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  • Samuel at Gilgal

    This year I will be sharing brief excerpts from the articles, sermons, and books I am currently reading. My posts will not follow a regular schedule but will be published as I find well-written thoughts that should be of interest to maturing Christian readers. Whenever possible, I encourage you to go to the source and read the complete work of the author.

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J. C. Ryle: The Pharisee And The Tax Collector

We may know a man by his outward behavior, but only God can truly see the man’s heart. J. C. Ryle writes:

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.” (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)

The parable—or rather narrative, for it is probably a true story, adapted by our Lord to the purpose of the moment—begins by stating that “One was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.” Now, it is almost impossible to imagine a more striking contrast, in the opinion of a Jewish congregation. The PHARISEES were the strictest sect among the Jews: “I was of the strictest sect of the Pharisees,” says Paul. They prayed often—which was very right—but they also made long prayers for a pretense, and they would pray at the corners of the streets where two roads met, that they might be seen by people going and coming both ways and so get a name for uncommon sanctity. There is no reason for supposing they were generally anything but moral men—but their grand fault was that they relied on their good works, as a ground of acceptance before God. They seem to have been indifferent as to the real state of their hearts, and to have cared only for keeping up a fair appearance before men, for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.

We may get some idea of their real character from our Lord’s saying, that they gave tithe of mint, anise, and cummin, while they neglected the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy and truth; and from His comparison of them to whitened sepulchers, which outwardly appear beautiful before men—but inwardly are filled with dead men’s bones and all corruption. They “made broad the borders of their phylacteries,” they had pieces of parchment sewed to the edge of their long robes, on which some texts of Scripture were written, that people might see them and infer that they were great lovers of the law of God. They were very strict about outward purifications, and set great value on the washing of pots, brazen vessels and tables, and many other such-like things that they did. They were particularly zealous for the traditions of the fathers, and for the observation of the rites and ceremonies of the Church, and yet they often made the law of God void by their traditions. They were exceeding exact in the outward observation of the Sabbath—so much so that they called our Lord a sinner, and said he was not of God, because on the Sabbath day He had healed a man who was born blind.

And for all these reasons they were held in high esteem by the people; for men always prefer the things of sight to the things of faith, and think more of outward service than of heart; they had the uppermost places in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces, and were called of men Rabbi. In short, they got such a reputation for piety, that it became a proverb among the Jews that if there were but two men saved, one of them must be a Pharisee.

Such were the Pharisees. But what was the character given to the TAX COLLECTORS? It was very different in every respect. They were generally Jews who were employed to collect the Roman taxes. And as the Jews always disliked to pay tribute to the Gentiles, their office as tax collectors was looked upon as disgraceful and disreputable. Besides this, it is pretty clear that they used to exact much more than their due, and to amass much wealth by false accusations, to the great disgust of their fellow-countrymen. On these accounts they were so universally notorious, that our Lord Himself tells His disciples that if any man would not listen to the church, he must be to them as a heathen man and a tax collector. The enemies of Jesus thought it a heavy charge against Him that He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners; and in one place we find the tax collectors and harlots mentioned together, as people of like reputation.

On the whole, then, we may fairly conclude that in teaching the nature of acceptable worship, our Lord could not have chosen two examples more unlike each other than a Pharisee and a tax collector. One is of great repute with his fellow-creatures, while the other is peculiarly offensive—but which will God accept? (“Self-Righteousness”)

Another excerpt from this sermon will be posted soon.

The One Who Humbles Himself Will Be Exalted

J. C. Ryle explains how we should present ourselves before the Lord:

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.” (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)

Now, before entering closely into the parable, I would have you mark, that the first verse tells us there was one point on which the Pharisee and the tax collector were agreed—one point which they had in common, and one only—and this was, “They both went up into the temple to pray.” They both set their faces the same way, they walked in the same path, they entered the same house, and so far we can discover no difference whatever between them, in their outward behavior at least. But we shall soon find that their hearts were far asunder, and like the first worshipers recorded in the Bible, even Cain and Abel, there was a mighty gulf between them—for God, we shall see, accepted the sacrifice of the one—but rejected that of the other.

Oh, beloved, this passage suggests very solemn reflections, and for our sakes no doubt it was written. Both these men, it appears, “went up to the temple to pray,” and yet how fearfully the narrative ends! Jesus had just been speaking of the necessity of constant prayer, in the parable of the unjust judge, and immediately, without anything happening to break the thread of his discourse, he adds the parable we are now considering. Surely, then, this must be meant to remind us, as a thing we are liable to forget, that, however important prayer may be, we are not to suppose all who pray have a godly spirit; and that outward service is often given where there is no real dedication of the heart to God.

Truly it is cheerful and encouraging to see a multitude going up to the house of God—but still it is painful to remember that too many go in the spirit of the Pharisee, and far too few in that of the Tax collector. They all use the same prayers, they bow the knee, they move the lips together, and yet they are as widely different as gold and base metal. All are not Israel, who are called Israel. All are not Christians who name the name of Christ. All are not acceptable worshipers who are found in the temples of the Most High.

And what is the line of distinction? We learn this in the parable. Some come as Pharisees, and some as tax collectors; some appear with a broken and a contrite heart, such as the Lord will not despise, and others with an unhumbled and self-exalting spirit, wise in their own eyes and pure in their own sight—the sacrifice of all such is abominable in the sight of God. Oh that you would try to bear in mind more constantly, that “the Lord sees not as man sees, for man looks on the outward appearance—but the Lord looks on the heart”; that to Him “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from Him no secrets are hidden!” And if you felt this more, you would be more careful about the spirit in which you draw near to His throne; you would avoid anything like vain or trifling conversation both before and after service, and so observe the advice of Solomon—to guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”

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