When I walked by a woman’s house yesterday with my dog, her two barking canines brought her outside. I’m glad, because we had a friendly little chat. She recovered from Covid about two weeks ago and was staying home on Thanksgiving because she didn’t want to chance to infect her grandchildren. Perhaps she was overly cautious, but I think her conscience would have bothered her if she was with them today. I’ve been thinking about whether or not I have a clear conscience lately, and frankly, I don’t—about one personal matter that only affects me directly. But my guilty conscience may indirectly affect my other relationships and cause me to be a little less thankful than I should be today. Most of us feel guilty about something and hardly pay attention to the little voice talking to us about the thing or person we’ve neglected or wronged. In his book, “Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience,” Christopher Ash says one feature of our conscience is that speaks with a voice that is independent of us. “J. I. Packer says that ‘conscience is largely autonomous in its operation…It normally speaks independently of our will, and sometimes, indeed, contrary to our will. And when it speaks, it is in a strange way distinct from us.” (1) In our passage today, there are two men, one with a clear conscience, who should have realized his guilt, and one with a guilty conscience, who was relieved of his guilt after confessing. Confession brings relief and the ability to repent for a clear conscience. Christ calls us to be counter-cultural, to fight our tendency to tolerate guilt, to confess our guilt and repent.
Both Men Praying
“[Jesus] 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) “The Pharisee, proud as he was, could not think himself above prayer; nor could the publican, humble as he was, think himself shut out from the benefit of it; but we have reason to think that these went with different views. The Pharisee went to the temple to pray because it was a public place, more public than the corners of the streets, and therefore he should have many eyes upon him, who would applaud his devotion…The publican went to the temple because it was appointed to be a house of prayer for all people (Is. 56:7).” (2) Unfortunately, many of us have relegated all the Pharisees to a group of stubborn unbelievers with no faith. I will refer to the Pharisee as a man because, in truth, the Pharisees were the most religious people of their day among the Jews. After all, here he is praying at the temple. Although this parable is primarily about repenting of unbelief in Christ, we may also be confronted by it for greater, more passionate repentance of our besetting sins.
The Unrepentant Guilty Man
What irony Jesus uses in this parable—the Pharisee is thanking God arrogantly, being deceived, thinking he has a clear conscience. Jesus compares him to the passionate tax collector, who is also praying but realizing his guilt. “[The Pharisees] were men that prayed, and fasted much, and were great sticklers for the ceremonies of the law, and the traditions of the elders…[But] it scarce deserves the name of a prayer, for in it is only a thanksgiving: indeed, thanksgiving in prayer is right; and had he been a man that had received the grace of God, it would have been right in him to have given thanks to God for it, by which he was made to differ from others: nor would he have been blameworthy, had he thanked God for the good things which he had received from him, or which by his assistance he had done; but nothing of this kind is said by him: he thanks God, in order to exalt himself, and places his righteousness in his own works, and treats all other men in a censorious and disdainful manner; thanking God, or rather blessing himself.” (3) Jesus used this parable to rebuke the Pharisees for their prideful superiority and false thanksgiving in comparison to repentant Gentiles.
The Passionate, Repentant Non-Jew
“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.'” (vs. 13-14) He…“smote upon his breast: pointing at the fountain of his sin; expressing by this action, his sorrow, and repentance for it; and an aversion and abhorrence of himself on account of it, joined with indignation and revenge; and he did this to arouse and stir up all the powers and faculties of his soul, to call upon God…against whom he had sinned; with whom there is mercy and forgiveness; and who only can forgive sin; and who has promised that he will: and has proclaimed his name, God, pardoning iniquity, transgression, and sin; and has given instances of his forgiving grace and mercy; and therefore the publican was right in addressing him by confession…the publican had greatly the advantage, in the sight of God; an humble demeanour being well pleasing and acceptable to him, when pride, and arrogance, boasting of, and trusting in a man’s own righteousness, are abhorred by him.” (4) Jesus taught his disciples, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) We who are in the kingdom of heaven should imitate the passionate, humble, honest confessional prayer of the tax collector, recognizing our sinfulness, even today, to receive God’s mercy. Our thankfulness should always be founded not on our accomplishments but on God’s goodness, provisions, and providential grace and mercy.
The Difference Repentance Makes
“It is by grace and grace alone that we can ever have access into his presence. All of us stand guilty before the righteousness of God, Pharisee and tax-collector alike. The difference, however, between these two men was not that one was righteous and the other a sinner. They were both sinners. The difference was that the tax-collector knew that he was a sinner, and he repented of his sin…The point at issue here was not the track-record of the Pharisee or tax-collector, but the present attitude of their minds towards God.” (5)
“John Bunyan’s famous allegory, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ begins with its main character, Christian, suffering under the weight of a heavy burden tied to his back. It causes him distress, slows his movements, prevents him from taking joy in the ordinary blessings of his life, and puts him in danger. His burden, of course, is sin. After trying and failing to rid himself of his burden, Christian finds relief from it at the cross of Christ. And when it rolls away, Christian is immediately refreshed. Bunyan tells us that he was ‘glad and lightsome,’ ‘gave three leaps for joy,’ and went on his way singing. The author of Hebrews likewise describes sin as a clinging weight that keeps us from joyful perseverance in the life of faith. Thankfully, the Lord has warned us of sin’s crushing weight. He has given us his Spirit to help us lay it aside (Rom. 8:13), and he has even given us the enduring testimony of others who have experienced the power of God to free them from sin in their own lives.” (6) What is your attitude toward God today? Have you confessed to be free from a guilty conscience, to give God your best thanksgiving? “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Related Scripture: Ezra 9:6; Psalm 25:11; 79:9; Proverbs 30:12; Isaiah 56:7; Daniel 9:18-19; Matthew 5:20; 6:5; 18:3; Luke 11:42-44; 16:15; 2 Corinthians 1:9-10
- Ash, Christopher B., “Discovering the Joy of a Clear Conscience,” P&R Publishing, 2014, Kindle Edition.
- Roberts, Richard Owen, “Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel,” p. 221, Crossway, 2002.
- Sproul, R. C., “A Walk with God: An Exposition of Luke’s Gospel,” The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-17), Electronic Book, 2016.
- Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Luke 18:9-14, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/luke-18.html.
- Roberts, ibid.
- Hill, Megan, “Contentment: Seeing God’s Goodness,” Day 2, P&R Publishing, 2018.
November 25, 2021