This first Sunday of Pre-Lent focuses on one of four essential spiritual laws necessary for the healthy functioning of the Christian life. "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:14). Living in true humility is the key to authentic life with God and one another.
Our Lord illustrates this spiritual law with the parable of the Tax Collector and Pharisee: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector"(Lk. 18:10; the Latin word for tax collector is publican).
It is crucial to the understanding of true humility to realize the details of the parable. The Pharisee and Tax Collector are in the Holy Place for the worship of God expressing their relationship with God in their respective conversation of faith and communion with God. They both feel they can approach the almighty God who manifested Himself in His covenant with Israel. Jesus chooses to illustrate His point by dividing us into one of two polar opposite religious states, both of which were obvious to everyone in first century Palestine: the Pharisee, the super-devout and scrupulous keeper of the Law of God; and the tax collector, the super-corrupt and unscrupulous agent of the Roman government.
The Pharisee publicly boasted of his righteousness with a conspicuous "holy" lifestyle separated from the common mass of sinners (N.B. the Hebrew pharasim means "separate ones"). The Tax Collector was publicly despised for his extortion of fellow citizens and sympathies for his non-Israelite (gentile) overlords. In popular thought, no one was closer to God than the Pharisee, and no one was farther from God than the Tax Collector. "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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess’” (Lk. 18:11-12).
Notice the direction of the Pharisee’s prayer – with himself, and notice the motivation of his thanksgiving, that compared with others he is better in his own eyes (as he looks down on this tax collector also in the temple). Granted, the Pharisee displays genuine virtue. It’s good not to be an extortioner, unjust, or an adulterer. We should seek to lead an honest, fair, and chaste life according to God’s will. Likewise, fasting and tithing are practices enjoined by God intended to confirm moderation and praise of God’s goodness.
But the Pharisee has taken these virtues and used them to exalt himself, and his self-exaltation is at the expense of others. Self-love and pride have negated the love of God for the good of all people; the Pharisee only sees himself as good. "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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other” (Lk. 18:13-14).
To be justified means to be made right with God, not by works of righteousness which we have done (Titus 3:5; Eph. 2:8-9), but by God’s forgiveness and mercy in the pledge of a new and holy life, not an excuse to keep on sinning.
Yes, the Tax Collector was a notorious sinner, but he had come to a true knowledge of his own unworthiness and the fact that God still called him to be His faithful child – standing afar off, eyes down, beating his breast, emptied of self-importance in the temple of God’s presence. The Tax Collector’s prayer: "Be merciful to me," literally means "be atoned to me," a reference to the temple sacrifices by which a sinner is redeemed and restored to communion with God through the shedding of blood.
Ultimately the tax collector’s hope is in the gift of God’s Son, the Messiah, the promise of salvation through the once-for-all offering of Christ to take away the sins of the world (see John 1:29; Heb. 10:11-14).
Thus we see humility in action: believing, hoping, and praying in Christ. "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Lk. 18:14).
Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee.