Forever In Debt: Luke 18:9-14

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Rarely in the gospels do we find Jesus’ audience for a specific teaching defined by the characteristics or character qualities of that group. Usually the groups Jesus addresses happens to be the crowd that was following Him, His disciples, or a specific set of religious leaders, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, teachers of the Law, or even the scribes.

However, in one portion of Luke’s gospel, we learn that Jesus included an illustration that is so relatable, it may have even happened to one of those in the group Jesus spoke to. This event is found in Luke’s gospel, chapter 18, and we will be reading it from the New International Version. Starting in verse 9, Luke writes:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This parable and Jesus’ concluding remarks are powerful for every follower of Jesus to remember.

In the case of the Pharisee’s prayer, everything in it is focused on self, and on building himself up at the expense of others – even including someone standing nearby. In this illustration, the Pharisee comes before God and says, “Look at me and how great I am”. The danger in this approach to prayer is that we truly cannot hide any part of ourselves from God.

God already knew the great things this Pharisee had done and accomplished, and what the Pharisee has described himself doing, specifically tithing and fasting are both positive things. However, the Pharisee had blinded himself to any character flaws, and in his prayer, he did not even remotely hint at needing help from anyone. This Pharisee, like many people living today, suffered from the hidden sin of pride.

I call pride a hidden sin because we cannot see its root in ourselves or in others – but we can see evidence, like this Pharisee demonstrated in his prayer, that it is present. Pride is one of the most deceptive sins, because we are able to identify it in others a lot easier than we are able to identify it in ourselves.

One test I have found to help keep the pride in my life in check, is pushing back against the idea that I must receive the credit for everything I do or have done. Pride needs credit to feel good, and while it is by no means a perfect test that covers all areas, it does help me self-diagnose myself regarding certain aspects of pride.

However, while we might like to think of this Pharisee’s issue being that he brought pride into his prayers to God, under the surface, we can see parallels between this Pharisee and everyone who believes they are “self-sufficient Christians”.

Self-sufficiency is a goal in our culture for many people living today. However, this is one big way that culture stands opposed to God. While the concepts of getting rid of debt and forgiving others are both positive and approved by God, self-sufficiency when taken too far closes us off from acknowledging that we do at times need God’s help. This is a particularly sinister form of pride because while we don’t want to be indebted to anyone, there is nothing that breaks us out of being indebted to God: either we are in debt to Him because we are actively sinning and breaking the Laws He founded the universe upon, or we are in debt to Him for the amazing gift of forgiveness that He has given freely to us. Nothing we can do could ever match or repay Jesus’ death on the cross, so in a somewhat paradoxical twist, the gift Jesus gives us by paying the sin-debt that we owe puts us in even greater debt to God for His kindness.

However, let’s turn our focus onto the tax collector. His prayer is simple: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. The tax collector simply asks for mercy from God because he is a sinner. There is no comparison present, there is no self-exaltation, there is no self-sufficiency, there is only acknowledgment of who he is and that he needs God’s mercy.

Oddly, while mercy and forgiveness are connected concepts, they are unique. It is interesting to draw out the observation that the tax collector does not repent or specifically ask for forgiveness. However, these two concepts are implied because of how Jesus describes the man’s presence during his prayer: The tax collector “stood at a distance”, “would not even look up to heaven”, and simply “beat his breast” while he prayed. None of these characteristics would be shown from someone who was checking off a to-do list before going back to a life of sin.

Everything in this tax collectors prayer draws the focus onto a sinner’s need for God’s mercy. Only when we acknowledge that we are always indebted to God will we be truly able to come before Him humbly and leave justified like the tax collector. Self-sufficiency might win points with culture, but a self-sufficient spiritual life leads to destruction.

As we come to the close of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I want to leave you with:

Acknowledge that regardless of where we are in life, we are indebted to God. It is because either we are living sinful lives, or because we cannot repay the amazing gift Jesus gave to us on the cross. Because we are indebted to God, we should dedicate ourselves to Him and continually seek Him first in our lives.

Also, because we are indebted to God, we should focus time each day on growing closer to Him. This is best done through prayer and studying the Bible for yourself, because when we truly know and realize what He did for us, our lives will never be the same – and our perspective will be forever shifted.

And as I always end each set of challenges by saying, never stop short, back down from, or run away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Season 3 – Episode 33: Cam discusses a perplexing angle on two prayers Jesus describes prayed by two very different men. One man was justified, but it might not be for the reason you think.

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