The Tax Collector in the Temple

[Luk 18:9-14 NASB] 9 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

I am always so fascinated by this wonderful parable, what an endless well of revelation about the gospel of grace! I have been wanting to revisit this with some fresh thoughts about some of the finer points about this exquisite teaching from our Lord Jesus, and here it is. I pray we can all see this with fresh eyes.

The promise to repent

It always bears repeating when you look at this passage, that the tax collector didn’t promise to repent. I don’t think he had it in him. He didn’t change or reform. Perhaps he didn’t believe it to be possible. He didn’t walk out with a renewed sense of purpose or holiness. There is a carefully curated message here that Jesus is highlighting: his sole prayer was a desperate cry for naked mercy. You can quibble if you want that we don’t know what else this tax-gatherer might have prayed. But this is a parable, a fictional story that Jesus invented to teach us something. He did not include in His fictional story that this man repented or promised to reform. He did not include in His story that there had been or would be any progress in his “sanctification”. This is the right exegesis of the simple text. The justified man made no pretense of repentance or promise of future progressive sanctification.

Me, the sinner

He did not say, “have mercy on my sin.” There is hope in that kind of thought – that he might be able to reform himself. These are only a few sins, but he is better than all this. He can leave this behind. But there is no hope here. He says instead, “Be merciful to me, the sinner!” He has sinned, and he will sin again, because is a sinner. But then, He doesn’t even say, “a sinner,” as if there is some hidden justification in numbers. That would imply that he may be a sinner, but isn’t everyone? It’s all just human nature, right? Anyone would do it. However, this is not his confession. Instead he says, Be merciful to me, THE sinner.” He is uniquely and tremendously awful in his own eyes. He recognizes that he has no merit and no right to claim any kind of favor with God. His confession is that his plight is the worst case scenario, and that if God has mercy it will be an utterly impossible miracle. He is the kind of man who sins particularly awful sins, and he cannot stop doing it. It flows from his very identity.

The sense of release

I want to remind us all that the tax collector did not enter OR LEAVE the temple with a sense of release, with some sense of progress in his “relationship” with God. He was standing some distance away from the successful holy people, and he maintained his distance. He did not approach them soon after and say, I’ve now become holy. I prayed a good prayer and now God has justified me. That’s not the story, and that is not what he was thinking. He went home, feeling sinful and dirty and defeated and unable to repent. He hadn’t simply sinned – there was no pretense that it was all over with now. He had done no business with God. He is a sinner in his own eyes. It was his identity. He came a sinner, he dared to show up at the temple and offer some wretched stupid little prayer, and he ran out as quickly as possible, still a sinner. He went back home immediately, guilty and defeated and estranged from the spiritual elite. Jesus is assessing his status from afar, and He did not go over and explain to him that he was the justified one. He came to the temple under a cloud of guilt and shame, and he left the same way.

This is a recurring theme in Scripture. When Balak tried to hire the prophet Balaam (Numbers 22-24) to curse Israel, Balaam told him repeatedly that he could not curse them, because they were not cursed but blessed. But I would imagine that if you went and asked the Israelites themselves if they were blessed, they would not have shared that same assessment. They were homeless wanderers, living on manna, plagued by various manifestations of God’s corrective wrath, wretched and guilty and under the constant threat of God’s watchful eye. When Jesus told the disciples that He was ready to return to Jerusalem, they said, “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.” (John 11:16) They were walking with Jesus Himself directly, and they felt defeated and on the wrong track. Isn’t that amazing? Often, the blessed ones have no sense of their own blessing.

So even though from God’s perspective he was justified rather than the pharisee, neither one of them knew it to be so. This is a particular comfort to me! I often pray for mercy. I wake up with the music of the Kyrie Eleison going in my head. I always feel the need for impossible mercy pressed upon my soul. I was asked recently when in my spiritual rhythms I feel spiritually clean, and I can’t remember having that feeling. Like, ever. I don’t have any order to my spiritual life! If you say, maybe you have spiritual scrupulosity, a peculiar sense of your own guilt that is not justified, I feel horrible about that as well. It is not that I have sinned. It is that I am a sinner.

But there is good news in this. It all tells me that it is not my feelings of release that justify me. It is God’s actual mercy which justifies me, whether I feel it or know it or experience it at all. I am justified objectively in the sight of God whether I subjectively experience it or not. It is not under my control. This is the message of this scripture. Strangely, this kind of confidence comforts me far more than the pressure to control my feelings of guilt by some kind of prayerful gymnastics.

Who needs justification

Finally, we come to the summit of this parable: the idea of “justification”. Justification has to do with justice. When God blesses you beyond what you deserve, no observer is going to be able to say that it shouldn’t be so. When you are standing with Jesus Christ, God the Son, as His very bride, no angel or cherub or elder around the throne is going to have a secret thought that you shouldn’t be there. The sense of justice in your own heart will say, it isn’t just good that I am here. It is right. No one will think that God is crazy and wrong that He has blessed you so richly. No one will think that God ought not to love you. You will not just be accepted. You will be justified. It will be obvious to everyone that it is just and right and moral and good and perfectly wondrous that you, the sinner, are the beloved blessed beautiful bride of Christ Jesus the Son of God. Your blessing in Christ will prove to everyone that things are right in heaven. Our hearts will all sing with the deep justice of it all. This is what the sinner, the tax-gatherer in the temple, walked away with. This is what his paltry confessional prayer achieved, because he credited the mercy of God with his spirituality, and not his own prowess at spiritual practices. This is the incredible blessing and position in Christ that is now yours whether you realize it or not in the here and now.

[Eph 1:3-8 NASB] 3 Blessed [be] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly [places] in Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love 5 He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He lavished on us.

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  1. Thank you Jim. You opened this parable up for me. It’s also worth noting that the Pharisee “praying thus to himself” was indeed praying to himself, not to God. He too left with everything he brought to the temple: his arrogance, pride and disdain of others. He left unjustified. Which says in both cases that our emotional states are poor indicators of our spiritual states. For me there’s both comfort and dread in that.

  2. So the tax-collector had no assurance that he was forgiven. Does that mean those of us who have never had so-called “assurance of salvation” aren’t doomed after all?

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