The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
This short parable (Luke 18:9-14) teaches a powerful lesson, one I have greatly needed to learn in the course of my life and still need regular reminders about.
The Pharisee thanks God that he is better than others. He lists some of those he feels superior to and tells a couple reasons why. The tax collector, in contrast, stands at a distance, does not look up toward God, and humbly begs for mercy.
Jesus states his point clearly, saying the tax collector was justified before God, not the Pharisee. He then restates it in terms of those who exalt themselves (like the Pharisee) will be humbled and those who humble themselves (like the tax collector) will be exalted.
This parable is teaching us a key truth about salvation. Jesus says this is about being “justified before God,” the same word Paul often uses to describe salvation (Romans 3:20, 24, 28; 5:1). The parallel phrase about being exalted also refers to salvation in this context (cf. Luke 10:15; 2 Corinthians 11:7; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6). The teaching is about salvation, and there is much we understand about this, but we also sometimes omit the key to salvation that Jesus emphasizes here.
We understand that the Pharisee is off base in his thinking about how to be right with God. A person does not get right with God by looking down on or feeling superior to other sinners, including the ones he mentions—robbers, evildoers, adulterers and tax collectors. We may be surprised that he included tax collectors in his list of sinners, but they were not only disliked in his day (and today!) because of their collusion with Romans but also did in fact tend to cheat people and be greedy. It’s true that all these people were sinners, but it’s not for us to feel superior to or look down on them. We might ask ourselves what types of sinners do we tend to especially look down on.
We also understand that the Pharisee was off base in his thinking by his notion that tithing and fasting qualified him for salvation. They do not, and neither do any similar good deeds we may highlight today such as attending church twice a week or giving to the poor. We understand that we cannot save ourselves by our deeds.
And we understand that the tax collector had the right attitude. More specifically, his unwillingness to look up toward God in heaven indicates his deep sense of unworthiness. His beating his breast is probably an expression of sorrow for his sin. His words show he had no sense of entitlement but instead called himself a sinner and begged for mercy. You almost can’t miss the point that the tax collector’s humble attitude is what God wants in us in order to be saved.
Strangely, though, when we have discussions about how to be saved, we rarely mention humility. We mention faith and/or confessing Christ. Some mention repentance. Some include baptism. But rarely does anyone list the specific attitude of humility that Jesus indicates is the way to be justified before God. That’s the attitude we tend to omit in discussions of salvation.
Perhaps we focus the things we do because we tend to look to Acts and the Letters more so than the Gospels to understand salvation. Sure enough, in both Acts and the letters we find statements that connect faith, confession, repentance, and baptism with forgiveness and salvation. Different groups tend to highlight different ones of these. Personally, since we find all these specifically associated with forgiveness and salvation, I believe we should just accept them all while also remembering that none of them earn salvation—they are they are all faith-responses to Christ. They are all wholesome and good, but there is more.
Or perhaps our neglect of humility is because we tend to focus instead on more tangible matters like those listed in the previous paragraph. For example, I’ve seen some elevate the response of baptism so far above all others that even the faith it expresses gets lost in the process. Some of the other responses to Christ, like faith, may not be as tangible as baptism, but even with faith we usually call people to express it in some way (usually by words) that is observable. Repentance is similarly intangible, though Scripture is clear that true inward repentance will lead to changes in behavior (Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:20). So maybe we focus on the responses we do because they are tangible in some way. Again, these are all responses to Christ, taught in Scripture, and are good and right. Still, there is more.
There is also humility. Jesus clearly teaches in this parable that humility is key to be justified before God. We must not omit it. In regard to the reasons stated why we tend to focus on other things, I hope you’ll forgive me for thinking we should be more concerned to fit Acts and the Letters into Jesus than to fit Jesus into Acts and the Letters. I get why we focus on Acts and the letters, and I really don’t think they contradict the Gospels. But in our discussions of salvation, I don’t think we should focus on Acts and the Letters to the point that we neglect the clear teaching of the Savior himself in Luke 18 about the necessity of humility.
I also recognize that humility isn’t all that tangible. Like faith and repentance, it should lead to some change of words and deeds, but it still may be difficult to discern. Even so, we can definitely teach its importance in our response to God, as Jesus does in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. I would go so far as to say that, if a person professes faith in Jesus, confesses him as their Lord, says they are giving up immorality and self-centeredness, and is baptized as an expression of trust in Christ but does not have humility before God, they are not acceptable to God. That is not for us to judge, of course. Only God knows their heart. I’m just saying Luke 18 teaches a truth about salvation we tend to omit but must not.
Humility helps us avoid legalism, something all of us have to be on guard against. Surprisingly, even those who may seem most immune to it, such as those who emphasize faith to the exclusion of everything else, can become legalistic. How? By insisting that as long as someone expresses faith through a sinners’ prayer they are saved. What’s wrong with that? A person could easily claim to have faith and say a sinner’s prayer but not have humility before God. To deem anyone who says a sinner’s prayer saved regardless of whether they have actually humbled themselves before God would be legalism. This is all the more clear when we remember sinners’ prayers are not even mentioned in Scripture while humility is not only mentioned but even specifically associated with salvation by Jesus in our parable. By the way, I’m also concerned about the tendency some people have to omit the other faith-responses to the grace of Christ mentioned above, but my focus here is on the necessity of humility that Christ clearly teaches in this parable.
Significantly, Jesus teaches the vital role of humility for entering the kingdom of God in other passages too. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Is it too much to say from the opening beatitude that humility is the first step toward entering the kingdom? By the way, I think Jesus is here referring to the present aspect of the kingdom, not the still future aspect. Humility is prerequisite to coming under the reign of God in the here and now. And this is no mere legal requirement. A person simply will not allow God to rule his or her life unless they have the humility to acknowledge their need for as much.
Similarly, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). This statement has confused many who have seen children’s self-centeredness or temper tantrums. But Matthew 18:4 shows the specific point of comparison with children that Jesus had in mind is humility. You may not feel like that helps very much because many children don’t seem humble at all. I think the solution is that Jesus is not talking about qualities children display but a status they possessed, namely, a humble one. NIV correctly interprets Jesus’ words as whoever “takes the lowly position of this child” (v. 4). In other words, if we hope to be great in the kingdom of heaven, we must be willing to take on the status of those who had little or no status in the day, and to some degree in our day as well. Or, stated differently, we must humble ourselves to be exalted.
I’m not really advocating that we “add humility to the list” of how to be saved. That may in fact be counterproductive and lead to more legalism by “checking the humility box.” But I do think we need to acknowledge that Jesus clearly teaches that humility is prerequisite for entering the kingdom and teach this to others. Humility also continues to be essential to living well under God’s reign. It’s a truth I need to be reminded of regularly.