The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector has been viewed, by Protestants at least, as an important passage pertaining to justification by faith. This sermon explores this theme as well. In the process, though, I hope we can identify ways in which we’re not so different from the put-upon Pharisee—and learn from him!
Sermon Text: Luke 18:9-14
[To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3.]
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
Cordell Broadus was a four-star college football recruit—a wide receiver—who played for an elite high school football program in Nevada. He was recruited heavily by several top-tier colleges, including USC, but eventually he committed to crosstown rival UCLA. In August, however, he didn’t show up at training camp. He told his coach he didn’t want to play football anymore, and instead wanted to concentrate on his studies.
Now, to add to the story: Cordell Broadus isn’t just another gifted athlete… He’s also the son of Calvin Broadus, otherwise known as the rapper Snoop Dogg. And just last week, on Snoop Dogg’s birthday, Cordell wrote a birthday message to his father on Instagram, which also explained publicly for the first time his decision to quit football. He said,
I played football for my father because I thought that was the only way he would love me and be a part of my life. It took me 12 years to realize he loves Cordell Broadus the person, not Cordell Broadus the football player. The best day of my life was when I heard those exact words; I love you, Dad, and hope you have a great birthday.
That’s a very sweet message. And I’m sure that Snoop Dogg is very proud of his son and has told him so—and reassured him a thousand times over since his son told him all of this. But as a father, can I just say that it also breaks my heart! It breaks my heart to imagine that one of my own kids, for example, would believe—for twelve long years of their life—that I loved them for something they did for me, rather than for who they are!
I made reference to this a few weeks ago, but in my own family I grew up thinking that I was a disappointment to my parents, especially my dad, because I wasn’t more athletic, that I didn’t play more sports, that I wasn’t more normal—that I was more interested in music and books and church than I was in sports or girls or socializing. I was kind of a geek, what can I say? Steve Jobs was a geek. Mark Zuckerberg… Look how they turned out! Except for several billion dollars separating us, I’m just like them!
My point is, I can completely understand how someone like Cordell could think this about his dad; I just hate that he had to go through that.
But do you see the tragic mistake that Broadus made? He believed that his father loved him for what he did, not for who he was. I want you to see that the Pharisee in today’s scripture is making the same tragic mistake. I want you to sympathize with him, however difficult that may be.
After all, if you’ve grown up in church, you know all about the Pharisees. They are these stock villains in the gospels. They’re the “bad guys”; they’re always opposing Jesus and causing problems. Jesus is always verbally sparring with them. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” Jesus says many times.
At youth camp, we used to sing a song about them: “I don’t want to be a Pharisee/ I don’t want to be a Pharisee/ Because they’re not fair, you see?/ I don’t want to be a Pharisee.” There’s even a verse about Sadducees. And you can probably guess why you don’t want to be a Sadducee, right? Because they’re so “sad, you see?”
But even if the Pharisees were often wrong about God and the Bible, that doesn’t mean they were necessarily bad. In John chapter 3, Nicodemus is a Pharisee who’s sincerely interested in learning from Jesus. And by the end of the gospel, we learn that he did, indeed, become his follower.
And even in today’s parable, this Pharisee isn’t all bad. He begins his prayer, “I thank God that I’m not like these sinners; I thank God that I do these things.” He’s not claiming full credit here for his righteousness—he’s at least acknowledging that God is partly responsible. Although, as many preachers have pointed out, he uses the pronoun “I” five times in just two verses. So you can see where his emphasis lay: on himself; on his own righteousness; on his own conduct.
But as John Wesley pointed out in his commentary on this passage, this Pharisee is no hypocrite. He was no more a hypocrite “than an outward adulterer,” Wesley said—meaning, if you’re committing adultery out in the open, and you’re not hiding it, you are guilty of a very serious sin, but it isn’t hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is pretending to be something you’re not. As Wesley points out, this Pharisee “sincerely trusted in himself that he was righteous.” And we have no reason to doubt the Pharisee when he says that he fasts twice a week and tithes on all the income he receives.
Notice he says he fasts twice a week. The Old Testament doesn’t command that anyone do that. The only required fast was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But he wants to go beyond the Law just to make sure. Why not? If you sincerely believed that the only way that you were loved by God and accepted by God—the only way you were saved by God, forgiven by God, given eternal life by God—if you believed that, wouldn’t you be just like the Pharisee? Wouldn’t you try to be extra holy, extra righteous, just to make sure! “I have to do these things! I have to be like this! I have to be better than these other people. Otherwise my heavenly Father won’t love me!”—which is the same mistake Cordell Broadus made about his earthly father!
About the only way the Pharisee could know that he was a really good person is by comparing himself to others—to well-known sinners like thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors—and making sure that he came out on top. In other words, he judged others.
Don’t we do the same thing? If we’re on social media like Facebook or Instagram, it’s like “judge, judge, judge” all the time. We’re constantly tempted to judge others! Something within us wants to feel morally superior to others, so we judge people based on their perceived parenting skills, their personal appearance, their vocations, their political beliefs, their spouses, their possessions. We judge… because we have this deep need to prove that we’re at least as good as or better than this other person. That boy or that girl who broke your heart in high school… Admit it: You want to look at who they married—just to make sure that they would have done better with you. Right? Or you look at an old rival of yours in high school, and you say, “Oh, look, he’s fat and bald and unemployed and living in his parents’ basement.” And we think, At least I didn’t turn out like that loser! What a relief! I’m better than him after all!
In a way, that’s what the Pharisee is doing. One difference is we don’t always say it out loud the way this Pharisee does, but we think it. And what we’re doing is, we’re proving ourselves. We’re proving our goodness; proving our worth. We’re justifying ourselves. In the ancient world of the gospels, justification was a courtroom term: If the judge found in your favor, you would be justified—you would be proven to be in the right.
Richard Foster is a Christian author who’s written a lot about our tendency to judge others and to justify ourself. And in one of his books he asks us to pay close attention to how often, in conversation, you say something in order to look good in someone else’s eyes. Or how often you explain yourself to others. Or defend yourself to others. Or excuse yourself to others. Or boast about yourself. That’s self-justification! We do it all the time. Foster argues that most of what we say in conversation with others is self-justification.
For example, earlier this year I had lunch with Governor Nathan Deal at the Varsity. It’s true! He was sitting at the booth next to me when I was having lunch with a friend. Gov. Deal wasn’t technically at my table, but I was, in a way, eating lunch with him. And I made a point of slipping that into conversation for weeks… Because it sounded cool to say that I had lunch with the governor! It made me look good!
We want to justify ourselves. Just like this Pharisee.
One difference, we might say, is that this self-justification is an important part of this Pharisee’s faith in God. Is it part of ours? Do we believe that we have to justify ourselves to God or prove ourselves to God—to show God that we’re really worthy of his love after all? Maybe so…
For example, I’m a good Protestant. One thing that makes us Protestants is our strong conviction that we are justified by faith alone. We’re saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone by grace alone. There’s nothing at all any of us can do to earn salvation. It’s an absolutely free gift of God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection. I believe that. I preach that.
By all means, I was just like this tax collector at one time in my life—I had no righteousness to call my own. I had nothing to show for myself. I had no case to offer in my defense. I was a sinner; I could do nothing but beg for God’s mercy. But now that God has shown me mercy, well… I’m without excuse.
Now that I am saved—now that I am justified, now that I have experienced new birth through the Spirit—it’s time to get back on this hamster wheel of self-justification: I have to try harder, and work harder, and prove myself to God over and over again. By all means, the balance sheet was zeroed out when I got saved—a long time ago. My sins were taken away from me and nailed to the cross—as far as the east is from the west, the Bible says. But that was a long time ago. Now, every new sin I commit puts me back “in the red” with God. And I ask for forgiveness and God forgives me, and I ask for forgiveness and God forgives me, and I ask for forgiveness and God forgives me. Surely God’s patience is wearing thin by now. I think, “Surely my ledger with God should be showing a surplus by now. But instead I keep on falling into debt!” I got this “clean slate” when I first placed my faith in Jesus, but it just gets filthier by the minute!
Brothers and sisters, this is self-righteousness. It’s like I’m coming before the God the judge, putting my good works on the table and saying, “Here’s what I have to show for myself. Please tell me that I’ve passed the test, Lord!” So I’m like the Pharisee… Except in my case, this self-righteousness doesn’t hold others in contempt so much as it holds myself in contempt: “What’s my problem? Here I am, I’ve been a Christians for 30 years now! Why aren’t I a better person, a better Christian? Why do I still struggle with sin the way I do? Why do I struggle to trust in the Lord?”
My Heavenly Father doesn’t love Brent the person. He loves Brent the man who does all these good and righteous things for him!
All that to say, the guilt that we often experience comes from our failure to keep God’s Law successfully. So we’re not so different from the Pharisee. We both think that God’s love for us is conditional, based on whether or not we’re able to obey God’s commands and keep his Law.
And you know what we sometimes do when we find that we can’t keep God’s Law? We water it down; we try to make the Law seem easier than it really is. So Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And we turn that into “Just do your best; that’s all anyone can ask.” Or when Jesus tells the Rich Young Ruler to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor, we say, “That means we’re supposed to tithe; we’re supposed to be generous; we’re supposed to give all that we reasonably can.” Really? Is that really what it means, or is that just wishful thinking? We make excuses: “Well, you see, the rich man, his problem was that he was materialistic. He made an idol out of his money and possessions. That’s why Jesus told him to do that.”
I’m sorry… Are we imagining that we aren’t materialistic? That we don’t make an idol out of money and possessions?
Brothers and sisters, let’s admit it: We can’t keep God’s Law! We can’t obey all these commands! What does the apostle James say? “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” What does Paul say? “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” He also says, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” If that’s true of no less a Christian than Paul himself, how much more true is it of us?
As one pastor said, echoing a theme of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it.”
Oh, brothers and sisters: Let yourself be utterly condemned by the Law!
Most people are unwilling to do that. Most people want to say, “No, I’m not so bad! I’m good!”
Fully 71 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Christian. Yet according to surveys, when you ask them how you get to heaven when you die, over half of them will say it’s by “being a good person.” But how do you measure that? Are you a good person compared to the “thieves, the rogues, the adulterers, and the tax collectors”? Big deal! So was the Pharisee in today’s parable! It wasn’t enough! It wasn’t close! See, we need to compare ourselves not to other people but to God himself. Do we measure up to his standards? Can we ever measure up to his standards?
Friends, hear Jesus’ warning in this parable: On Judgment Day, when we stand before Christ our Judge, if we think that we can lay out all our good works on his courtroom table and say, “Here’s why I deserve to go to heaven,” he will say to us, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” If we’re counting on our own righteousness to save us, there’s no way to sugarcoat it: we will go to hell. I like the way theologian John Gerstner put it: “What stands between us and God is not our sins so much as our ‘damnable good works.’”
The difference between the outlook of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is nothing less than the difference between heaven and hell. Does that sobering thought scare you? I hope so!
I hope it scares us enough to run to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ! I hope it reminds us that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” I hope it reminds us that while we can’t be perfect, thank God we don’t need to be: Christ our Lord was perfect on our behalf! I hope it reminds us that it’s only through Christ’s righteousness, and not our own, that we’re saved.
Friends, have you been saved? Or have you been trusting—or hoping, always desperately hoping—that you’ll be good enough to go to heaven?… Repent of the faith that you place in your good works and instead place your faith in Jesus Christ and his cross!
 James 2:10 ESV
 Romans 7:15, 18-19 ESV
 Romans 7:24 ESV
 Matthew 7:23 NRSV
 Isaiah 64:6 NIV