Formations 2.09.2014: God’s Standards

Luke 18:10-14

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, The Pharisee and the Publican, woodcut for Die Bibel in Bildern, 1860.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, The Pharisee and the Publican, woodcut for Die Bibel in Bildern, 1860.

The Pharisees were not the bad guys. Not in the first century; not today.

The Pharisees were earnest folk who tried to live by the teachings of Scripture as best they knew how. They studied the Bible with both rigor and devotion, and most first-century Jews admired them for it. When you read about a Pharisee who goes up to the temple to pray, imagine him as the most devoted and upright deacon or Sunday school teacher you know.

And then realize that intense devotion has its own dangers. Probably first on the list is a creeping temptation toward self-righteousness.

Now, in one sense, the Pharisee’s prayer is right on target. He did thank God, after all, for his various religious accomplishments. At least on some level, he understood these were things he couldn’t take credit for; they were gifts from above.

Where he messed up, I think, is in comparing himself with someone else—anyone else—as if God loved him more than God loved the tax collector.

It would have been a shock to him—as it surely was a shock to Jesus’ audience—to hear that the tax collector who cried out for God’s mercy left the temple justified that day.

There is nothing wrong with earnest piety, but in the kingdom of God, justification can come even to those with no religious credentials to claim. God assesses our spirituality by standards that may, in fact, be quite different from our own.


• Who are Christians you admire for the quality of their devotion to God and to Scripture?
• When have you seen believers speak or act as if spirituality were a competition? What factors lead to such an attitude?
• When has someone surprised you by confessing faults or sins you never suspected they struggled with?
• How can we confess our sins honestly before God without becoming mired in self-loathing?

Reference Shelf


The first three Gospels contain about twenty references to publicans, Jewish men who collected taxes and tolls for the Roman government. They were held in contempt throughout the Roman Empire, including Israel. They were regarded as betrayers of their own people, and many of them were greedy and dishonest; John the Baptist instructed publicans to collect only those taxes which were properly authorized (Luke 3:13). Because they cooperated with the Romans, publicans were ceremonially unclean and could not participate in Israel’s religious activities. In the Gospels they are associated with sinners (Matt 9:10), gentiles (Matt 18:17), harlots (Matt 21:31), extortioners, the unjust, and adulterers (Luke 18:11). In these associations, the Gospels reflect an attitude toward publicans which was understandably widespread.

Fisher Humphreys, “Publicans,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Mercer University Press, 1990), 724.

Praying Up, Praying Down

Picture the Pharisee, then, praying with his face turned up and his arms raised, thanking God for what he is and is not. It is not altogether wrong to thank God for spiritual progress made. The problem with his prayer is how he contrasts himself with the others there, especially with the tax collector. His prayer assumes that he is righteous in ways that others are not; his prayer assumes that he knows the hearts of the other worshipers; his prayer assumes God’s role as all-knowing Judge. The Pharisee appears to be praying up, but he is really praying sideways, putting his attention on how he stacks up against others in the congregation. He has his face turned up, but in his mind’s eye he is looking around, thinking, “I’m the only truly righteous one here.”

The tax collector is praying down—he has his face turned down, his fist slowly beating his chest, in the classic posture for repentance and mourning. Just as the Pharisee would not have been the only person in the temple praying with hands raised, so the tax collector was likely not the only one to be confessing his sins. What makes his prayer noteworthy is that we know he is telling the truth. Like the Pharisees, tax collectors are stock characters in Luke. They collect import and export duties on goods transported, per-person taxes, etc. In order to make a living, they were expected to charge more than the actual tax rate and pocket the difference…. So most definitely this tax collector is a sinner: had you lived in Galilee in Jesus’ day, you would have hated him. This man works to squeeze money out of you and your neighbors so that the Romans can stay in control of your country. He gets rich while your friends and neighbors have to sell their farms to pay their tax bills. He’s a leech, he’s a traitor, he ought to burn in hell for what he has done to the poor, and he’s got a lot of nerve coming here to the temple to pray.

But he’s here, and here’s what he prays: “God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” He prays down, head hung in shame, eyes cast down, fist beating on his chest. He’s a man overcome with grief, and he is repenting. He says what Peter said the first time he saw Jesus do a miracle: O, Lord, go away from me, because I’m a sinful man. It’s what the prodigal son said to his father when he returned: Father, I have sinned against God and you, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. It’s what the thief on the cross says to Jesus as they both die: I know I’m here because I’m guilty, but this man is innocent; Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Luke’s Gospel is full of sinners who repent, who turn from their sins to God and who receive God’s forgiveness and blessing. If they repent, God justifies them: God declares that they are righteous. This man, says Jesus, went down to his house righteous before God.


Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 570–72.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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