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STANDING FAR OFF
LUKE 18:9-14 ESV
“He 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.””
The line from our text this morning that I want us to focus on comes from v.13, “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!'” It’s a powerful scene. People worshipping in the temple, praying and bringing their offerings. There’s two people in focus, a man who should have it all together spiritually and a man who shouldn’t.
We’ll look at the first. The Pharisee possessed things within his spiritual life that should be noted. But they shouldn’t be noted by him. He’s a teacher of the law, which means he’s educated and trained, with the power to lead and guide throughout the community. He is there in the temple that day to worship and to pray; he admits that he fasts and that he tithes from his entire earnings. He has come close to God and believes his nearness to the Holy One has something to do with his spiritual accomplishments. He should have it all together. But of all the qualities he possesses, he does not possess humility.
The Pharisee’s self-recognition puts the praise and spotlight on his own life rather than on God. Even his prayer proves that he believes he is close to God through his own doing. To be made right with God, to be on good footing with the Lord, is the work of God, not us. We are not justified by our goodness. We are justified only by the God who is good. A lack of humility means a lack of gratitude. And gratitude is the response of one who has received.
Our good and godly deeds are a grateful response to the God who has chosen to love us and meet our needs, especially because we don’t deserve it. The Pharisee believed that his life brought him close to God. But the text says the man goes down to his house un-justified. He would have been better off to leave room for the Lord to come near to Him, than to presume that God would be pleased with his pride. And here lies the lesson behind the importance of standing far off.
The second person in the scene is a tax collector. Despised by the surrounding culture and known for having more than others, this is the one person in the scenario who should not have it all together. And yet, this man’s attitude is the reverse of a man who many think would be proud, if not right out arrogant.
This man here is not one who revels in being a collector of money or having great means. This is not a proud man. He’s a broken man. And what he brings to the altar is not accomplishments for the Lord to receive. The currency of the tax collector’s tithe is brokenness.
This collector of taxes has nothing to offer the Lord but his sin and his admission of that sin. His words to the Lord are not boastful, but rather they are cries for mercy. His posture is not close, but far off. How can he come to the Lord? If there is to be mercy, the Lord must come to him. And the nearness of God is found through his recognition of his need for the Lord.
Even his prayer is off, being that Jews typically prayed with their head raised and their eyes lifted upward. The tax collector stands far off, gazing downward, and in that posture of brokenness the Lord comes near. We know this because Jesus tells the people that the tax collector is the one who goes home justified. The man is made right with God, not by doing many things for the Lord, but by recognizing he belongs no where near the Lord.
Scripture tells us in Psalms 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” The seemingly unrighteousness man is seen as righteous in God’s eyes due only to the mercy of the Lord, on account of the man’s brokenness. It has been said that the Lord is attracted to our weakness.
The Lord said to Paul,”My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul knew that the power of the Lord would rest upon him when there was room for God to work. Paul made space for God to work by removing all pride and self-made strength. For what does today’s text end with, but v.14, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Our challenge today is this: to fight the temptation to come near to the Lord by our own strength and accomplishments. Let us drop to our knees, either in our hearts or in our church, and cry out for the Lord to be merciful. Let Jesus come near and make us righteous by His own power. May we know today that we are forgiven if we but cry out to him for mercy. Amen.