Truly, some sermons are more difficult to preach than others. Of those tough subjects, humility is one of the hardest, and most personally-applicable, lessons that can be presented by a preacher. Unfortunately, there is a constant temptation facing ministers of the Gospel – we fall into the trap of elevating ourselves above our brethren, creating a “clergy-laity” relationship. So many preachers have faltered in their work because of this sin. Loud, pulpit-bashing, “you versus me” men have a tendency to drive a wedge in between themselves and the people they are trying to teach. They have all but forgotten the words written long ago, “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).
We must always understand that there is no place in the kingdom of heaven for preachers, or any Christians for that matter, who want to puff themselves up, taking glory in their own self-righteousness. Paul, who had every reason to consider himself better than his contemporaries, chose to glory in his weaknesses more than his accomplishments (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). When we consider all that Paul did for God, his sufferings, his preaching, his diligence, it is amazing to realize all of the humility that he expressed. We would be hard-pressed to find any preacher today who would be able to stack up against a man like Paul, yet more and more apostate preachers love to boast about their terribly minor accomplishments!
Humility is a virtue that is sometimes forgotten. We know that we must have faith, righteousness, perseverance, love of the brethren – but in this age of selfishness and independent liberalism, people are constantly bombarded with the pressures of pride and self-righteousness. In almost every facet of life, we are told to be proud, confident, even boastful if it means securing a better job, making the varsity team at school, winning an attractive mate, or exuding a façade of righteousness when confronted by unbelievers. Greed and materialism have slowly but surely taken the place of selflessness and humility. And this has naturally given rise to shallow and entertaining worship to God. There is a thought that we must always remember, though, when discussing our humility; there is nothing that we have done to deserve what we have. There is no boast we can make, no confidence in ourselves or our abilities that means anything. Humility, at its core, is the understanding that we are unworthy to be partakers in the kingdom. “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5).
This is exactly the point our Lord makes in the parable about the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer. Turn with me to Luke 18:9-14. In this lesson, I would like to examine the text of this story and help expose a lesson about humility that all Christians need to understand!
To Whom Is The Parable Written?
We are given a description of the kind of people to whom this parable is addressed in Luke 18:9, “And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.” It is important to notice that Jesus wants us to know exactly who needs to hear this parable, although one can easily argue that we all fall into the category, at times, of people who trust in ourselves. This is an interesting phrase – “Who trusted in themselves.” These are the kind of people who see only one standard of righteousness, which is their own, as applying to them. It sounds very much like what is written in 2 Corinthians 10:12, “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves, and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.” It is a silly thing to say that you can measure anything accurately unless you have an outside source, such as a ruler. But there are people out there whose only standard of measure is their own sense (or lack of it) morality. Of course, when a person’s only standard is himself, it is only natural to say that he is always right! That is easily refutable, however, after one reads John 12:48.
The key problem with all of this is that the attention is placed on the self, instead of on God – that is, some objective standard of truth and righteousness. We meet a number of individuals like this who say, “Well, I’m such a good person. I don’t feel guilty when I do that activity which you claim is a sin. As long as I’m happy and I feel good about it, then it must be right – or, at least, right for me.” But each individual is not an accurate judge of right and wrong! If this is true, then what is so bad about me doing whatever I want, as long as I do not feel guilt? I could certainly steal your car and you would have no right to complain! I could kill anybody I want and steal his wife. What would be the problem with that? When each of us only use our own morality as the standard of measure, chaos and suffering ensue!
“And viewed others with contempt” – literally, they regarded as nothing the spiritual state of other people. Essentially, these people believe that they are so righteous in what they do that no other person can match them. This is where it gets difficult for preachers. It is such a great temptation to stand up in a high pulpit, with a suit on, and in the loudest voice condemn everybody in the world. Many preachers have the “why can’t you be more like me” mentality, which is both dangerous and just plain wrong. Most people who believe in the Bible would agree that Paul was, according to worldly standards, the greatest and most accomplished apostle. But Paul never saw himself in such a light. He remarks, “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). And also, in 1 Corinthians 15:9, after listing off the order in which Jesus Christ appeared to the apostles, he lists himself last, saying, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle.” Finally, he writes, “But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).
The true theme of Christianity is to hold others higher than ourselves, not this twisted view of holding others in contempt. After all, the second greatest command given to mankind is to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), which is also restated in Philippians 2:3.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax-gatherer” (Luke 18:10). The parable begins with Christ setting the scene. There are two men who proceed to the temple for prayers. The temple was located on Mt. Moriah, which means they literally had to go up. We know from Acts 3:1 that there were scheduled hours of prayer, in which anybody could enter into certain parts of the temple – the Gentiles had a section completely separate and apart from anywhere a Jew could go – and pray.
The Pharisee is the figure used by Christ to represent the people to whom he was addressing the parable, that is the people from the previous verse who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” This phrase depicts exactly the kind of mentality the Pharisees had! The completely believed that they were the best Jews of the time, as one writer notes, “They claimed salvation as a right on two grounds: (1) because they belonged to the chosen race; (2) because they rigidly and minutely obeyed the precepts of a singular code of laws, many of them devised by themselves and their fathers” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. XVI, Spence, 109). Because of this elitist mentality, the Pharisees considered any other Jew not of this caliber to be condemned. While it is unclear from 18:9 whether or not Christ was speaking to Pharisees, we know that his listeners at least had the mindset of a Pharisee – they believed that because of works and physical requirement, they had a right to salvation!
The Pharisee is the extreme case on one side, and to help emphasize his point, Jesus uses an extreme case on the other side of the Jewish religious spectrum; a Jewish officer of the Roman government, who probably knew little or nothing about the Law (Spence, 109). This is a tool that Christ uses often to prove His points. He takes two extremes, stereotypes of the day, and shows the inconsistencies in what would have been common judgment.
“The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer” (18:11). Notice a few things about the way this Pharisee is praying. First of all he is standing, and while it is not necessarily wrong to stand and pray – we do, after all, pray short, mental prayers at certain times throughout the day in secret – but in such a public setting, with all the people gathered around to hear him, this Pharisee purposely stood and proclaimed his prayer. It was not uncommon to hear prayers like this, either! In the Talmud, it is written, “When Rabbi Nechounia Ben Hakana left his school, he used to say, ‘I thank Thee, O Eternal, my God, for having given me part with those who attend this school instead of running through the shops. I rise early like them, but it is to study the Law, not for futile ends. I take trouble as they do, but I shall be rewarded, and they will not. We run alike, but I for the future life, while they will only arrive at the pit of destruction’ (from the treatise ‘Berachoth’)” (Spence, 109). This Rabbi speaks as though owning a business and rising early to attend to it is a crime worthy of eternal damnation. It is as if anybody in the world who does not devote his entire life to studying the scriptures every day will not find salvation, even though such a world would be filled with starving, homeless, naked – but VERY intellectual – rabbis!
Second, the Pharisee is “praying thus to himself.” This would certainly be odd language if one was to describe a man making supplication to God. The fact that this Pharisee is praying to himself shows that he is not interested in pleasing God in his prayers – he simply wants to announce to the world that he is more righteous than everybody else. Of course, it does not matter what it is he is praying for because God does not listen to the prayers offered in pretense. James writes, “You ask and you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives” (James 4:3). See also James 1:5-8.
The reasoning of this Pharisee is telling of the low quality of character that was rampant among this group of Jews. He gives absolutely no credit to God for anything good in his life. Rather, it is his own virtues that he lauds, and not the mercies of the Almighty Father. He says nothing of his own undeserving nature, unlike the prayers of men like Jacob, who admitted to God, “I am unworthy of all the lovingkindess and of all the faithfulness which Thou hast shown to Thy servant” (Genesis 32:10). Instead of praising ourselves, we ought always to focus our prayers on what God has done for us, not what we have done for Him!
Next, he falls into the trap of comparing himself to other people – this is something common today. We often see the sorry state of our people we do not like and thank God that we are not as bad. When we see marriages fall apart, when we see men and women on the street corner begging for drinking money, when we look at the denomination across the street and make wise cracks about their apostasy. There is something about seeing other people suffering that makes us feel better about ourselves. If we believe this, though, we have to completely throw out 1 Corinthians 13:6, which tells us that love does not rejoice in unrighteousness. This Pharisee seems to be rejoicing in the unrighteousness of the tax-collector. Essentially, he is saying, “God, I’m thankful that that man is more sinful than me, because as long as he is alive, I KNOW I’m doing okay!”
“I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get” (18:12). As to the fasting, obedience to such a statue meant nothing to God when done without the proper motives. In fact, these semi-weekly observances were not even commanded in the Law given by God. The only command to fast was associated with the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:34). We know from other texts that the Pharisees fasted often (Matthew 9:14) and they did it with a great deal of pomp and publicity (Matthew 6:16-18). The Pharisee’s general attitude seems to suggest that he thinks God ought to be the one thanking him! As if God is just so tickled that there is a man like him out there putting in so much money to the treasury. The Son of God, however, refutes this idea by explaining that it is not how much a person gives, but with that attitude he or she does it (Luke 21:1-4). God owes this Pharisee nothing. And every arrogant word that seeps out of his mouth only condemns him further.
“But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner’” (Luke 18:13). There is so much difference between this tax-gatherer and the Pharisee, it is difficult to know where to begin.
The position of tax-gatherer was occupied by a Jewish man who acted as a representative of the Roman government. Because the Jews, as a nation, hated being under the rule of any outside kingdom, the populace generally considered Jewish Roman officers as collaborators with the enemies of God. Therefore, of all the jobs hated by the Jews, tax-collection was the most hated. They considered it a form of usury for a Jew to force his own brother to pay taxes to the Romans.
The truly redeeming quality of the tax-collector is his deep understanding of how utterly undeserving he is. There is absolutely nothing he has done to go before God justified – he has, in fact, done many cruel deeds to drive himself away from God. What should impress us is the great similarity between ourselves and this destitute man. Consider Ephesians 2:4-6, 8-9. Here, we find that it is only by grace, working through our faith and obedience, that we have been saved. Like the tax-collector, it is only those individuals who truly come to grips with their own sinfulness that will ever see such a grace!
Notice a few interesting things about the manner of prayer by this man. “Standing some distance away.” Unlike the Pharisee, he was uninterested in being the center of attention. He was at the temple for the single purpose of praying to God. He understood the truth that the praise of men could not save him, only the mercy of God. It is sad, though, when a person’s priorities get so confused that he or she would reject God in favor of the approval of men (John 12:42-43).
It is also encouraging to see that this man was not so completely overwhelmed by his sins that he lost all hope. The very fact that he is going before God in prayer is evidence that he believes God has the power to save! We, too, cannot go before God half-heartedly. Sometimes, we hear individuals say, “Well, I’ll just believe in God, just in case He actually exists. It’s no loss on my part!” But God expects us to actually believe what we preach and practice. We have to believe that God has the power to save, and we have to believe that the grace of God is enough for sinners like us! “Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). If we expect to go before God and stand justified we have to have full assurance in our faith. I also like what is written in Psalm 51:7, “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
“God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” If only we could all have the courage to go before the Father like this tax-collector does! He lays it all out on the table before God, knowing full well that the Lord knows everything – we cannot hide our sins from Him, so we might as well let them all out and admit them! It is true that few things feel as relieving as getting a sin out in the open. Like mold, fungus and other infestations, sin cannot survive when it is exposed to fresh air and sunlight. It is only when we try to hide it in the darkest corners of our soul that iniquity spreads and causes spiritual rot. This idea is confirmed by the thoughts found in 1 John 1:8-10. The Pharisee had himself pretty much convinced that he was sinless and he is the one who walked away condemned. But because the tax-gatherer was strong enough to admit his weakness, he walked away justified.
“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14). As we close the lesson, consider very carefully what Christ means by humility and exaltation. Do we willingly exalt ourselves, as this Pharisee does? It is common for people to do that – we live in a society that salutes self-exaltation. Professional athletes are expected to talk rudely to each other, high-powered executives must be self-willed and highly competitive to climb the ladder, parents are constantly pushing their children to win in sports and dominate in the classroom. What is worse than all of that, though, is religious self-exaltation. Preachers and elders are guilty of this quite often. Entire sects of religion can maintain this mentality, too! In the end, though, it is not our place to seek the pedestal or the highest positions of power. Please carefully read James 4:6-10. Humility is about choosing the lowest seat. Humility is about choosing the back of the line. Humility is about doing the job that none are willing to do. Humility is about grasping the concept of our own sinfulness – admitting it, dealing with it, correcting it, and conceding that nothing but the power and mercy of God can truly cleanse us.
Humility is all we have, friends. It is our answer, and without it we have no hope of something better. ‘It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and be silent since He has laid it on him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, perhaps there is hope” (Jeremiah 3:27-29).
“He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).