Sunday School Lesson 3 - Luke 18:9-17 - HUMBLE AND EXALTED
BACKGROUND: Last week, in Luke 15:20-32, we covered the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which included the Parable of the Older son. It was the story of a father and two sons, both of whom were flawed in their own way. In the broader context, the younger son represented the tax collectors and sinners to whom Jesus ministered and the older son symbolized the Pharisees and scribes who disapproved of Jesus' message. The younger son, before he came to his senses and repented, had demanded his share of the inheritance, left home, and squandered all his money on reckless living, whereas the older son remained at home and continued to do all the work assigned to him. When the younger son returned and confessed, the father restored him to the family as if nothing had happened and organized a huge party to celebrate his return. The older son, angered that his younger brother had been accepted back into the fold, flatly rejected his father's invitation to reconcile. The two broad truths of the lesson were: (1) When we turn away from sin and admit our wrongdoing, we are completely restored to a relationship with God, our Father, and He forgives and forgets our sins; and (2) Anyone who claims to be righteous but hates his brother (or neighbor) is still lost (or dead) in his or her sins.
This week, in Luke 18:9-17, we'll cover two more parables: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (vv. 9-14), which focuses on humble prayer, and the Parable of Jesus and the Little Children (vv. 15-17), which focuses on the humility required to be a follower of Jesus. Just to refresh our memories, Jesus used parables as simple stories that illustrate an important spiritual truth. He always began them with commonplace things familiar to His Jewish audiences and would form it into an analogy that expressed one central spiritual point.
Read Luke 18:9-12 - THE PHARISEE PRAYED TO HIMSELF
9 Now He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and began praying this in regard to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, crooked, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.'
v. 9a: "Now He also told this parable to some people" - The word "also" ties this parable to the preceding Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge in Luke 18:1-8, which placed emphasis on the need to be persistent in our prayers. Luke doesn't specifically name Pharisees or Scribes as "some people," in this phrase but implies they are the ones who are self-righteous and contemptuous.
v. 9b: "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:" - We need to see that not all Pharisees were self-righteous and contemptuous just as we know that all followers of Jesus are not humble and loving people. Even James and John fell prey to pride when they pressured Jesus for the top positions in His kingdom (Mk. 10:35-45). As believers and a church, we must constantly guard ourselves against a "we're better than _______" attitudes. It's sinful pride.
v. 10a: "Two men went up into the temple to pray" - Since the Temple was on the highest point of Jerusalem, you went "up" from any direction to reach it. The time allotted in the Temple for public prayer was 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m., but it was open to private prayer at any time.
v. 10b: "one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector" - We hear much criticism of the Pharisees in the gospels, so we tend to think of the Pharisee as the bad guy and the tax collector as the good guy. However, such characterizations actually rob the parable of its power. In those times, the Pharisees dedicated themselves to upholding Torah Law in a world where Roman power and pagan neighbors tempted the Jewish people to compromise. Tax collectors, on the other hand, collaborate with the Romans and steal from the Jews. Jesus' audience must have been surprised at the great reversal this parable unfolds. Imagine a church with a staunch but proud Christian believer sitting in the front pew and a drug addict sitting in the back pew, who's not at all sure how to change his life.
v. 11a: "The Pharisee stood and began praying this in regard to himself:" - Notice that the Pharisee stands alone, distancing himself from his inferiors. His "praying...to himself" has a broader meaning.
v. 11b" "God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, crooked, adulterers, or even like this tax collector" - The Pharisee makes a bad start by maligning other people, including the tax collector, while he's supposedly praying to God. In his prayer, there's no humility, no adoration, no confession, no supplication, and his only thanksgiving-"that I am not like other people"-is self-centered. In reality, the Pharisee's focus is neither on God nor the tax collector, but on himself. And he assesses his character by comparing himself to the worst in his society. For Christians, the only standard of comparison is Jesus, and when we compare ourselves to Him, our sin will be obvious.
v. 12: "I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get." - Although the Pharisee exceeds the Torah requirements, his overblown sense of self separates him not only from people, but from God. In general, the Pharisee takes a defensive approach to salvation, separating himself from sinners and their sins; Jesus, conversely, takes the offense, reaching out to redeem sinners and to bring them into the fold. Before we thank God we're not like this Pharisee, we need to self-check our own pride.
APPLICATION 1: As saved sinners and as church members, we have absolutely no basis to be proud. We must constantly guard ourselves against any tendency that we are somehow better in comparison to others, when in fact, we are only better-off due to God's unmerited mercy and grace. For the Christian, the only standard of comparison is Christ, and when we compare ourselves to Him, our sin will be obvious.
Read Luke 18:13-14 - THE ONE WHO HUMBLES HIMSELF WILL BE EXALTED
13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, but was beating his chest, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' 14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other one; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
v. 13a: But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven," - The conjunction "But" signals a contrast to the preceding verses. Like the Pharisee, the tax collector stands away from the common people, but his reasons are different: the Pharisee thinks he's too good to associate with them, but the tax collector feels unworthy of them.
v. 13b: "but was beating his chest, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'" - The tax collector's prayer is simple and direct: he cannot claim any goodness, and can hope only for mercy. Beating "his chest" symbolized his humility and brokenness.
v. 14a: "I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other one;" - The tax collector brought no personal achievement to the table to bargain with God and makes no effort to justify himself. He has nothing to commend him and makes no effort to become praiseworthy (i.e., Jesus does not tell us that this collector mended his ways and became respectable). In fact, his only virtue is his humility, which allows him to ask for mercy. Jesus explains that God accepted and answered his prayer, therefore, he goes home "justified."
v. 14b: "for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." - So, at the end of this parable, we have a righteous man (a Law-abiding Pharisee) who goes home unjustified and an unrighteous man (a reviled tax collector) who goes home justified. Do you see the obvious point of the parable? Justification (i.e., righteousness) is not something we can accomplish or earn on own. We can only receive it as a gift from God.
APPLICATION 2: Justification (or righteousness) is not something we can accomplish or earn on our own. We can only receive justification as a gift of God's mercy and grace. God never justifies (accepts and answers) the prayers of the proud, like the self-righteous Pharisee in this Parable. In contrast to him, the tax collector came to god in simple faith to beg for mercy: he claimed no righteousness and his only virtue was humility. None of us-and that includes pastors, deacons, teachers, etc.-have any cause to boast about our spiritual achievements, and none of are so good that we have the right to be contemptuous of our fellow human beings. The great Christian humanitarian, Corrie ten Boom, said: "All of us approach the throne of grace with empty hands."
Read Luke 18:15-17 - THEY WERE BRINGING THEIR BABIES TO HIM
15 Now they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. 16 But Jesus called for the little ones, saying, "Allow the children to come to Me, and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all."
v. 15a1: "Now they were bringing even their babies to Him" - For Christians, this Parable is a familiar story that touches us deeply. Yet, as adults, we need to re-examine the passage from an purely adult perspective and see how it logically follows the previous Parable about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the context of personal humility.
v. 15a2: "so that He would touch them" - In all likelihood, the parents wanted Jesus to touch the babies as an act of blessing them. This would be consistent with the practice of bringing children to the Jewish Elders or Scribes for a prayer of blessing on the Day of Atonement.
v. 15b1: "but when the disciples saw it" - We can imagine the scene here: Parents were bringing infants and letting their toddlers run up to Jesus; and Jesus would scoop them up and pray for them. As the other parents noticed Him doing this, they apparently began descending upon Him en masse.
v. 15b2: they began rebuking them" - One of the disciples' jobs as Jesus traveled from place to place was crowd-control. In this instance, the disciples obviously felt that Jesus had more important things to do-teaching and healing the sick-than to be swamped by a crowd of children. That the disciples were "rebuking them" (Gk. epitimáō, lit. a stern warning like "go away!") tells us that they were treating these parents in a very gruff manner. But before we judge these disciples, we need to appreciate the context: Small children were regarded as relatively unimportant people in the Jewish society of those times and didn't merit any adult attention outside of their own families.
v. 16a: "But Jesus called for the little ones, saying," - We can picture this scene: the red-faced disciples have just told off the parents and ordered them to keep their children under control in the presence of an important teacher like Jesus. But Jesus reverses their orders and calls the children back to Him. The children run past the disciples and crowd around Jesus, some of them probably sitting in His lap, waiting for His touch and His prayer. How Beautiful is this?
v. 16b: "Allow the children to come to Me, and do not forbid them" - The word for "allow" used here (Gk. aphiémi [af-ee'-ay-mee]) literally means leave them alone! And the phrase "do not forbid" (Gk. kóluó [ko-loo'-o]) means remove any obstacles. This presents a wonderful picture of the spiritual truth that there are no barriers between Jesus and people. He has abolished them.
v. 16c: "for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." Jesus doesn't normally draw children around Him when He teaches, so why is He doing it on this occasion? The answer is that He's using this incident to teach His disciples (not the children or the crowd) an important lesson about the Kingdom of God. The phrase, "such as these," (Gk. toioutos [toy-oo'-tos]) literally means people like these people (i.e., the children). However, Jesus isn't saying that the Kingdom belongs to little children or that they are already in the Kingdom; He's saying that those who inherit the Kingdom will be like these children. So, what are children like? (1) They are innocent (i.e., simple and naïve, not guiltless); (2) they are open, trusting, and receptive and (3) they are humble (they're unassuming and meek). And compared to God, we're like little kids-empty-headed, clueless, and vulnerable.
v. 17: "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all." - While babies and small children can do nothing to merit the Kingdom, they form a metaphor for receiving the Kingdom. The word translated "receive" (Gk. dechomai [dekh'-om-ahee]) literally means to be welcoming, accepting, and receptive to something. So, how do little children come to Jesus? They come, freely, openly, and humbly. They come to God with no pretentiousness or posturing of worthiness. Unlike the proud Pharisee in the preceding Parable, they come in simple faith, like the tax collector. To summarize, lack of pretension, openness, and humility-these are the essential qualities of children that Jesus presents to us as necessary for entrance to God's Kingdom.
APPLICATION 3: Coming to Jesus has nothing to do with our worthiness. Coming to Jesus is all about His willingness to forgive, cleanse, and transform us. Like the little children in the Parable, we must come to Jesus without any pretention. Instead, we must come to Him in all humility and openness, with the understanding that we are allowed to approach Him only by God's mercy and His unmerited grace. We can only enter God's kingdom when-like little children--we come depending completely upon Jesus and not ourselves.