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Who Is "Worthy" of Jesus? A Study of Luke 18:9-17

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 18:9-17

To impress upon the disciples the importance of humility before God, Jesus told them a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. And to impress upon the reader that humility is harder than it sounds, Luke added the story of Jesus and the little children.

Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Luke 18:14

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Fun with Self-Evaluation

To get into this week's frame of mind, start with this question:

Are You an Above-Average Driver?

The numbers were higher when they started doing these surveys in the 80's, but they're still high. According to a AAA survey from 2018, 76% of Americans believe they are above-average drivers. (Keeping to type, 8 out of 10 men believe they are better than average.) How does that math work out?

So, I think that could lead to a fun little discussion. Ask a question like this:

"What sorts of things do you think people overestimate their abilities in?" and the comparable "What do people tend to underestimate themselves in?"

(I had fun with this! When I taught a few college courses, I thought of myself as a good teacher. In my reading for this week's lesson, I saw a survey in which some 80% of college teachers thought they were above average! But this works the other way, too. I played on the church softball team for 5 seasons, and I thought of myself as a rather poor batter. But one day, another team member said "I'm glad you're here tonight -- we need your bat". Go figure.)

Here's an interesting graphic from the New York Times:

(If you're reading this on your phone and can't see the words, it says that people tend to be overconfident about having interesting conversations, getting an animal to like them, avoiding falling for fraud, winning a game of trivia, kissing, driving, using a computer, being a reliable friend, controlling their emotions. People tend to be underconfident about predicting which sports team will win, saving the human race from destruction, dancing, driving a racecar, running long distances, playing soccer, painting a portrait, making a billion dollars, and reciting the alphabet backwards.)

That is a superfun list. I didn't fully understand how that survey worked, but that doesn't really matter. It's just to spark discussion. What do you think of the list? Is it true of people you know? It is the opposite for people you know? Why might any of this be the case?

And that leads to . . .

This Week's Big Idea: Why We Compare Ourselves to Others

Why do we compare ourselves to other people? We all do it. We all do it all the time. Here's a funny anecdote I read in my research:

“Actually, I feel like I compare myself to other people relatively rarely,” he said, with a satisfied smile. “You mean…compared to other people?” someone else asked.

But why? What do we accomplish?

Let me not do a full deep-dive this week. This topic got too big too quickly. There is a field of study in modern psychology built around what's called Social Comparison Theory. It was drummed up in 1954 by Leon Festinger, who basically said this:

People figure out what it means to be human by comparing themselves with other humans.

(That's really quite profound.) He came up with three main ideas:

  • We tend to compare ourselves with people we think are similar to us.

  • When a person advances out of our comparison range, we tend to develop negative feelings toward them.

  • The more important we think a person/group is, the more pressure we will feel to compare ourselves with them.

Now - in what ways can comparing ourselves with others be good?

Well, hopefully this is obvious. Comparisons give us a frame for self-evaluation. Maybe we can produce more at work. Maybe we can run faster. If you can be sober-minded (i.e realistic and honest) about it, comparisons can give you a path for self-enhancement. That mom on Instagram does x and y with her kids and it seems to work; I can try that too. Coworker got such-and-such promotion because he/she did z, and that's something I can do.

In what ways can comparing ourselves with others be bad?

I'm going to divide this into three different categories.

  • Upward Social Comparison (comparing ourselves with people we think of as better than us) tends to make us feel inferior. Any runner who compares himself with Usain Bolt will necessarily feel inferior because Bolt is the best sprinter in history.

  • Downward Social Comparison (comparing ourselves with people we think of as lesser than us) tends to inflate our self-esteem. Let's just say that I would hope that you know more than a fifth grader.

  • All Social Comparison is based on a limited and distorted set of facts. For example, that Instagram family you're emulating isn't showing you everything in their lives. But more importantly to this week's lesson, we also tend to distort our view of ourselves for the purpose of comparisons.

Does that make sense? Can you see how those tendencies can become destructive?

A lot of comparisons we make are unreasonable and unhelpful. But even the ones we might think are good are untrustworthy. Here's a quote from The Jordan Harbinger Show that helped me understand this point:

"In fact, research has shown that we tend to prioritize feedback that makes us look good and desirable, and ignore feedback that makes us look weak, undesirable or generally “less than.” So even if we “succeed” in making ourselves feel “better,” our brains are often playing a clever trick with the data we’re using to arrive at that conclusion."

This leads to another big category in psychology: illusory superiority. That's a daunting phrase that just means people tend to overestimate their abilities. Garrison Keillor had fun with this in his News from Lake Wobegon (I'm showing my age here). Do you remember how that segment always ended? "Well, that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." That actually became a term for human tendency to overestimate themselves (and their children) -- The Lake Wobegon Effect.

In other words, when people feel above average, they might not have any tangible reason to feel that way. For example -- let's call back to our "good drivers" question above. 76% of Americans feel that they are above-average drivers. But another survey (by esurance) found that 93% of drivers admitted to unsafe driving behavior, like speeding or driving while distracted.

I promise I'm going somewhere spiritual with this, and here it is. Americans tend to judge their spirituality by comparison. "I go to church more often than so-and-so." "I'm more involved at church than so-and-so." "I bet I give more money to church than so-and-so." Guess what -- so did the Pharisee in Jesus' parable this week. What do you think was Jesus' opinion of that Pharisee?

What is our standard for righteousness? Jesus. And if Jesus is our standard, when what are we trying to accomplish by comparing ourselves with a carefully selected cohort? Hmmm. See how it all ties together?

Well, Jesus is going to give us the proper understanding of Social Comparison. At the very end, I'll give a few thoughts on "social comparison on social media" to show how what Jesus says in our passage helps us overcome our destructive tendencies to measure ourselves online.


Where We Are in Luke

Like last week, we are skipping over a significant chunk of Luke.

  • The parable of the shrewd manager

  • The story of the rich man and Lazarus

  • Our duty as disciples

  • One out of ten cleansed lepers

  • The kingdom of God will come suddenly

  • The parable of the persistent widow

  • [Our passage]

  • How the rich enter the kingdom

  • Jesus predicts His death

  • Jesus heals a blind beggar

We are rapidly approaching the end of Jesus' earthly life and ministry, but in these chapters we see that Jesus is still setting the ground rules for following Him. We can more or less say that this section is answering the question "Who are Jesus' disciples?"

If we go back to Luke 16:1, here's the broad-stroke answer to that question:

  • trustworthy with little

  • devoted to God above money

  • committed to God's law

  • not interested in earthly pleasures

  • full of faith and forgiveness

  • views self as an unworthy servant of God

  • prepared for the kingdom to come

  • persistent in prayer

  • humble and repentant [this week]

  • faith of a child [this week]

  • will give everything to enter the kingdom

You might see a pattern from that high-level overview: Jesus' disciples must be humble and not driven by earthly riches/comforts.


Part 1: Religious Pride (Luke 18:9-12)

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’

We got ourselves a live one here, don't we? Please note that the Pharisee truly, truly believed himself morally superior to the tax collector. That wasn't part of the show.

A helpful exercise would be to draw a chart on a whiteboard (or wherever) with two columns: "Pharisee" and "tax collector". Turn the description of the Pharisee into some bullet points, and when we get to the tax collector, try to line that description up.

Luke does not give us a setting for this parable (just as the previous one), indicating that it's not important when Jesus said it, just that He said it -- His followers needed to understand the right attitude of prayer (previous parable = persistence; this parable - humility). Note: Luke does not say that Jesus told this parable to Pharisees. My guess is that some people who followed Jesus had this kind of attitude, and Jesus wanted to fix that immediately.

So, Jesus tells a parable about two men. He is painting the biggest possible contrast with the fewest possible words. We've talked about Pharisees a bunch in Luke's Gospel. You should have a decent working knowledge of how Luke portrays them (put that summary in your chart!). The tax collector is on the extreme opposite end. Remember what David said in his last sermon about the call of Matthew: Matthew had probably extorted taxes from Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and so it must have been very hard to hear Jesus call Matthew as a disciple. But more about tax collectors in the next section!

The image is that the Pharisee puts himself at the center of the Jewish cult. He stands and prays in the temple for as big an audience as possible. People prayed in the temple complex all the time, and apparently show-prayers were common. They got noticed in the Sermon on the Mount!:

“Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:5-6

Standing while praying was not unusual in that day, but Jesus' description implies a prideful posture, like the proverbial "look down your nose at someone". And then the Pharisee launches into what I call a "preaching prayer". He's not praying to God. He's speaking to the people around him in the guise of a prayer to God. Have you ever noticed someone do that? It can turn into a bad habit if you're not careful.

So, really this prayer is not about thanking God for His blessings; it's about thanking himself for being awesome (in his own eyes). The phrase" about himself" in the Greek could go with "stand" and mean "he stood by himself"; but the CSB is likely right in putting it with "pray" with the meaning "he prayed about himself" (not for himself, about himself). Yikes. Who is he comparing himself against? What is he distinguishing himself about?

How many times does he say "I" in this short prayer?

Do note that the Pharisee lumps the tax collector in with the unrighteous, even though he probably knows nothing about him. That's a problem, don't you think?

Ask this question: what did the Pharisee get wrong? Why did Jesus put him in a parable?

If you used my discussion starters above, you would tie them in here. This Pharisee had a real lack of self-awareness, and he also made unhelpful comparisons.

  • Reason it out: what was the Pharisee getting wrong about himself? Well, he thought that he was righteous. How did he figure that? By comparing himself to unrighteous people. What does "righteous" actually mean in the Bible? (See below for more.) For starters, the standard of righteousness is not an unrighteous person! In the New Testament, we summarize "righteousness" by saying "right with God". Was this guy right with God?

  • In what ways were his comparisons not helpful? In addition to the fact that they were giving him a false sense of self-importance, note that he was comparing himself with respect to tithing and fasting. Jesus had something to say about that:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven." (6:1) "Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. For they disfigure their faces so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward." (6:16)

This Pharisee was the caricature of what Jesus taught against in His Sermon on the Mount. He compared himself against easy targets on things that don't really matter in the long run. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus said “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, and yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness." The Pharisee cared about his tithing record when he should have cared about his attitude toward other people.

This quote from MLK captures it well:

It's a tongue-in-cheek statement that basically applies like this: if the Pharisee didn't have sinners to look down on, he might have to look inward more closely. And he might not like what he finds.

Don't be like this Pharisee. Sure, your behavior might be more biblical than someone else's, but is that the standard God cares about?


Aside on Righteousness in the Bible

The Pharisee would have determined his view of righteous/unrighteous from the Old Testament. On the one hand, a person's righteousness was regularly determined through moral comparisons. Tamar was more righteous than Judah (Gen 38:26); David was more righteous than Saul (1 Sam 24:17). Those comparisons were based on justice -- a right application of the law (cf Lev 19:36). In the prophets, the idea of faithfulness to God became a dominant characteristic of righteousness (like Hab 2:4).

But on the other hand, we recently studied Proverbs. In Proverbs, a righteous person is honest, generous, steadfast, merciful, and just (10:11, 11:8-10, 12:10, 21:26, 29:7, 31:32). Then, Psalm 11-12 paint the ideal picture of the righteous God's relationship with a righteous person.

So it's clear why and how the Pharisee thought he could call himself righteous. But just like we cherry-pick comparisons to make us feel better today, he was ignoring those elements of biblical righteousness that did not line up with his self-righteous attitude. Think about the Parable of the Good Samaritan that we just studied -- those Jewish leaders probably thought of themselves as righteous, but were they actually merciful and generous? Think about the story of the Rich Young Ruler from Matthew 19 (and that Luke includes in the next verses!) -- he clearly thought of himself as righteous (faithfully keeping the commandments), but how much did he really prioritize his relationship with God?

This Pharisee created his own definition of righteousness that he matched.


Part 2: Godly Humility (Luke 18:13-14)

13 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Note that Jesus is not trying to create an archetype hero for us to root for here. This guy is a tax collector! Tax collectors were despised, thought of as traitors. It would be unnatural for Jesus' hearers to develop an affinity for this guy. (Which was the point! Think about the Good Samaritan. We're obviously supposed to like the guy . . . but he's a Samaritan! Jesus is intentionally confronting old prejudices to explain that God's kingdom doesn't work according to human prejudice.)

[I gave you other information about tax collectors when we talked about the call of Levi/Matthew a few weeks ago in Luke 5.]

And yet, even the tax collector can be justified before God if he has the right heart attitude.

In contrast to the Pharisee, this guy stands off in the distance, seemingly humiliated by his assumed standing before God. His very minor form of self-flagellation just indicates the depth of his remorse. He knew he had no cause to expect God to forgive him except God's mercy alone.

And that's the right understanding of ourselves before a holy God.

We are sinners. We have no cause for boasting before God. Even the best of us is nothing (read 1 Corinthians 1-3). The Pharisee's prayer would be like a birdbath boasting to Niagara Falls (except infinitely more silly). Luke 18:14 repeats Luke 14:11 -- clearly a truth that Jesus really, really wanted His disciples to understand.

Time to get introspective! What's your attitude toward God? You can analyze that by thinking about what and how you've been praying recently. Have you been primarily asking for things from God? How often have you confessed your sin and repented? Have you been comparing yourself to other people?

In this instance, we want to be more like the tax collector.


Aside on Justification in the Bible

Just as righteousness develops a specific meaning in the New Testament after the crucifixion of Jesus, so does justification. We talked a lot about those terms when we studied Romans:

Post-Jesus justification is the process by which God declares sinners righteous (right with Him) by imputing Christ's perfect righteousness on everyone who has faith in Him for salvation. Paul explains all of that very clearly to us, and it would be a very good use of our time to go back through those passages!

But what would Jesus' hearers have thought?

The Jewish hearers, at least, would have had an Old Testament view in mind. I had to dust off some Hebrew here. The Hebrew root tsdq can be used like this:

  • tsedeq or tsdaqah - noun meaning "righteousness" (or a place of justice)

  • tsadeq - verb meaning "to be justified" or "to make righteous"

  • tsadiq - adjective meaning "just" or "righteous"

Basically, the consonants were the real word, and the vowels (the way the Jews said the word out loud) determined the part of speech. And yes, the same Hebrew word could be translated as "righteousness" or "justification", depending on its usage. That's because the two ideas were basically identical in ancient Hebrew thought, but they applied to a rather wide range of situations.

The use most often believed to apply to our context is the forensic use. In a Jewish court, if you were acquitted of charges, you were justified by the court (see Ex 23:7). The heart of Paul's definition of justification comes from Gen 15:6, "Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness." So when Jesus talked about the tax collector going home from the temple justified, His hearers would have understood it to mean "justified by God". And they would have had mental context for the idea of God justifying that man just as a judge would. The hard thing for the Jewish hearers to understand would have been their idea that God, the righteous judge, would acquit/justify the innocent and condemn the guilty (see Deut 25:1). But the tax collector admitted his guilt. So what's happening?

Jesus is fleshing out this idea of "the great reverse" in which the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled. But what's really going on is the continued revelation that in fact all people are guilty sinners. No one is justified before God on his own. This simple parable indeed points toward that all-powerful truth.

So . . . does this mean that the tax collector was "saved"? Well, I guess, but remember that this is a parable. God justifying someone in response to their faith in Jesus Christ is indeed salvation. But this parable just focused on the tax collector's humility (remember that Jesus hadn't died yet!). Today, we know that we must both repent and turn from our sin and also turn to Jesus and believe the gospel.


Part 3: Childlike Faith (Luke 18:15-17)

15 People were bringing infants to him so that he might touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 Jesus, however, invited them: “Let the little children come to me, and don’t stop them, because the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

There are plenty of questions as to what this passage means -- it's been used to justify the practice of infant baptism -- but I think that in Luke's context it's clear that he wants it to be seen as an application of what he just shared, that whoever exalts himself will be humbled.

Wait, what?

I'm serious. Why would the disciples care if parents were bringing their children to Jesus? Because they thought that Jesus had more important things to do with His time -- like teach the adults. That was a very standard attitude in the day. Children, while seen as a blessing from God, were to be kept out of the way. Only after they passed their bar mitzvah could sons be taken seriously. But that's not how Jesus saw children.

The word translated "infants" often refers to babies or toddlers. But the word translated "little children" is actually a totally different Greek word describing children of any age. That change might be very important, but I'm afraid that will have to wait for another day.

These particular parents were looking for a blessing for their children (we might call this a sacrament) that was independent of anyone's faith. Jesus let them through. But He did so to make a larger point -- little children are entirely dependent on caregivers (even when they think and act like they're independent!). And that's the kind of person who is ready to be justified by God. They have no delusions of grandeur or self-reliance. Or, using the topic above, they have no illusory superiority. They are truly, utterly humble. In other words, little children are an example of the tax collector. And that would mean that the disciples who tried to prevent the children from coming to Jesus are like the Pharisee. [gasp!]

And the challenge is to adults! Do we come to God humble, like a child (or the tax collector), or do we come to God full of self-justification (like the Pharisee)?

So, it's just a powerful illustration of the truth of the parable, told to point out how quickly and easily we fall back into the trap of superiority. It's both a model of the kind of faith necessary for salvation, and also a model of the kinds of prejudices we must overcome in sharing the gospel. Even children deserve our time and attention.

[Aside: So does this mean that little children can become followers of Jesus Christ? I really don't think that's the point of this passage, and so I get annoyed when people bring it up to justify infant baptism. Jesus is not saying that these infants became saved Christians when He touched them (nor is there any hint of the practice of baptism). Rather, faith like a little child is the key to salvation; the kingdom belongs to those like little children -- "like" in the sense of the nature of their faith. Nothing more.

There is no magic age at which a child becomes eligible to be a Christian. My own kids were 8 and 13, respectively, at their baptisms, and all that matters is that we believed as parents that they had trusted in Jesus for salvation before we even considered baptism. Lots and lots of adults, including members of FBC Thomson, believed that my kids were important enough for their time and energy to pour into them the truth of God's Word. If there's an additional application to these verses, it would be that.]

Here are two potential applications to consider:

  • Look inward. Is your attitude toward God right now more like the Pharisee (entitled and boastful) or the tax collector (humble and repentant)?

  • Look outward. Is your attitude toward the rest of the world right now more like the Pharisee/disciples (looks down on everyone) or Jesus (reaches out to all people)?

God bless you!


Closing Thoughts: Social Comparisons and Social Media

I don't think I need to spend a lot of time on this because I think most of us have lived it. Social media has turned into one of the most destructive tools in the world today. Here's a rather representative survey from Stylist:

  • 14% of women have high levels of self-esteem

  • 83% of women say social media negatively affects their self-esteem

  • 40% of women compare themselves with other people’s successful careers

  • 39% of women compare themselves with women they think look pristine without effort

  • 58% of women say that social media has changed how others view them and how they view others

Sound familiar? Have you dealt with that? I certainly have -- I notice what my peers are doing. And while I like to think that I'm not envious of any of my peers (in fact, I generally find myself excited when they seem to be doing great), that doesn't change my tendency to compare myself to them. And it can definitely drag me down if I'm in the wrong frame of mind. And that's coming from someone who is very secure in Jesus and God's love for me.

The sad truth is that newer Christians, or less mature Christians, seem to be just as adversely affected by social media as the rest of the world -- in other words, they are the tax collector, but from the Pharisee's view and not God's view.

Christians need to care how God sees them. They don't need to waste their energy on social comparisons. In other words, it doesn't matter how the Pharisee viewed the tax collector. It only matters how God did.

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