9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 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!’ 14 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
Today is Thanksgiving. A day when Americans open their homes and hearts, offering thanks for the many blessings we’ve received in the last year. Offering thanks is good and right. And as Christians, today reminds us that God hasn’t treated us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10).
Yet, is all thanksgiving equally justified? The parable in Luke 18:9-14 clearly answers, “No,” by contrasting the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector. But in order to see the depth of ingratitude in the heart of the Pharisee, it’s helpful to note several points about his prayer:
1) The parable opens with a purpose clause. Jesus is attempting to convey the truth that there were some (i.e. the Pharisee) who trusted in themselves that they were righteous (v. 9). So far this appears clear. Millions of people trust in their own works for their salvation. Millions think that their works make them righteous.
2) But Jesus doesn’t simply say: “This man trusted in his own works.” Rather, as the parable opens, we have this shocking statement: God, I thank you that I am not like other men. On the surface, Jesus appears to point us in the direction of one who isn’t trusting himself. The Pharisee’s prayer thanks God that he is unlike other men. This is a prayer of thanksgiving to God.
3) We must understand the seriousness of Jesus’ charge. We are told at the end of the parable that this man didn’t go down to his home justified. But how can a man who thanks God for his works not be justified?
It isn’t sufficient to think that the man was being insincere. He was standing by himself (v. 11) and not attempting to flaunt his righteous deeds before me. It isn’t sufficient to say that he wasn’t truly thankful. His prayer opens with a pious address to God. So what was it about his prayer that made it unjustifiable?
In a word, this man thought that his good works, performed with the grace of God, qualified him to stand before God. That it was his works that distinguished him from other men (v. 11). That his works, being performed by grace, gave him a right standing before God. In the words of Paul, this Pharisee having begun in the Spirit thought he was being perfected by the flesh (Galatians 3:3). This Pharisee was relying on his works; works he credits to God’s grace!
This unjustifiable thanksgiving, Jesus contrasts with the justifiable prayer of the tax collector. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector, standing far off (v. 13), beat his chest and uttered: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13). This doesn’t mean the tax collector wasn’t thankful. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t trusting in God’s grace. It doesn’t mean he didn’t have any good works.
Rather, the tax collector rightly understood the role of his works before God. His works could achieve nothing in his standing before God. His works couldn’t secure his standing before God. As Calvin helpfully comments:
For the only hope of the godly, so long as they labor under the weakness of the flesh, is, after acknowledging what is good in them, to betake themselves to the mercy of God alone, and to rest their salvation on prayer for forgiveness.
This is the true heart of thanksgiving. A thanksgiving that is rooted, established, and built up by the grace of God and God alone. And the end result of these two men giving God thanks, can’t be sharper. For Jesus tells us that it was the tax collector who went down to his home being accepted by God, while the Pharisee was completely and utterly rejected.
What a lesson this parable teaches us concerning our thanksgiving and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. After all, this is the sum of this parable. One man failed to see faith as the alone instrument of his standing before God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. The other man wholeheartedly embraced the truth that his works contributed nothing to his righteous standing before God–even works done by the grace God gives. And it was the thanksgiving of the latter that prevailed before God, while the thanksgiving of the former was but useless self-reliance. True thanksgiving hinges on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Get this wrong, and there is no thanksgiving.
This Thanksgiving, let all our thanks be grounded in this truth: Sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. God have mercy on us sinners!