“He told this next parable against those who trusted in their own righteous standing and despised others.
“Two men,” he said. “went up to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee; the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed in this way to himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the other people – greedy, unjust, immoral or even like this tax collector. I fast twice week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
“But the tax collector stood a long way off and didn’t even want to raise his eyes to heaven. He beat his breast and said, ‘God be merciful to me, sinner that I am.’ Let me tell you, he was the one who went back to his house vindicated by God, not the other. Don’t you see? People who exalt themselves will be humbled, and people who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Jesus, Luke’s Gospel record 18: 9-14
In this teaching Jesus wants us to see each man’s perspective about their righteous standing before God.
If you were in that audience that day you already knew that the Pharisees were those who sought to live out the letter of the law. They were good men who wanted to do what God asked of them. You would expect them to be given Jesus’ vindication for their ‘moral standing’.
If you were in that audience that day hearing this parable you also already knew what the tax-collector was up to – over charging tax collection. The Roman Empire would get their required share and the collector would pocket the overage. The audience would expect Jesus to denounce such a man who worked for the ‘enemy’ of God’s chosen people.
In the parable, one character felt justified, the other felt unworthy. The Pharisee, a good man by all the Law’s standards, uses moral relativism to present his case before the Ultimate Law Court Judge. It is and was easy, of course, to point out other’s moral failures to justify your own ‘moral standing’. You will always find someone who is lacking. You will always be able to play the ‘one-upmanship game’. The Pharisee felt he was on solid ground with his indictment of others.
The tax-collector was already in a deep, deep hole and knew it. He had nowhere to point but at himself.
It could be said that each character despised others in their own way. In their respective roles, each man looked down their nose at others, whether during tax-collecting or in approval collecting. I can see each of them wearing half-glasses perched on the tips of their noses and looking down in a presumptuous gaze. Yet, their trip to the Temple for each was viewed differently by Jesus.
The Pharisee said “Look over there!” The tax-collector said, “Don’t look over here!” In effect with this parable, Jesus said, “Look! Here is what I see!”
When the tax-collector lays bare his soul before God, we see the sacrifice of a broken and contrite spirit. This act of introspection in the presence of the Lord event is Lent – regaining perspective.
Now this is important. After Dr. Luke relates this parable, Luke goes on to tell us more about the eye-opening perspective required by Jesus in His kingdom:
Luke 18 v. 15-17: “I’m telling you the truth: anyone who doesn’t receive God’s kingdom like a child will never get into it.” What does a child see? He sees a good father. He sees someone safe and ready to put you on his knee close to him.
Luke 18 v. 18-27: In the days of Jesus many thought of wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. To the rich young ruler, who may have thought that he had a foot in the Kingdom gate because of his blessed circumstances, Jesus said “sell everything you own, and distribute it to the poor”. Jesus has no problem whatsoever with wealth or riches or with blessing people. Rather, Jesus wants us to be a conduit of wealth, riches and his blessing. For this rich man to change his worldview – positing his riches as a Kingdom Express Card – to looking at the Giver of a place in his Kingdom would require a change of perspective (and currency).* (BTW: this passage is not an ideological basis for redistribution of wealth as I heard a certain Jesuit imply. Rather, it is a particular instance where Jesus is realigning a man’s perspective. The rich man still had his free will to choose, whereas with socialism, choice is not an option.)
* ”When the rich young ruler heard Jesus’ reply he turned very sad; he was extremely wealthy.
Jesus saw that he had become sad, and said, “How hard it is for those with possessions to enter God’s Kingdom! Yes: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s kingdom.”
The people who heard it said, “So, who can be saved?”
“What’s impossible for humans, “said Jesus, “is possible for God.”
Kingdom Perspective: Giving up what is treasured for the Kingdom is exactly what Jesus did for us when he emptied himself, took on a human form and went to the cross. Jesus makes the impossible possible for those who relinquish self and become conduits of his Living Water which contains the active ingredient Possible.
Luke 18 v. 28-30: With regard to how to view relationships, Jesus said, “…everyone who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, because of God’s kingdom, will receive far more in return in the present time—and in the age to come they will receive the life that belongs to that age.” Like with the Pharisee’s exculpatory plea bargain in the parable, you can’t say to the Lord, “But, my brother …”
Luke 18 v. 35-43: A blind man cried out loudly, “Have pity on me!” and Jesus restored his sight. Jesus said, “Your faith has saved you.” Those who saw what had happened gave praise to God. This is not so much a passage about physical healing as it is much more about reminding those who think they see (e.g., the Pharisees in the parable) that they do not. To see by faith, as the blind man did, requires a major shift in one’s perspective.
From parable to reality…
Next, in Luke chapter 19, comes the account of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a chief-tax collector whose physical stature was small and whose social stature was greatly diminished by his ‘overzealous’ tax collecting. Zacchaeus also gains new perspective — in a tree. Zacchaeus, like the tax-collector in the parable, also looks down. What did he see? Jesus looking up at him.
Lent is about gaining perspective, Kingdom perspective. During this time do I look at others and decide that I am good enough and need only just need a few tweaks here and there? Or, do I look to God and expose my very being to His Light?
There is tremendous gain when you take on Jesus’ perspective – your soul sees its worth in the eyes of Jesus.