Luke 18:9-14

29 Days of Prayer
Luke 18:9-14
Intro: This famous parable has long been considered a simple story about pride, about humility, and about the proper attitude for prayer. These ideas are certainly present in the text, but they are details of the surprising major theme – a theme we expect in the NT letters of Paul, but not necessarily in a parable by the Lord Jesus in a gospel. 

Luke 18:9 Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:

The subject of righteousness and how we can possess it is virtually scattered like seed throughout the parable. Will we seek to understand it in such a way that a harvest is gathered? Will we receive these truths?

Luke 18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

Here we must make our first decision. 

Our perspective makes this a very small group of people who hear what is spoken (perhaps as few as two people). Most of the rest of the world’s Christians would automatically imagine a bustling scene with dozens of worshipers listening in.

We make “prayer” a private, individual activity, and we make “worship” only for the organized, corporate religious gathering of believers. 

In the Scriptures, the verb “pray” can mean either private devotion or corporate worship. Only the context tells us which.

For example, Zechariah was participating in the daily atonement sacrifice in the temple as a priest. While the high priest was sacrificing the lamb, it was his turn to oversee another aspect of temple worship.

Luke 1:9 according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 
Luke 1:10 And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.

While the sacrifices were being made, the faithful worshipers were offering prayers in the outer court of the temple.

In the next chapter of Luke, Jesus will quote Isa 56:7, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Luke 19:46)

Do you remember the famous listing of early church priorities in Acts 2:42? apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and “the prayers.”

In this list, “the prayers,” were an expected part of the church’s worship, organized and often memorized.

On the other hand, when Jesus goes up on a mountain to pray, obviously the context is private devotional prayer (Luke 6:12).

But in this parable, there are numerous indicators that clearly show that we have corporate worship, not private prayer in mind.

1.    Two people go up to a place of public worship, the Temple, at the same time.
2.    They also go down at the same time (presumably after the service is over).
3.    The Pharisee stood by himself, apart from the other worshipers.
4.    The tax collector stood afar off. (Afar off from whom? from both the Pharisee and the rest of the worshipers).
5.    The tax collector mentions the “atonement” in his prayer – a reference to the daily Temple ritual sacrifice.

Devoted Jews attended the Temple sacrifices as often as possible. 

They would go up daily: (a) to be present at the worship liturgy (b) to receive the priestly benediction that was bestowed on the people at the end (c) to pray during the burning of incense.

Clearly, the people are praying during the Temple rituals, offering private prayers as part of the corporate worship during the atonement sacrifice (held twice daily – at dawn, at 3pm).

The sacrifice of atonement was the slaughtering and burning of a lamb for the sins of the nation. Afterwards, the burning of incense became the perfect time for worshipers to offer prayers because the faithful could now approach God. The pathway was cleared.

What about the two actors in the parable? They are described according to stereotypes.

The Pharisee is the precise observer of the Law of Moses, while the tax collector is a breaker of the law and a traitor to the nation.

So self-righteous is this Pharisee, that when he attends the Temple service, he separates himself from the commoners. 

The content of his prayer reveals how much he despises others who are not as scrupulous as he.

Luke 18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  

Jews who kept the Law in strict fashion were called “associates” (haberim). Those who did not were called “people of the land” (am-haaretz).

The “people of the land” were those lukewarm Jews who did not know what their Scriptures taught. They failed to observe the rules of clean/unclean and did not set apart tithes to the Lord.

The most obvious candidates for am-haaretz were tax collectors. They were daily unclean because they worked for the Romans. Not only did they fail to tithe to the Lord, the did just the opposite by extracting exorbitant taxes from the Lord’s people.

There was a particular type of uncleanness that was contracted by sitting or riding or even leaning against something. It was called “midras-uncleanness.”

The Mishna specifically states, “For Pharisees the clothes of an am-haaretz count as midras-uncleanness” (Mishna Hagigah 2:7).

With this background in mind, is it any wonder that a self-righteous Pharisee who looked down on just about everyone wanted to stand aside from the rest of the worshipers?

If he accidentally brushes against the tax collector, he will sustain midras-uncleanness. His status of ceremonial cleanness was essential to him. It must not be compromised for any reason. 

Prayer in Jewish practice involved primarily two things: (a) thanking God for all of His gifts (b) asking God for what we need.

Does this monologue fit that description?

‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.

He speaks aloud in what should have been a prayer, but really became a grandstanding self-advertisement in which he belittles those around him. He’s pretending to instruct them in the finer points of righteousness, but he’s really just hurling insults.

He glances at God but contemplates himself.

“I thank You, God, that I am not greedy, dishonest, or an adulterer, like everybody else. I thank You that I am not like that tax collector over there.” (GOOD NEWS BIBLE)

Nuts and bolts of self-righteousness…

I am better than others for two reasons:

(1)    for what I do not practice
extortion, corruption, adultery, treachery

“extortioners, unjust” can also be translated “rogues, swindlers.”

These terms are obviously chosen because they directly apply to the tax collector. They were considered by the public to be swindling extortioners and unjust rogues.

The third term, “adulterers,” is thrown in by the Pharisee to further disparage the tax collector by piling on, much like the older son in Luke 15:30, who accused his prodigal brother of devouring his father’s livelihood “with harlots.”

There was no basis for either accusation of sexual misconduct, but since it’s so easy to get others to believe gossipy innuendos, they are tossed into the fray like live grenades.

After voicing what he does not like about others, this Pharisee outlines some of the things he likes about himself.

Luke 18:12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’

(2)    For my disciplines and self-sacrifice

fasting, tithing

Even though the Law only called for a single fast on the Day of Atonement (once per year), this guy claims he fasts “twice a week!”

Then he brings up his giving record. While the Law only stipulated tithes for perishables like grain, wine and oil, this Pharisee – well he tithed everything.

Fasting twice a week and tithing on everything you have are acts of supererogation – performing works in excess of what is required –almost overkill. Here is a man who prides himself on his more than perfect observance of his religious duties.

When the Pharisee glimpse the tax collector, he sees a defiling sinner who should be scrupulously avoided.

Luke 18:13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’

This defeated tax collector does not stand aloof like the Pharisee, but “afar off.” He feels unworthy to stand near God’s people who have gathered to worship before the altar.

He voices no objection to the severe judgment cast on his character by the self-righteous Pharisee. 

He does not defend himself. There’s nothing like, “How dare you judge me? Why would you call me those things? Who do you think you are? You don’t know me! I am just living my truth!”

Like the sinful woman who dramatically washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, this penitent man also breaks into a physical display of brokenness.

He, “beat his breast.”

The normal posture for prayer was to cross the hands over the chest and keep the eyes cast downward. But this man’s crossed arms do not remain in place. Instead, be beats on his chest.

This is a gesture still used in some areas of the middle east. It is saved for times of extreme anguish or intense anger. 

Beating the chest never occurs in the OT, and only appears twice in the NT, both times in Luke – here, and at the Cross (23:48).

Luke 23:48 And the whole crowd who came together to that sight, seeing what had been done, beat their breasts and returned.

Why does he beat on his chest? The heart behind his chest is the source of all his evil thoughts. He beats it because it should be punished. “The righteous set their deaths over against their hearts because ‘all is there.’” Rabbi Mana

Matt 15:19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.

What, then, does he pray?

‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’

Even though most English translations render this prayer, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” – later in this same chapter, the blind man cries out…

Luke 18:38 “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

“be merciful to me” in v.13 is a completely different set of words than “have mercy on me” in v.38, yet they’re the same plea.

The outlier is v.13. The word translated “be merciful” is elsewhere rendered “make atonement for me, propitiate me, let your anger against me be removed”

Here is the only other place in the NT this word is used as a verb as in v.13.

Heb 2:17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

The tax collector is not offering a generalized prayer for God’s mercy. He specifically yearns for the benefits of an atonement.

illus: Consider the setting. A devout Jew coming to the Temple complex at the time of the evening sacrifice (3pm) would first see the slaughtering and butchering of the sacrificial lamb. Then he/she would notice a priest entering the Holy Place to burn incense. Both acts were not merely for observing. Each worshiper was to understand that they were participating in each ritual – the priest was simply the representative of all the people, to daily affirm Israel’s relationship with God. After the incense, the priest would return to pronounce the benediction with outstretched hands and put God’s name upon the children of Israel. Then the cymbals clashed, the trumpets blasted, the Psalms were read, the Levites sang, and finally the people bowed down in reverence, understanding that, in the death of that one lamb, their sins were atoned for another day. 

It was in this context that the tax collector stood at a distance. He is anxious not to be seen as he senses his own unworthiness. 

“I cannot stand with them. They are so far ahead of me.”  Dejected, he aches to be a part of it all, to stand with “the righteous.” 

In remorse, he strikes his chest and cries out in repentance: “O God! Let it be for me! Make an atonement for me, the sinner!”

He calls himself, “the sinner.” He, too, puts himself in a class all his own. But how different is his attitude than the Pharisee’s!

It is one of the marks of our time that the Pharisee and the tax collector have changed places. 

Indeed, it is the modern equivalent of the tax collector who can be heard thanking God that he is not like those hypocrites in the temple who obey God and do not want anyone else to have any fun. Besides, organized religion only wants my money anyway.

This tax collector in Jesus’ parable was rotten on the inside. He knew it, and he made no more excuses for it.

There in the Temple, this humbled man, acutely aware of his sin and depravity, with no merit of his own to offer God, longs that the great dramatic atonement sacrifice might apply to him. Will it be credited to his account?

Luke 18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisee was the rule-keeper who gave credit to himself, but the tax collector was the one who repented, desperately crying out to God for help. 

Wasting his time on empty religion, the Pharisee returned home still responsible for his sins.

Without any question this parable was a shock to its hearers. 

If anyone within their community would leave the Temple separated from God, it would be the ruthless tax collector. Regardless of his seemingly heartfelt prayer, his life was still offensive to them.

As for the Pharisee, he strikes us as arrogant for sure, but no one could doubt his disciplined keeping of the moral/ethical laws of his faith tradition. He was the faithful, dependable, tithing type of worshiper.

How could he leave the Temple complex owing something to the Lord?

“Two men went up to the Temple to pray, but only one of them prayed.”

The Pharisee mentions God but rests his case on his catalog of virtues. The tax collector knows his situation to be much different.

Without merits to stand on, he must stand humbly before God; without merits to speak for him, he must plead to God; without merits to be rewarded, his only option is to plead for God’s mercy.

The Pharisee stands before God in self-congratulation, the tax collector stands before God in prayer.

Augustine – “The Pharisee was not rejoicing so much in his own clean bill of health as in comparing it with the diseases of others. He came to the doctor. It would have been more worthwhile to inform him by confession of the things that were wrong with himself instead of keeping his wounds secret and having the nerve to crow over the scars of others. It is not surprising that the tax collector went away cured, since he had not been ashamed of showing where he felt pain.”

The parable ends here. Jesus appends it with a moral conclusion He used on several other occasions.

“for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

As God’s name alone is exalted, so He alone can elevate and exalt men. Therefore, “exalt” approaches the meaning of “deliver, redeem.” The one who humbles himself will be redeemed. God will deliver him.


If we view these characters wrongly, then we rob the parable of its message of astounding grace.

The Pharisee is not a sinister villain, and the tax collector is not generous Joe the bartender or Goldie the good-hearted hooker. 

If we picture the Pharisee as the bad guy and the tax collector as the sympathetic hero, then each person gets what they deserve in the parable. But then there is no surprise of grace at all.

We certainly must not read this parable and leave the sanctuary saying, “God, I thank You that I am not like the Pharisee.”

If we do, we have missed the point.

In Jesus’ story, the point He makes is that, according to the original hearers, neither got what they deserved: the good religious man left the Temple with his sins intact and the despicable traitor received forgiveness.