Pursuing the Humility of the Gospel: Part 2

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Part Two: 

Why Jesus Chose a Pharisee for His Story

Have you ever stopped to wonder for any length of time why exactly it was that Jesus chose a Pharisee for this particular story He told?  I spent a great deal of time considering the answer to that question, and I've come up with three answers.

Reason One:  Jesus chose a Pharisee for His story because of their childishness.

They busied themselves with elaborate discussions, disputations,argumentation over the most trivial matters. For example, one scholar on ancient old and new testament times (Alfred Edersheim), records that a major controversy between the two schools of Pharisaism – the Hillel and Shammai schools – was whether a blessing should be said over the leaves and blossoms of a berry or just over the berry itself (The Life and Times of Jesus the MessiahVol. 2, p.206).  That leaves me absolutely speechless.

They also had a controversy over “what blessing should be used when a dish consisted of various ingredients, some of the product of the earth, others, like honey, derived from the animal world.” Further, “the controversy was long and bitter between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, on such a point as whether the hands were to be washed before the cup was filled with wine, or after 
that, and where the towel was to be deposited” (p. 210).

Going further, the three goals in life that made a Pharisee distinct from allother Jews were (1) not to make use nor partake of anything that had not been tithed; (2) to observe the laws of purification; and (3) to abstain from getting too close to all those who were NOT Pharisees.  On this last point, Emil Schurer, another scholar in the same field notes that just as an Israelite would avoid as far as possible a heathen or Gentile, so a Pharisee would avoid as much as possible a non-Pharisee (Jewish BackgroundsII, ii.24). 

The historical-cultural context of this last point provides some insight as to why Nicodemus came to visit Jesus at night in John 3.  It's also the reason why the Pharisees hated Jesus so much, primarily because was found frequenting the homes of sinners, Gentiles, prostitutes,and publicans (Mark 2:14-17; Matt. 9:9-13; Luke 5:27-32), and yet sporting himself as a teacher of the law.

So...I've got to ask...does this sound like you? Are you one to quarrel with other sover petty things? There is no end to the number of church splits which have occurred in church history over the most trivial and petty things. There is no end to the number of relationships that have been severed among Christians over such petty things. Are you one of these Christians who gets caught up in pettiness and childishness when it comes to your relationship with God and others?

Reason Two:  Jesus chose a Pharisee because of their hypocrisy.

The Pharisees were especially good at stretching requirements very, very farby elevating all commandments, no matter great or small, to the same leveland they further expected everyone to obey them. In reality, however, what they were accomplishing was an elaborate construction of hypocrisy, for their system allowed them to focus everyone’s attention on smaller matters of God’s law while neglecting the weightier matters.

Remember the man with the withered hand whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath?  That was a perfect example of their hypocrisy. They taught that everyone should honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Then they made up additional rules and regulations that people ought to follow to make sure they don’t break the Sabbath command. And in their little contrived system, healing anyone was forbidden because it meant a breaking of the Sabbath day! 

But Jesus goes on to teach that mercy and love and acts of kindness and assistance on the Sabbath are not at all acts which violate the Sabbath command. Love is the supreme guide governing all the commands. So to neglect to love someone just so you can keep your own understanding of one of God’s commands is actually hypocrisy. It claims to be godly when in fact it largely ignores much of what God has said.  

This is what made Pharisees hypocrites, then: enforcing the Law of God but neglecting the parts of it they didn’t like so much. This is why it was to a Pharisee that Jesus said those famous words, “you must be born again” (John3:3). Nicodemus, like all the other Pharisees, were so wrapped up in following the smaller, lighter matters of life that they missed the big picture called love. That’s why Jesus picked a Pharisee to illustrate His main point inthis parable. 

So again...I've got to ask you...as far as you are concerned, what does your meter read on the hypocrisy scale? Do you get on to others when you do the same things (Rom. 2)?  Do you condemn others in your heart for things they do when you do things that are just as bad, if not far worse? How often do you stop and consider your own sinfulness before pointing out the sinfulness of others?  Do you take the telephone pole out of your own eye before trying to help your friend take the speck of sawdust out of his eye (Matt. 7)?

Reason Three:  Jesus chose a Pharisee because of their prayer life.

The prayer life of a Pharisee really is one of the most remarkable things –remarkably arrogant that is. Listen to a couple of Pharisee prayers I found in my research. They date from around the time of Jesus, and they show that the prayer we read by the Pharisee in Luke 18 was really nothing out of the ordinary. 
“I thank thee, Jehovah my God, that thou hast assigned my lot with those who sit in the house of learning, and not with those who sit at street corners. For I rise early and they rise early: I rise early to study the words of the Torah, and they rise early to attend to things of noimportance. I weary myself and they weary themselves: I weary myself and gain thereby, while they weary themselves without gaining anything. I run and they run: I run toward the life of the age to come,while they run toward the pit of destruction” (William Hendrickson, Luke, p.820). 
“I thank Thee, O Lord my God and God of my fathers, that Thou hast cast my lot among those who frequent the schools and synagogues,and not among those who attend the theatre and the circus. For, both I and they work and watch – I to inherit eternal life, they for theirdestruction” (Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Lifep. 32). 
Notice a couple of things Jesus points out in His story about the Pharisee praying.

1.  Look at where he stands when praying.

When we compare where Jesus says the Pharisee is standing with where thetax collector is standing in verse 13, Jesus may be indicating that thePharisee is standing as close as possible to actual sanctuary, with its HolyPlace and the Holy of Holies (Hendrickson,
Luke, p. 819). 

If this is so, then what arrogance this guy possesses! When Isaiah was in the very presence of God he feared for his life (Isa. 6). But not this Pharisee. He marches right up totemple, getting as close to the Holy of Holies that he can get and proceeds topray without any inhibitions of his own sinfulness like Isaiah had.

2.  Look at who he addresses while praying.

The text reads that he prayed “by himself.” This is from the Greek word proseauton, which normally means to or about oneself. These two Greek words when used together can never mean “by himself” in the sense of “alone.” The imperfect tense of the Greek verb for “praying” when used with the phrase pros eauton gives one of two nuances here, both of which highlight indifferent ways the principal point Jesus is making about the arrogance of the religious leader here.

First, it could mean that he “prayed to himself,” but not necessarily silently.  Or second, it could mean that he “prayed about himself,” with the connotation that he prayed out loud, for all to hear. Since his prayer is really a review of his moral resume, directed both at advertising his own righteousness and exposing the perversion of the tax collector, whom he actually mentions in his prayer, the second understanding seems preferable. Therefore, if this is the case, then the Pharisee’s mention of God is really nothing more than aformality (from The NET Bible, p. 1861, n. 16). 

One pastor went on to point out that, “outwardly he addresses God, for he says, ‘O God.’ But inwardly and actually the man is talking about himself to himself…Moreover, having mentioned God once, he never refers to him again. Throughout his prayer the Pharisee is congratulating himself.”  (Hendrickson, Luke, p. 819). His prayer starts out as thankgiving to God, but the prayer ends up not being about God but about himself.

3.  Look at what he doesn't say in his prayer.

If you’ll notice, there’s no confession of sin...anywhere. There is no mentionthat he has done anything wrong. There is no asking of forgiveness. Thereis no sense of guilt. “Now if he had any sense of the divine presence, wouldhe not also have had a sense of guilt? See Isa. 6:1-5; Luke 5:8”  (Hendrickson, p. 819). This is the surest sign of a Pharisee in my book.  Anyone who does not acknowledge that they are a sinner or that they sin isself-deceived, as John taught in 1 John 1. 

4.  Look at who he compares himself to.

Moving further, you’ll notice that the Pharisee compares himself not to other godly Jewish leaders like Samuel or Simeon in Luke 2:25-32. Rather, he compares himself with those of a bad reputation.  It is always easy to think well of yourself because there is always someone who behaves worse than you do! 

But is this really the best standard of judgment? The mark of a Christ-righteous person is one who compares himself to God first and then to other Christians, always thinking of himself as lower than they, and acting like it also. Pharisee ends up looking over while praying andprobably spotting the publican, which is why he probably ends his prayernaming tax-collectors and talking about money. 

5.  Look at what he says in his prayer.

In verse 12 you’ll notice that the Pharisee congratulates himself on hisfastidious and strict ceremonial lifestyle with regard to fasting and giving.  Now, it seems the two facets of life with which Pharisees held to suchrigorous rituals was eating and tithing. They treated every single meal they ate as an official ceremonial ritual feast. So it is not surprising to find Jesus addressing these two issues in His parable.

  • The Pharisee's fasting: the normal fast was refraining from food and drink for 24 hours, from sundown to sundown. It was often accompanied by refraining from sex and from wearing leathershoes. (Dictionary of Judaism, Neusner, “fasting” on p. 224). Jews only required to fast once a year according to Leviticus 16:29. This Pharisee fasts twice a week. Probably on a Monday and Thursday, which just so happened to be the very same days in which most people would go to the market to shop! Any coincidence there? Absolutely not. Jesus told us in Matthew 6 that the Pharisees pray and fast for one purpose: to be seen by other people.
  • The Pharisee's giving:  Jews required to tithe only certain kinds of income. He tithed from all of his income, including vegetables, fruits, and yes, even herbs and spices. (See Deut. 14:22,23; Luke11:42)  Some went so far as to not even eat with other non-Pharisees for fear that they might be eating from food that had not been tithed (Edersheim, Life and Times, 2:291)  James Hastings (Dictionary of Christ and Gospels, 2:356) writes, “In Luke 18:12 [Jesus] illustrates how compliance with external requirements,especially when these are exceeded, as in the case of the Pharisees, and dissociated from the corresponding state of heart,breeds a culpable and overwhelming self-righteousness.” 
So here we go again with the crucial questions.  What is it in your Christian life that you value so dearly? Is it how much you give? Is it how you pray? Is it what you pray? Is it the way you parent your children? Is it the version of the Bible you use? Is it your schooling preferences? Is it your denomination? Is it your denominational distinctives? Is it your theological system?

Summary of the Pharisee in this Story

The bottom line here is that the Pharisee’s prayer was all about himself. As I said before it was nothing but a congratulatory speech on what he loved most about himself. And while we may not go around talking or praying like this, we do think like this, don’t we? We do congratulate ourselves on who we are and what we have accomplished in life. We thank God for the blessings He has given us and then we thank Him that we are not like “so and so” who does this and that. 

The Pharisee's prayer acknowledged no sinfulness. It shows no understanding whatsoever of the fact that he even sins at all, much less a proper view of his  own righteousness. If he did refer to his "sin" it would surely be with the terms “mistake” or “accident” or the like. But never would he view his sin with the utmost wretchedness as God views it. And there is the narrow gatethrough which the Pharisee is unwilling to enter, and through few human beings, for that matter, are willing to enter. How many people truly feel the brunt of guilt as they should for the sins they commit? How many truly sense the condition of absolute poverty they are in clothed with their own righteousness?

How do you know if you are acting like this Pharisee? You’ll know it when you talk or think just like he does in verse 11. You’ll know you’re acting like a Pharisee or perhaps are a Pharisee when you say or think, “I’m glad I’m not like other men.”  This is the manifestation of contempt for others. 

When you say to yourself that you’re glad you’re not like them for whatever reason,you are acting like a Pharisee.  Perhaps you’ve even said at some point in this post, "I’m glad I’m not like that Pharisee in Luke 18!"   If so, then you are probably that Pharisee! 

The challenge to you and I is simply this: examine your life to see whether or not you have truly met the Lord Jesus Christ because if you have, you would talk more like the tax-collector than the Pharisee. 

Which one are you at this very moment?  Since all of us act like the Pharisee from time to time, perhaps your resolution this morning is to put him to death within your heart – resolving only to think of yourselves and others as sinners saved by grace, as saying“there, but for the grace of God, would I have gone.”

In the next post:  You are pursuing the humility of the gospel when you exalt in the mercy of God and humble yourself (Luke 18:13-14).

About the Author: Rob is a entrepreneur in Statesboro, GA, where he envisions and pursues missional-shaped business for the kingdom. He and his wife Sherri have been married for 18 years and together have three sons and a daughter. Rob believes the mission of the gospel is summed up in four simple phrases: know God, obey Jesus, make disciples, and plant churches. This is the pursuit of his life, as well as the point of his blog.

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