions. Nothing wrong with daily Bible reading and prayer, but for many, it becomes a substitute for joining the public worship on the Lord’s Day. Many even skip the Lord’s Day worship for other things because they think they already have enough knowledge by reading books and articles on the Internet. Some people who dance, clap, shout, wave their hands during worship think that they are more holy than those around them who don’t. Others who speak in tongues and have visions feel more spiritual than others who don’t.

The Pharisee then looks around him as he prays, and sees a tax collector. So he adds, “[God, I thank you that I am not like] this tax collector” (verse 11). In the old translations like the KJV, “publican” is used, from the Latin word for “tax collector.” The self-righteous Pharisee thanks God that he is not a sinner like the tax collector behind him.

The Humble and Repentant Tax Collector

Tax collectors are seen by Jews as traitors working for the Roman oppressors, and as extortioners and swindlers w

"Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus," James Tissot, 1886-94 (click image to enlarge)
“Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus,” James Tissot, 1886-94 (click image to enlarge)

ho collect more taxes than is lawful. Therefore, many derogatory things are said about them. Even Jesus uses them as bad examples (Matt 5:46). They are often mentioned in the same breath as “sinners” (Matt 9:10, 11; Mark 2:15; Luke 5:30) and “prostitutes” (Matt 21:31, 32). In the following chapter, Luke 19, we read of Zaccheus, a tax collector who enriched himself by defrauding his countrymen. When Jesus invited himself to dinner at Zaccheus, the crowd of Jews “all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner’” (verses 5-7).

In the parable, the tax collector is consumed with guilt because he knew he has greatly violated the law. He knew he was a robber and a traitor to his people. So his position and posture reveal his attitude. First, he “[stands] far off.” One who is guilty of sin cannot come near to God, lest he be destroyed, as God warned the Israelites at Mount Sinai. Paul calls unbelieving Gentiles as those who are “far off” (Eph 2:17). So to be “far off” means being an unsaved sinner. Second, he “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven.” He is so ashamed and guilty of his sin that he cannot even come near to God and look up to heaven (Ezra 9:6), just as Jesus did when he prayed in Gethsemane (John 17:1). He can’t even lift up his hands in prayer, as was common to Jews (1 Tim 2:8). Third, he “beat his breast,” an action signifying great sorrow. When Jesus was crucified, the people were so convicted of their sin and grieved that they “returned home beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48).

The tax collector’s prayer was in stark contrast to the Pharisee’s. He had no pride and self-righteousness, since he was convicted of his sin against God’s law and against his neighbors. He was full of guilt. It was a simple sinner’s prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (verse 13). In the original Greek, “a sinner” is actually “the sinner.” Remember what Paul called himself? He says in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (or “chief”). He says he is the chief of sinners. Because he has persecuted the church, Paul realizes his unworthiness before God and his brethren, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle” (1 Cor 15:9).

Therefore, this tax collector is so consumed by his sin and guilt that his prayer is for God to merely grant him mercy and grace and forgiveness in his repentance, just as Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer. His prayer is also from King David’s prayer in Psalm 51:1-3:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Unlike the Pharisee, he brings nothing before God. He knows he has done evil things, and no good works would merit God’s mercy. His evil deeds would bring him God’s wrath, so he asks God to be “merciful” to him, which is a literal plea that God would remove his wrath from him. For Zaccheus, his vows to return all that he swindled from the people four-fold and to give half of his possessions to the poor, is not to appease God, but as a result of his salvation.

The tax collector realizes that he would never meet the requirement of the law to restore all that he has stolen, plus 20 percent, to be right with God (Lev 6:2-5). He probably did not tithe and did not fast. Most likely, he did not even pray or go to the Temple services, because he was very busy with collecting money. He was a hopeless case, so his only recourse was to plead to God for mercy upon his desperate soul. Unlike the Pharisee, he cannot compare himself to others, for he knows he is the chief of sinners.

Today, when people pray the “sinner’s prayer,” they “accept Jesus into their hearts,” but often, there is no prayer of repentance. In many churches, the law is never taught and preached, sin is a negative word, and repentance is never mentioned. Worship services are all about feeling good and positive about oneself. God’s grace, mercy and love are always affirmed, to the exclusion of his holiness and righteous wrath against unrepentant sinners.

To Jesus’s audience, this contrast between the self-righteous Pharisee and the repentant sinner is not uncommon. But his conclusion to this parable is shocking, especially to the Pharisees.

The Reversal of Their Standing Before God

Luke introduces the parable by saying that the parable is aimed at “those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” At the end of the parable, Jesus concludes that the tax collector—not the Pharisee—left the Temple justified and righteous before God.

How can this be? The Pharisee did all kinds of good works, but the tax collector was a swindler. But the prayer of the Pharisee was rejected by God. In contrast, King David’s prayer of repentance was accepted, because God forgives everyone who acknowledges his sin and repents with a contrite heart, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa 51:17). And, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa 66:2).

The Pharisee’s good works will never save him, and will never merit forgiveness and salvation from God. This shows that obedience to the law will not save anyone, for all are sinners and will never measure up to God’s standard of perfect holiness. Obedience to the law, as we see in Zaccheus the tax collector, is the fruit of salvation. Obedience and holiness are the fruits of being justified. According to Paul’s “chain of salvation,” justification is always followed by sanctification (being conformed to the image of Christ); and sanctification always stems from justification (Rom 8:29-30). God’s law is also our guide to living a righteous life.

The reversal of the standing of the two men is shocking. Among the people around them, the Pharisee’s prayer will be commended, the tax collector’s prayer will be condemned. But Jesus says that the Pharisee who trusted in himself as “righteous” is condemned before God. The tax collector whom the Pharisee treated with contempt and as a sinner was given righteousness by God–justified before God–when he repented of his sin.

This is the great exchange that we read in the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 60. We are righteous before God only by faith in Christ. By faith, God accounts Christ’s righteousness as our own righteousness, and accounts our sin to Christ. By faith in Christ, God sees us as if we had done no sin like Christ, and as if we had done perfect deeds like Christ. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

The Lord explains this same reversal to the prophet Ezekiel. God says that if a person, like the self-righteous Pharisee, “trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered.” He is condemned to eternal death (Ezk 33:13). On the other hand, if a person, like the repentant tax collector, “turns from his sin and does what is just and right… he shall surely live; he shall not die.” He is justified before God and is blessed with eternal life (Ezk 33:14-15).

Dear Friends in Christ: As sinners, we can never bring to God our good works to merit our salvation. As the hymnwriter says, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.”

Jesus concludes this parable with the same conclusion in the parable of the places of honor at the table in Luke 14. Those who think highly of themselves sat at the places of honor in a feast. But they would be humiliated when another honored guest comes and they have to sit elsewhere, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (verse 14).

Jesus humbled himself when he came down from heaven as a human being to save his people from sin. He was despised, rejected, humiliated throughout his life all the way to an accursed death on the cross. But because he satisfied God’s demand for perfect obedience, God raised him from the dead, and he ascended into heaven where he is now seated at God’s right hand. At his coming, “every knee shall bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:9-11).

May we always be mindful of our own sin, asking God for forgiveness because Christ has died for all our sins. May we always have in mind to meditate upon Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. Because as Christians who now suffer in this earthly pilgrimage, we also will be lifted up and exalted on the last day. Listen to these comforting words: “The Lord lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground” (Psa 147:6). “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6). “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (Jas 4:10).



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