Merit or Mercy?
Passage: Luke 18:9–17
Merit or Mercy?
As I prepared for this passage, I found an old hymn kept coming to my mind. It’s a hymn we occasionally sing, written by Edward Mote, entitled – “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.” It’s a gospel hymn if there ever was one, and the chorus, in particular captures, the truth of our passage. You probably know the chorus – “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Friends, that’s our text put to music. There is no other Rock than the Lord Jesus Christ. Our good works are not a solid foundation, even our good works done in faith. Our religious devotion is not strong enough to support us. Our only Rock is the Lord Jesus Christ.
And that gospel truth is pictured in our passage today. As you heard in our reading, the bulk of this passage is a parable – the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The parable is followed by a short scene involving Jesus and children, which, as we will see, is not disconnected from the parable. But the parable is the focus.
And like that old hymn, this parable pictures a great gospel truth. There are two men – a Pharisee and a tax collector – and they represent two different ways to approach God. The Pharisee comes to God on the basis of his own merit. If the Pharisee wrote a hymn, it would sound different, wouldn’t it? He would sing, “On myself and all my works I stand, I am better than every other man.” The Pharisee’s rock is himself. The tax collector, however, sings the right hymn, you might say. His only hope is mercy, not merit, and with remarkable humility he casts himself upon the mercy of God.
Now, part of the parable’s brilliance is that it is not hard to interpret. We know that the tax collector is right and the Pharisee is wrong. Jesus himself tells us as much. Our only hope is mercy, not merit. It’s not hard to interpret. But here’s where the hard part does come, friends. Even though we know the answer is mercy, the reality is that we often drift into merit. Even though we sing of Christ as our only Rock, we can slowly slide into the mindset of, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as those people. I’m not perfect, but at least I do pray. I do give to the church. I don’t cheat people or lie. So maybe I am a little closer to heaven that I thought. Maybe I do deserve some credit for where I’m at.”
And that’s the value of this passage, friends – it not only pictures the gospel, but it also exposes our hearts. It reveals how much of the Pharisee still resides within us. And so, part of God’s purpose for this passage is to expose our natural affinity for the Pharisee and to call us more toward the humility of the tax collector. We know the answer is mercy, but we need Jesus’ teaching to move us beyond merely knowing the answer to living out the answer day-by-day, relying solely upon the mercy of God.
So, with apologies to Edward Mote and his great gospel hymn, I’d like us to consider three gospel truths that help us build our hope on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
The Sinking Sand of Self-Righteousness
The first gospel truth is described in vv9-12. Here we see the Sinking Sand of Self-Righteousness. Just like last week, Luke tells us the purpose of the parable at the outset. Notice v9 – “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” So, that’s the purpose of the parable. Jesus wants to expose and correct the self-righteous.
V9 gives us a good definition of self-righteousness, friends. It centers on that little word trust. At its core, self-righteousness is trusting in your own works, your own moral standing before God. If we use the analogy of a house, the self-righteous person’s foundation is all the good things he does and all the bad things he doesn’t do.
And one surefire way to identify self-righteousness is how it treats other people. Notice that those who trust in themselves also treated others with contempt, Luke says. They disdain other people. They view others as having no merit, no worth, at least compared to themselves. So, from the start, we know that Jesus’ focus is the self-righteous, and we know that because Luke lays it out in v9.
But as clear as v9 is, the picture of self-righteousness in the parable is even clearer. Jesus describes two men at prayer – a Pharisee and a tax collector, v10. In Jesus’ day, these two men could not be more different. The Pharisee had a reputation for being devout and pious, while the tax collector was viewed as a sellout, a traitor who served Rome, a cheat who profited off the backs of his fellow countrymen. The two men could not be more different. And that means Jesus’ audience would hear v10 and think, “Well, this will be a boring story. If these two men are going to pray, we already know who God is going to hear. He will hear the pious Pharisee.” That’s what the audience would have expected.
And they would be wrong. Jesus, as he so often does, flips their expectation, and the Pharisee becomes the example of self-righteousness. Actually, the Pharisee is not an example at all. He’s a warning. Everything about the Pharisee’s prayer illustrates the danger of self-righteousness. Notice how clearly Jesus paints this picture.
First of all, the Pharisee’s attitude is wrong. His attitude is prideful. Listen to his prayer, v11 – “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.’” Friends, who is the focus of that prayer? The Pharisee. Who’s in the spotlight? The Pharisee. Did you catch all the references to himself? Five times – I did this, I did that, I, I, I. The Pharisee’s attitude is prideful. He’s impressed with himself, so much so that when he comes to pray to the Almighty Creator of the Universe, the Pharisee can’t stop talking about himself. His attitude his prideful.
Along with this, the Pharisee’s position is wrong. He’s presumptuous. If you look down at v13, you’ll notice that the tax collector stands off to the side when he prays. That means he doesn’t come into the inner court of the temple – he’s out on the fringes. The implication, however, is that the Pharisee does come into the center, right into the inner court. He stands by himself, and that position reveals his presumption. He presumes that he is worthy to enter God’s presence. He presumes that his own standing is enough. His position is presumptuous.
The Pharisee’s standard is also wrong. He focuses on other people, rather than God. It’s very clear in v11, isn’t it? The Pharisee recounts how much better he is than whom? Other men. He doesn’t do all the wicked things they do. He’s certainly not like the tax collector, who cheats people. No, the Pharisee is better than that.
And here’s the scary part, friends. The Pharisee is likely telling the truth! He probably does avoid all these wicked things. He probably does live a more outwardly moral life than many other men. His testimony is very likely true! But that’s the problem. He is comparing himself to other people when his standard should be God. Sure, you may measure up better than some other sinner, but how do you measure up against God? The answer is you don’t measure up. No one measures up. The Pharisee doesn’t measure up. Remember, friends, God is perfect, so his standard is perfect. It doesn’t matter if your morality is better relative to other people. It’s nothing compared to God. Sin is not defined in relationship to others; it’s defined in relationship to God. The Pharisee’s standard is too low. He’s looking at others when he should be looking at God.
Finally, the Pharisee’s standing is wrong. He stands on his performance, while God looks at the heart. Look again at v12, and notice the religious performance that stands at the center of the Pharisee’s prayer – “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” So, why is the Pharisee better than others, in his eyes? Because he does these outwardly religious things. But consider what is missing here – love for God. Love for neighbor. Humility and brokenness over sin. Dependence upon God. Listen, you can fast while your heart is far from God. You can tithe and still be in love with the world. As God said to the prophet Samuel, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”
And I want to be clear on this point, brothers and sisters. I want to make sure that we understand the problem with the Pharisee. The problem is not that the Pharisee fasts and tithes. It is good and honorable to God to fast for the purpose of prayer. It is good and honorable to God to give sacrificially of what God has given you. Those are religious acts, for lack of a better phrase, and there is no inherent problem with them.
The problem goes back to that little word in v9 – trust. The Pharisee doesn’t simply perform these duties; he trusts in his performance. That’s the problem with self-righteousness. It turns religious duty from an act of gratitude and love into a source of boasting and self-confidence. So, Jesus’ point is not that we should avoid things like fasting, tithing, prayer, or church attendance. Those duties are commanded by God, and they are good. Jesus’ warning is to not trust in our performance of such things. What I do in devotion to God, even when it is done in faith, is never the foundation of my standing before God. That is the Pharisee’s problem – he stands upon his performance.
Friends, this is the danger of self-righteousness. It deceives us into thinking that we are accepted before God, but all the while, we are blind to the reality of our condition. The Bible is very clear on humanity’s condition apart from God – we are sinners, totally depraved and entirely corrupt in every part of our being. From our actions to our motives, we fall short of the glory of God. No amount of religious performance can overcome sin’s corruption.
And that is a particular warning for us as Christians. We ought to be vigilant against allowing our good works, even when done in faith, to slip into the foundation of our standing before God. God does not accept us more fully whenever we read our Bibles or pray. God does not elevate our position when we attend church or contribute to his work. Yes, those things please God in the sense of giving him glory and deepening our love for him. But those things do not make us more fully accepted in his eyes. Those things do not elevate our standing.
The biblical gospel declares that we are justified by faith alone. To be justified means to be declared righteous. It is a declaration that God makes about his people. He declares them to be righteous. And that declaration, friends, happens by faith alone. It does not happen by faith and the good works we do in faith. It happens by faith alone in Christ alone. That is the foundation of our righteousness – not our performance, but God’s declaration in Christ.
This is why self-righteousness is deadly, both for unbelievers, yes, but also for Christians. Self-righteousness minimizes the glory of the gospel by exchanging the solid rock of Christ for the shifting sand of our flawed and imperfect performance.
The Solid Rock of God's Mercy
So, clearly, self-righteousness is dangerous, right? The Pharisee, in this parable, is in trouble. His entire outlook is wrong. What, then, is the antidote to this insidious error? What is the remedy for Pharisees like us? That’s our second gospel truth, from vv13-14 – the Solid Rock of God’s Mercy. Jesus shifts to describe the tax collector’s prayer, and it could not be more different than the Pharisee. Everything about the tax collector’s prayer points away from himself and focuses solely on God. Listen again to his prayer, v13 – “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!’” Friends, the truth of the gospel is seen in the difference between these two prayers. Notice the contrast with me.
To begin with, the tax collector’s attitude is humble. It shows up throughout the brief verse. Notice where he stands – off to the side. He doesn’t presume to enter the inner section of the temple. He knows that, on his own, he cannot come into God’s presence. What’s more, the tax collector doesn’t even lift his eyes to heaven. Did you ever have one of those moments as a kid when you knew you were wrong and it was hard to even look your mom or dad in the eye? You felt small in those moments, right? That’s the tax collector. He won’t even look up to heaven. Instead, he beats his chest, which is a sign of brokenness. You see, it’s entirely different from the Pharisee, who came in pride. There is no pride here – it’s only humility.
Along with this, the tax collector’s position is one of great need. Unlike the Pharisee, who can’t stop talking about himself, the tax collector addresses God. He prays for God to take action. Did you notice that the Pharisee never did this? He never asked God to act. He never made a petition. The Pharisee just told God how he acted. The tax collector is entirely different. He sees that his position is one of great need, and that only God can provide the remedy. He prays for God act.
Furthermore, the tax collector’s standard is God, not other people. Notice how the tax collector identifies himself at the end of the verse. Who he is? A sinner. That’s not a sign of self-loathing, friends. It’s not that the tax collector needs better self-esteem. No, it’s a sign that the tax collectors has the right standard – God. Compared to God, the tax collector doesn’t measure up. It doesn’t matter how he compares to other people. That’s not the point! He falls short of God’s glory. His standard is God, which means he knows he is a sinner.
Finally, the tax collector’s standing is not his performance, but God’s mercy. His only plea is mercy. This short prayer is one of the most powerful sentences in the Bible, I think – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Friends, this is a remarkable request. The verb be merciful is related to the noun propitiation. You might be thinking, “Ok, what is propitiation?” Well, propitiation is God’s action, in Christ, to satisfy his wrath against sin. When Christ is hanging on the cross, what is he doing? He is making propitiation for our sins. He satisfies God’s wrath.
Now, in the divine logic of the gospel, propitiation is the necessary requirement for forgiveness. In order for sins to be forgiven, someone has to propitiate the wrath of God. Christ does that, and therefore, those who trust in Christ are forgiven.
So, back to the tax collector. When he asks for mercy here, he’s not merely asking for compassion from God. It’s more than that. The tax collector is casting himself on God as his only hope of salvation. If the tax collector is to be forgiven – if he is to find redemption from the consequences of his sin and the weight of his guilty conscience – if he is to be forgiven, he knows it will only be through God’s action, not his own. In other words, the mercy he pleads for is the mercy of redemption, the mercy of forgiveness, the mercy of deliverance.
And I want you to note, brothers and sisters, that there is no bargaining in the tax collector’s plea. He doesn’t list his accomplishments. He doesn’t recount all the good he’s done and all the bad he’s avoided. He doesn’t even offer to pay God back with a life of obedience after the fact. No, with humility, he simply asks for God’s mercy, full stop. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And Jesus, with divine authority, says this humble plea is heard. Notice the verdict, v14 – “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Again, we see the surprising nature of God’s kingdom. Who is declared right before God? Not the exalted Pharisee – he is humbled. It’s the tax collector, who humbled himself in prayer, who is exalted, justified, made right with God.
Friends, in the course of Scripture, this parable anticipates the great apostolic preaching of the cross. This parable is a preview of Romans 5 and Galatians 2. I mentioned a moment ago the connection between mercy and propitiation, and now we see this word justified in v14. This is the vocabulary of the gospel, brothers and sisters. Here we are reminded why the good news is truly good.
What is the foundation of our standing before God? Not our righteousness, which is nothing, but Christ’s righteousness, which is perfect. How do we receive Christ’s righteousness? Not through our own works, even our good works done as a Christian, but through faith in Chris’s work for us. What is the result of this faith in Christ? Complete and lasting forgiveness through the mercy of God. Christ atones for our sins – he propitiates God’s wrath – so that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So, what kind of prayer does God hear? Not the prayer of the exalted self-righteous person, but the humble, repentant prayer of a sinner.
This is the good news of the gospel, and brothers and sisters, we need the good news as much today as we did the day God saved us by grace. The pathway into God’s presence is not earned through our performance. It is opened only through God’s mercy, and his mercy is a solid rock for sinners like us.
The Simple Faith that Saves
That brings us to our final gospel truth, the one that completes the picture. It’s from this short scene involving the children coming to Jesus, vv15-17. Here we see the Simple Faith that Saves. Now, you might think, “What do these verses have to do with the parable? It seems like these verses are a bit random – just stuck in the middle of the chapter. What’s the connection?” That’s a good question – the right question. The answer, in my view, is that these verses illustrate the kind of faith that receives the mercy of God. The tax collector pictures the humble prayer that confesses the depth of our need, while the children picture the humble faith that believes God alone can meet that need. That’s the connection.
In Jesus’ day, many people viewed children as a hindrance, particularly in terms of religious pursuits. But it’s clear that Jesus’ ministry does not project that attitude. Jesus is different. Notice v15 – “Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them.” So, people want Jesus to bless their children, even the newborns. They recognize the uniqueness of Jesus’ ministry, and even more importantly, they recognize Jesus’ willingness to receive these little ones. Jesus, in other words, is not like the religious leaders of the day.
The disciples, on the other hand, do appear to be bothered. Notice the end of v15 – “And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.” Jesus has more important things to do, the disciples say! He doesn’t have time to deal with all these children. He has more important people to bless, more important work to do. Don’t waste Jesus’ time. That’s the disciples’ attitude.
But that is not Jesus’ attitude. He corrects them, v16 – “But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.’” Now, a lot of ink has been spilt on how this verse demonstrates that children ought to be welcomed among God’s people. Because Jesus received children, the church ought to receive and welcome children. And that is gloriously true! The church ought to care for the little ones given to her families, and when those children demonstrate true repentance and faith in Christ, the church ought to receive those children and help disciple them, just as they would any other member. That is the right attitude for a church.
But friends, that is not the point of v16. The point of v16 is not so much about children as it is about the kingdom of God. Jesus is explaining how one enters the kingdom. And this becomes very clear in v17. V17 is the culmination, the explanation of Jesus’ point. Notice what the Lord says – “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Friends, think of how a child approaches his parent. How does a daughter approach her father? How does a son come to his mother? The answer is they come in complete dependence. A child’s trust in his parents is simple. It is whole-hearted. And it is entirely dependent on what the parent can provide.
And Jesus is saying, “That’s how you must enter the kingdom – not boasting in your good works, like the Pharisee. Not resting on what you have done, but trusting only in what the Father can provide.” That’s genuine faith, Jesus is saying. It is simple. It is whole-hearted. It is dependent.
You see, that is the kind of faith that the tax collector demonstrates in his prayer. With simplicity, he comes to God. With whole-hearted confidence, he trusts that God is merciful. And with dependence, he looks only to what God can provide. That’s childlike faith, friends, and it is the faith that saves.
So, if all you can muster before God in this simple prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” – if that is all that you bring before God, then Jesus is saying, “My Father, hears that humble prayer. My Father receives those who come to him like children – not boasting, but simply trusting that God will hear and answer and receive.” The kingdom of God does not belong to the proud and boastful. It does not belong to those who are secure in their performance. It belongs to those who know their sin and humble themselves in childlike faith, trusting that God is merciful to sinners.
Listen, if you are not a Christian this morning, then this is what the Bible calls good news. This is the gospel message that all of Scripture – from Genesis to Revelation – is declaring to you. You cannot save yourself. Your righteousness is like filthy rags, the Bible says. Your good works are not as good as you think, and your sin is worse than you can imagine. You cannot save yourself. Your only hope is the mercy of God in Christ, and that hope is solid, friend. That hope cannot be shaken. The mercy of God is greater than your sin.
How do you receive that mercy? By faith. Simply and humbly, by trusting that God is merciful to sinners in Christ. If you are not a Christian, confess your sin before God. Turn from that sin, and ask God to help you do so. And then, bank your hope on Christ’s death for you – that he paid for your sin. Bank your confidence on Christ’s resurrection – that his life will give you life eternally. You don’t have to know all the answers. You don’t have to perform a bunch of religious actions to prove that you are serious. You don’t have to clear a minimum bare of performance to get into the kingdom. You can simply pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” If you don’t know Christ today, won’t you respond to God’s Word this morning? Your good works can’t save you. No pastor can save you. Your mom and dad can’t save you. Only Christ can save you. Won’t you trust him today? God is merciful to sinners.
“On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” The Pharisee built his life on the sinking sand of self-righteousness, while the tax collector found the solid rock of God’s mercy. He came to God like a child, simply depending on God’s work to save. Friends, it is the gospel in one short passage. May God strengthen us to hold fast to this gospel, and above all, may we rejoice that through this same gospel, God is keeping us, his children, until the very end. Amen, let’s pray.