How would you illustrate the difference between the self-righteous and those who know they are unrighteous? What mannerisms or postures would you use to depict them? Would their words give them away or only their actions?

Jesus did just this during his earthly ministry. With some help from the ESV Study Bible, let’s learn how he describes the difference between the self-righteous and those who know they are unrighteous. As we’ll see, the very mannerisms, words, and postures he uses play an important part in showing the true condition of our hearts.

Luke 18:9–14

This parable contrasts a Pharisee boasting in his self-righteousness and a tax collector confessing his sins and seeking God’s mercy.

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated 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, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

18:9 Again, as in v. 1, Luke interprets the parable before the parable itself is given. Jesus spoke this to some who trusted . . . that they were righteous. The audience addressed by the parable (probably Pharisees) had an unrealistic sense of self-worth (see note on Matt. 5:20). Falsely confident of their own righteousness, they treated others with contempt.

The note on Matthew 5:20 in the ESV Study Bible says, “Jesus calls his disciples to a different kind and quality of righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees. They took pride in outward conformity to many extrabiblical regulations but still had impure hearts (see Matt. 23:5, 23, 27–28). But kingdom righteousness works from the inside out because it first produces changed hearts and new motivations (Rom 6:17; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 5:22–23; Phil. 2:12; Heb. 8:10), so that the actual conduct of Jesus’ followers does in fact “[exceed] the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.”

18:10 Two men (cf. 15:11; 17:34–35) went up into the temple. Even if a person is in Jerusalem, he or she still must go “up” to the temple and “down” from there (see 18:14) because the temple was situated on an elevated mount with the rest of Jerusalem below it (on the temple, see note on John 2:14). The Pharisees were the most influential of the three major Jewish sects. The tax collectors collected tolls, tariffs, and customs, and were notoriously dishonest (cf. Luke 15:1–2; 19:8) and despised.

Continuing from the note on Matthew 5:46–47 in the ESV Study Bible, “In Palestine, tax collectors were representatives of the Roman governing authorities. Their tendency to resort to extortion made them despised and hated by their own people (cf. Luke 19:8).”

The Pharisee’s Posture and Boast

18:11 The Pharisee was standing. This was the normal posture of prayer. “God, I thank you that I . . .” The five “I’s” in this passage reveal the egocentricity of the Pharisee. Rather than thanking God for what God has done for him, the Pharisee arrogantly brags to God about his own moral purity and religious piety.

18:12 I fast twice a week. The OT law did not require this much fasting, but apparently only one fast a year, on the Day of Atonement (see note on Matt. 6:16–18). I give tithes of all that I get. See Deut. 14:22–27, which required a tithe of the crops; see also Lev. 27:30–32; Num. 18:21–24.

The note on Matthew 6:16–18 in the ESV Study Bible says, “Various kinds of fasts were commonly practiced in OT times, though the law required only one fast a year, on the Day of Atonement (though fasting is probably implied by the command to ‘afflict yourselves’; Lev. 16:29–34; 23:26–32). In addition to abstaining from food, people were to humble themselves by praying, mourning, and wearing sackcloth. As with giving (Matt. 6:2–4) and praying (Matt. 6:5–15), fasting is to be a matter of the heart between the Christian and God.”

The Tax Collector’s Posture and Contrition

18:13 Because of shame the tax collector . . . would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, which was a sign of sorrow and contrition (cf. 23:48), and said, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. The “sinner’s prayer” (cf. Ps. 51:1) seeks God’s mercy. The stark contrast between the contrition of the sinner and the self-righteousness of the Pharisee is key to understanding the central point of the parable.

18:14 Jesus pronounces a shocking reversal of common expectations (cf. 14:11 and Introduction: Key Themes). The Pharisee thought that he was “righteous” (18:9) and tried to justify himself (cf. 16:15), but the tax collector depended on God’s mercy and as a result received God’s gift of righteousness and was pronounced justified.

One of the key themes in Luke’s gospel is the great reversal taking place in the world. “The first are becoming last and the last are becoming first, the proud are being brought low and the humble are being exalted. Luke places great emphasis on God’s love for the poor, tax collectors, outcasts, sinners, women, Samaritans, and Gentiles. In keeping with this concern, many of the episodes that appear only in Luke’s Gospel feature the welcome of an outcast (the Christmas shepherds, the Prodigal Son, the persistent widow, Zacchaeus, etc.).” See Luke 1:48, 52–53; 6:20–26; 13:30; 14:11; 18:14 for examples.

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