Hey everyone, Josh Hawkins here, this is Episode 110 of Opening Up the Gospels. In Episode 109 we looked at the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18. Through that story, Jesus encouraged His disciples to continue in prayer in light of the certainty of God’s promises. Though circumstances and delays may lead others to stop trusting and to lose confidence in God, faithful, prayerful Israel will most certainly be vindicated and justice will most certainly come. I talked about how the Pharisees had given up on this patient, prayerful waiting and had become sympathetic to the Zealots, the ones who were seeking to establish God’s promises by the strength of the flesh. They also believed that their piety and strict religious adherence would provide “merit” before God, which would speed up or beckon Him to bring to pass His promises. That idea is important to understand as we look at the next section in Luke 18 today, which is where Jesus speaks another parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. Let’s read from Luke 18 starting in verse 9.
"He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”"
(Luke 18:9–14 ESV)
This is such a powerful parable. Don’t forget, Jesus has just told His disciples a story on how to pray and not lose heart. And now He’s giving two examples of men praying, which expose what’s really on the inside. Luke says that this parable was directed at those who trusted in their own righteousness and scorned others. First, there’s the Pharisee. He stands by himself, probably near the inner part of the Temple, confident in self-righteousness. I picture him praying loudly and publicly, just as Jesus has said about some Jews in the Gospels already. He thanks God he is not like the outwardly unrighteous, and boasts in his fasting and tithing. He’s not really thanking God though - he is congratulating himself. On the other hand, there’s the tax collector. He comes into the Temple but stands far off from the holy place, beating his chest and not even looking up to heaven when he prays. And all he says is “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus then says that the tax collector is the one who is justified before God, and the Pharisee is not. Because those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Now with this parable in mind, I think it’s extremely important to distinguish between a couple of terms that are used often in evangelicalism today: legalism and self-righteousness. They are different. Legalism just means being concerned with the law. So if someone is legalistic, they are “law-abiding”. A Pharisee was in “legalism” in the sense that they obeyed the law. Other non-Pharisees in Israel were also legalistic. There is absolutely nothing wrong or sinful about being legalistic. Jesus was legalistic and the God of Israel was legalistic - He called the people of Israel to obey the Law given through Moses. The other term, self-righteousness, is what the Pharisee in the parable was exemplifying. He was boasting in his obedience to the law. He was using his legalism to make himself look better before God and before others. And that is what Jesus condemns in the Gospels as sinful. Do you see the difference? In the parable, both the Pharisee and the tax collector go up to the Temple to pray. They are legalistic, they are obeying the Law of Moses, they are responding to the sacrifice so that they can be right before God. Because they go up in light of the sacrifice, neither of them are thinking they can somehow be saved by their works. The Pharisee is boasting in his works and his legalism, which is self-righteousness. His boasting is what condemns him before God.
In modern times we often say that if someone is “legalistic”, they are trying to be saved by their works. But I don’t think you can’t mesh legalism and self-righteousness together. Now I do believe wholeheartedly that our salvation from God’s wrath doesn’t come by human effort or by the strength of man - only God can deliver us. We can’t pull ourselves out of a hole in the ground. But there is a “work” that we have to do - that is to do away with all forms of boasting and to continue in repentance and faith and humility. It is our responsibility to grab the rope He lets down into the hole and hold on to it. The Apostle Paul calls this “the work of faith”. We continually respond to the sacrifice - Jesus’ death on the cross - and we cry out to God to help us walk rightly in light of the day of the Lord. When we are rescued from the hole on the Day of the Lord, our boast will not be in our own ability to hold the rope, but in the strength of the one to save us and pull us out. This continued response of repentance and humility on our part is one of the reasons why we have the Holy Spirit - to help us continue in the faith, to lead us to the cross and keep us on the narrow path, and to encourage us on the race with the powers of the age to come. Does that make sense? “Holding the rope” or continuing in the "work of faith" is not something that we will boast in on that day. God gets the glory, and we remain humble. There’s more that could be said, but for the sake of time let’s move on to the next scene. I’m going to read Mark’s version, which is in Mark 10:
"And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them."
(Mark 10:13–16 ESV)
Both Mark and Luke tell us that people, presumably parents, were bringing children to Jesus so that He might lay His hands on them and bless them. And the disciples were thinking that Jesus didn’t have the time to do something so trivial and had more important things to concern himself with, or maybe they thought they were more important than little kids, so they made an effort to stop them. I imagine the disciples standing at the doorway of a house saying “no, he doesn’t have time for that, sorry, move right along now, we’re busy…”. The disciples had shown similar unkind attitudes at other times throughout the Gospels, like back in Luke 9 where they were aggravated that someone was casting out demons in Jesus’ name and wasn't actually one of His followers, or in Matthew 15 where the disciples were annoyed with the Syro-Phoenecian woman who kept crying out after them. In this scene, Mark says that Jesus was indignant - He was displeased with them, and allowed the parents to bring their children to Him. The reason, He says, is “for to such belongs the kingdom of God”. Because whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom like a child won’t enter it.
Now what does Jesus mean here? Don’t forget the division and contrast we’ve already seen so often throughout the Gospels. On one hand we have the Pharisees and Jewish authorities, prideful, boastful, self-righteous, seeking their own gain, confident in their own obedience and their human strength. On the other hand, we have devout, faithful Jews like Anna and Simeon as well as other Jewish sinners, tax collectors, and even some Gentiles - ones who recognize their weakness and inability, and actually bear the fruits of repentance, and who trust God to bring to pass everything He has promised. Jesus is illustrating this contrast once again by using the example of the little children. If one wants to inherit the kingdom and be a part of the promises, they must receive the message Jesus is bringing with humility and repentance. The apparent "grown-ups”, the Pharisees and Jewish authorities, were resisting Jesus’ message on how one would inherit the kingdom and how God’s promises would come to pass. A child is weak compared to a grown adult. They often have a simple and secure trust in their parents to give them what they need and to do them good. A child never earns their parents’ love. They have it because they are a child. The Pharisees and Jewish authorities were nothing like this. As we talked about earlier, they trusted in themselves and treated others with contempt. This story of the children is to show yet again that self-righteousness and the strength of man will not guarantee one’s inheritance in the promises. And as I’ve said about other passages, Jesus isn’t redefining "the kingdom” here as if it was some sort of present-tense spiritual experience. This is about who will receive God’s promises and how they will be brought about on the last day.
In the next episode we’ll continue looking at the events of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem by talking about the rich young ruler. We’ll see Jesus tell him that allegiance to riches and wealth in this age make it very difficult to inherit eternal life in the kingdom in the age to come. We’ll also see the Twelve continue in misunderstanding as Jesus predicts His suffering for a third time. In the meantime, here’s a couple of points for your meditation this week:
1) Ponder what Jesus said about those who exalt themselves and those who humble themselves in Luke 18:14. In what ways do we walk in self-righteousness and boasting?
2) Put yourself in the scene with Jesus and the children. What were his facial expressions? How did He make the children laugh and smile?
Well as always, you can find all the past episodes in this series on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. God bless, and come back next time.