He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (18:9-10 CSB).
I once went on a “mountain climbing adventure” on South Bubble in Acadia Park with one of my sons. That experience does not mean that I qualify as a mountain climber, partly because it wasn’t even high enough to be classified as a mountain. The other reason is that I wasn’t much of a climber, being terribly out of shape. If I had been more in tune with my condition, I would have scheduled a visit with a cardiologist then. But we can’t rewrite our lives, can we? Although I have climbed other true mountains in the east, I am still not a mountain climber, but just a hiker, who sometimes enjoys terrain that is a little bit more challenging.
It is of fundamental importance in true Christianity that a person has a correct idea or evaluation of what they are. Only when a person, by God’s grace, realizes what they are, will they turn to God, acknowledge their deficiencies and insufficiencies, and humbly seek grace. This holds true whether a person needs to be saved or needs to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.
In this parable, Jesus tells a story with one main point. This time, it is not about the need for persistent prayer (Luke 18:1-8) but about true righteousness and how to attain it. God does not acknowledge people as righteous on the basis of what we do or do not do. No one can be right with God that way, because we are all ruined by sin. Everyone who is righteous before God owes all to God’s free grace in Jesus Christ.
Outward religion is not a sign of inward grace (18:10). Both men in this parable were visibly associated with the people of God. They prayed at God’s temple. Membership in a church or attendance at a church does not save or help save in any way. For example, attending a football game does not make you a football player, and even being on a team doesn’t equate with really knowing how to play football, as a lot of coaches will testify! We must beware of self-deception (cf. Matthew 7:13-14, 21-23). True Christians follow Christ, and to follow him requires supernatural power, the power of the Holy Spirit.
Both were outwardly performing an acceptable act of worship (cf. Matthew 6:5-15). Flowery words and cleverly crafted phrases are not a sign of a pure heart. There are many art critics and aficionados that can tell you everything about brush strokes and composition of paintings yet cannot paint! True prayer comes from a heart of faith in God and love for God, not from a “dictionary of religious phrases”.
Consider this typical example of a Pharisee’s prayer. “I thank thee, Jehovah my God, that thou hast assigned my lost with those who sit in the… (house of learning) and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in (street) corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward and they labor and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction” (Talmud, Berakoth 28b, quoted by Morris, p. 264).
Both were performing that act in a way that God appointed. These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7 ESV).
The contemporary church would call people engaged in such activity “committed Christians” or “spiritual Christians”. But Jesus says, “Wait; we must look deeper.” The question for us is, “Are we willing to look deeper into the subject? Will we approach God in humility and say, Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24 ESV)?
Grace and peace, David