Deafening Ego

Jesus follows up His previous parable on prayer with another parable relating to prayer. Note that both parables are about prayer, but this present parable is directed to a certain group of people: “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18.9). It is very likely that He levelled this parable at the Pharisees, but not necessarily. It would seem he is aiming this at the crowds in general who looked to the Pharisees, the religious elites of the day, and tried to imitate their practices. Jesus uses this parable, then, to say 1) your righteous ought to embarrass you before God and 2) your attitude toward others is wrong.

First, these people trusted in themselves as being righteous before God. They smack with conceit and overconfidence. Their boasting is as great as the Pharisee’s is in the parable. Their ego is great but it is getting in the way of their communication with God. They are ignorant of this, though. Second, these people look down on people. All the other people are despicable. All other people are inherently worthless when compared to them, the spiritual giants. It is these people to whom Jesus speaks this parable.

The Haughty Pharisee

Jesus describes a common scene in the Jewish realm: people going to the temple to pray. The first character we are introduced to in any detail is a Pharisee. Now the details about the Pharisee are interesting: either this man is “standing by himself” and praying or he stands “praying to himself.” Either interpretation is valid and shows the man’s self-righteousness: if he is standing by himself, while standing was a common posture, to be by himself is to sever himself from the “others” (like the tax collector). If he is praying to himself, then his prayer, though addressed to God, is really empty of any true fellowship with God; he has removed God from His proper position in a persons life and has made self God.

The Pharisee’s confidence is self is further highlighted in the prayer. He is not like other men. He is, in his own eyes, blameless. But this is not the result of anything God has done; it is totally the Pharisee’s own effort and commandment keeping which has got him to this place in life. Hence, he thanks God for his own virtues and goodness, and not the mercies God gives to men. The climax of the list of sinners is the tax collector, no doubt standing within distance of the Pharisee’s voice.

But it is not enough to tell God about what he has not done, so he goes on to explain what righteous deeds he has done. He fasts twice a week, a common Pharisee practice usually performed Mondays and Thursdays (second and fifth day of the week). Also he gives the tithe, the common practice of Jews since it was commanded by God. Hmm…nothing real extraordinary in this man’s life. Yet, he is so proud of his deeds. His ego is so loud it is deafening, drowning out the sound of his prayer even in the ears of God. His prayer oozes with self: no less than 5 times he uses the personal pronoun “I”. This is one egotistical Pharisee.

The Humble Publican

Contrast this portrait of the self-righteous with this picture of humility before God. He is not standing for all to see (i.e. by himself) but is far off, hidden, in a corner perhaps. This is the position of embarrassment before God because of what sins he has committed. He is so embarrassed he cannot even lift his eyes to heaven. Ever been here? You do something so terrible in the eyes of God…of course we all have – those hideous deeds are called sins. And every sin is just as weighty as the next. One sin breaks fellowship with God. This tax collector shows us the proper position we sinners need when before God: “God, be merciful on me, a sinner.” We are hurt from our sins because our sins have hurt God.

Two men leave the temple day, but only one goes home justified. Only one goes home with things set right and deemed rigtheous before God: the tax collector. What?! The dreaded tax collector, the vile helper of the Romans?! Yes. He is shown mercy for he has seen his sorry lot before God Almighty. There is no possible way back into fellowship with God except for the mercy of God. If our ego is so loud we drown out our prayers, how can we expect God to show us mercy. Hence, the admonition from our Lord: humble yourselves before God. This lesson is seen elsewhere in the New Testament (James 4.10; 1 Peter 5.6). If we do not humble ourselves, God will not exalt us. If we are exalting ourselves, allowing our ego to run wild, God will humble us. Not may or might; He will! Our duty is to work at keeping God in the proper perspective and ourselves in the proper position: face down before a holy God.

The Lost Sheep

Once again we have a decent break in the chapter division for ch.15; I believe this is one unit of Scripture that is meant to be taken as a whole as Jesus shows us through vivid parable the grace of God, the pursuit of God, the gentleness of God, and the love of God. This is one of the most loved and (perhaps) oft preached chapters of the Bible. In fact, most unchurched people know about the prodigal son (v.11-24). I will do my best, in the treatment of this text, to maintain the structural integrity of this teaching of Jesus in ch.15.

But we must realize that this context is tied to the foregoing context. Notice Luke 14.35: He who has ears to hear, let him hear. That is how ch.14 ends; notice how ch. 15 begins: Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. Did you see the connection? Jesus finishes his discourse on discipleship with an admonition to hear his words and the tax collectors and sinners heed that admonishment. The lowest of society are doing what says while the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders of the day,¬†are grumbling (v.2). What a shocking contrast! Tax collectors were hated by the society – they were seen as helpers of the evil empire, the Romans. As Leon Morris puts it, “They were ostracized by many and regarded as outcasts by the religious.” Sinners were not much better; they lived immoral lives and were publically recognized for their lives which were contrary to the Law.

It is these kinds of people, the despised and disobedient, that Jesus received and ate with (v.2). To eat with someone was not merely to associate yourself with them, but also pointed to welcome and recognition of that person as worthy of fellowship. And so there is contempt in the words of the Pharisees and scribes as they comment on the situation before them: This man, Jesus, who is supposed to be some kind of religious leader, eats with this kind of riff raff! But remember, these people had gathered for a purpose: to hear Him. That is, to hear the voice of the one who speaks and the storms are calmed, demons flee, even dead bodies come back to life (see ch.8). There is life in these words, freedom and peace. No wonder it is these kind of people, tax collectors and sinners, those in social bondage, troubled by their past, dead in their transgressions and sins, who flock to hear Him.

Urged by the contempt of the religious leaders and perhaps burdened to vindicate his audience (for Jesus’ vidication will be found in an empty tomb), he speaks a parable to “them.” Them could be specifically the Pharisees and scribes (very likely) or it could be to the audience in general. Nevertheless, the parable is addressed to “them”: What man of you…. It is a rhetorical question; any one of them would do what Jesus proposes. The picture is painted of a flock of one hundred sheep. One goes missing. The good shepherd will not leave it to die in the wilderness; instead he will go and search until he has found that one lost sheep. Why? The ninety-nine are safe and sound; that one lost sheep is in danger in the open. This was customary.

And finding the sheep, the shepherd does not begrudingly grab the stubborn sheep and grumble all the way back to the flock. He does not beat the stupid animal for going astray. He does not even raise his voice to the animal. If he raises his voice, it is to rejoice over finding this one lost sheep. He gladly hoists this blessed beast onto his shoulder, smiling from ear to ear, as he lovingly takes it back to the flock. He rejoices with his neighbors for it is a happy occasion (v.6).

And here is the application in v.7: heaven rejoices over the repentant sinner even more than over the righteous who need not repent. To be sure, there is rejoicing for the faithful; but there is more joy over the returning sinner. And who was Jesus with? Those who needed a clearer picture of God. The Jews had muddied the water when it came to God. They believed God rejoiced over a returning sinner; but they did not picture God actively seeking out the sinner. And that is the revolutionary picture painted by our Savior. God is a seeking God, he is in pursuit of the straying sinner, doing everything in his power to track down and restore that straying sheep. A Jewish saying was, “There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world.” Do you see the burden these religious teachers had bound on the lost? But Jesus comes and presents a very different idea about God. He is God who lovingly searches every high and low, every peak and valley, seeking out his one lost sheep. What grand and marvelous news this must have been to the ears of those who came to hear him! They found themselves in the parable and identified with the sheep. God had come to seek and save them and sitting before was the incarnate reality of this truth.