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. The contrast is between a self-righteous Pharisee and a penitent tax collector; no two people could be further apart than these two. Jesus shocked his audience by saying that the repentant tax collector went away justified rather than the Pharisee.


Both men were praying in the temple precincts. From the way the passage reads, the Pharisee is 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 so that others nearby could hear how he so righteously lived his life. 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, the common posture of prayer. (Our tradition today, when called to prayer, is to look downward). In the Pharisee's prayer, five times he uses the "I" word. His praying is all "about himself" (v. 11) and never got off the ground. His self-righteous attitude did not bring him into a right relationship with God, for he had no appreciation for grace, and in fact, he disdained it. He's far too righteous to need the grace of God! His life was all about keeping various laws to earn his right standing before God. He fully expected that his eternity was secure with a grand mansion, but he failed to look deep within himself to see his character flaws. He boasted that he fasted twice a week. William Barclay tells us:

The Jewish law prescribed only one obligatory fast—that on the day of Atonement. But those who wished to gain special merit also fasted 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 received grace and mercy is one who has genuine humility and saw his need for 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

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