— By Deaconess Elizabeth Ahlman
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).
Tax Collectors. Definitely some of the worst kinds of human beings. To begin with, they were complete sellouts to the Roman government and traitors to their faith and their people. They were greedy and conniving and took advantage of their fellow Jews, bleeding them dry to line their own pockets. While the Roman government may have needed, say, 1 denarii per family, the tax collectors were allowed to collect as much as they pleased. So, they might collect 3 denarii per family. Whatever was left over, they kept, while the families all around them starved. They cared for nothing but their own wealth and no one.
Pharisees, on the other hand, were the ones who lived righteous lives, at least outwardly. They kept all the commandments, plus all of the other little religious laws. They were loyal and faithful to their people and their heritage. They gave to the poor, they tithed more than necessary. And the list goes on. Jesus delivers quite a shock when He calls the tax collector the justified one. According to all the norms of faith, all the expectations of the audience and all that they knew about those dirty tax collectors and the Pharisees, their religious heroes, Jesus’ declaration is ridiculous. No one, not a one, expected this ending.
The tax collector, though, says something so important. The word translated as “be merciful to me” is actually the Greek word for “propitiation.” It’s the word used of the mercy seat in the temple, the place where God dwells to forgive the sins of His people. “Propitiation” is an atoning sacrifice. The tax collector, knee deep in sins and despicable betrayal, recognizes his state and his absolute inability to earn forgiveness. He therefore asks God to propitiate FOR him, on his behalf. “Lord, atone for me. Make propitiation for me.” And he is justified. Not because he is such a good guy, but because he rests wholly on God’s mercy and grace.
The Pharisee trusts in himself. The tax collector trusts in the mercy of God.
Whether we are obvious wretched sinners like the tax collector or not so obvious ones who see ourselves as doers of the law who work hard at being good, we are all unable to justify ourselves and in need of propitiation. We are in need of God to send for us an atoning sacrifice to appease His anger and trigger His mercy.
Jesus, standing before the crowds and telling this very parable, was and still is the atoning sacrifice from God which the tax collector sought. He offers Himself as the propitiation for our sins: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2, ESV). He advocates for us, when we are wrapped up in pride and self-justification and when we are the lowest of the low, wretched sinners. In Him, we are justified. In Him, we are declared righteous, not because of anything that we have done, but because of all that He has done for us upon the cross.
Let us Pray: Lord Jesus Christ, You are the Propitiation for all of our sins, make us repentant and teach us to pray: “Lord, propitiate for me, a sinner!” For You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
- Read last week’s devotion.
- This week’s devotion was helped along a bit by some old translation notes of mine, and a lot from an excellent Issues, Etc. episode on the readings from the one-year lectionary for the 11th Sunday after Trinity. Listen to the excellent episode here.