By Dr. Mark Scott
Humility was not prized in the ancient world. It was viewed as weakness. Jesus Christ changed the way that the world looked at humility. Following the incarnation, humility became a virtue. That does not mean the modern world does not struggle with arrogance. An NBA player says, “I am the greatest player on the planet.” A NFL quarterback pulls at his jersey portraying an “S” for Superman. Pride is an equal opportunity destroyer.
In our text today the subject is humility, the context is prayer, the pedagogy is a parable, and the characters in the story are poles apart. Jesus was still en route to Jerusalem to accomplish our redemption. Parables seem to be his main teaching method in this section of Luke’s Gospel. Depending on what constitutes a parable, there are 18 parables in the travel narrative (Luke 9:51–19:28). The parable that precedes our text is about persistence in prayer (18:1-8). Jesus ended that parable by asking a question: When the Son of Man comes, will he find that kind of faith?
Some of Jesus’ parables have no formal introduction (Luke 13:6-9). Context becomes the only clue about how the parable connects to his teaching. That is not true here. This parable is clearly spoken to address pride and moral smugness: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. The word righteousness is the same word as the participle justified in verse 14. It means conforming one’s life to a standard. God’s standard had been declared in the law. How would the players in the parable fare in regard to God’s standard?
Our Jewish forefathers loved contrasts. Just read the book of Proverbs. Craig Blomberg calls this a simple two-point parable. The contrast is heightened by historical background, the physical posture of the men, and the content of their prayers. Reversal features into this contrast.
The historical background behind the characters shows reversal. The Pharisees were much respected in Jesus’ day. They were laymen Bible students, anti-Rome, popular with the people, and separatists for the sake of their holiness. The tax collectors were just below a snake in the eyes of the people. They sold their souls to Rome, and their testimony was not accepted in court. The temple was a place of sacrifice, a place of worship, but the accent here was on it being a place of prayer.
The physical posture of the men shows reversal. The Pharisee stood. While standing was not a poor posture for prayer in and of itself, coupled with the Pharisee’s content it went to seed in pride. The tax collector stood as well, but he stood at a distance. This phrase translates one Greek word, and Luke uses it often (Luke 15:13, 20; 17:12; see also Ephesians 2:13). He also didn’t feel worthy enough to look heavenward, and proceeded to beat his breast (a sign of contriteness). More is said of the tax collector’s posture than of the Pharisee’s posture.
The content of their prayers shows the most reversal. The Pharisee’s prayer is quite verbose. The tax collector’s prayer is succinct (only six words in Greek). The Pharisee outlined for God who he was not like and what he did (in case in his omniscience God has not been paying attention). The Pharisee was not a robber and not an evildoer (literally “unjust”) and not an adulterer—the types of people who hung out with tax collectors (Luke 15:1). On the positive side he fasted twice a week, which was tons more than required (Leviticus 16:29), and he tithed everything, maybe even down to small garden seeds (Matthew 23:23, 24). In contrast, the tax collector just cried out for God’s mercy. The contrast could not be sharper.
The Tag Line
Some of Jesus’ parables have no formal conclusion. They break off into ellipsis or stop abruptly (Luke 15:11-32) so that the listener has to supply the ending with their volition. That is not true here. In case we missed it, Jesus supplied the epilogue and the moral of the story.
The bad man was good, and the good man was bad. Everyone must have gasped when Jesus said that the tax collector went home justified before God. The disciples did not see that one coming. But in Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. A humble faith is refreshing. It is just not very much in demand these days.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.