Taking the Low Ground, Part 3

Pursuit of the high ground may be an advisable strategy in conventional warfare. But in every other context, that tactic can be disastrous. Let's explore what could change if you took the low ground.

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Today is the third of four articles in our series, Taking the Low Ground.

Want to catch up?

After being introduced to the audience of Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:9-14 and hearing the Pharisee’s prayer, we are introduced to the prayer of the tax-collector. The best part is Jesus’ commentary on the parable. 😁

Tomorrow, we will discuss four practical applications from what we’ve learned this week in Luke 18.

The Tax Collector’s Prayer

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

We’ve described in previous messages how tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews for a number of reasons that included political treason, religious apostasy, financial greed, and general immorality.

On the surface, the Pharisee sure looks holier than the tax collector. But let’s look more deeply into the heart of the two men.

  • One looks up with moral confidence. The other looks down in moral defeat.

  • One boasts in himself. The other beats himself.

  • One appeals to his own merits. The other pleads for God’s mercy.

If you have heard anyone teach on this passage before, it is likely that they drew your attention to a textual detail that requires a knowledge of Greek to detect. Usually, familiarity with the original Greek text of the New Testament is not necessary in order to glean the clear meaning of a passage. However, in this case, when the tax collector beseeches God for mercy, he doesn’t merely call himself “a” sinner.

Actually, he indicts himself as “the” sinner.

He is a robber. He is an evildoer. He is an adulterer, if not in the act at least in thought. He has been dominated by greed, gluttony, lust, materialism, and the self-sufficiency of being a wealthy man.

But under the gracious conviction of the Spirit, there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

He has come to the Temple, as if to a police station, to turn himself in and plead guilty to all charges.

Verse 13 is his written confession, composed from the low ground.

With this confession, the story of the two men at prayer in the Temple comes to an unexpected and abrupt close in verse 14 with…

A Definitive Ruling

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Remember the audience. The Pharisees assumed they stood upon the moral high ground where the flood of judgment upon sin could not reach.

David spoke of this “high ground” in Psalm 32:1–7, where he writes,

1 Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 2 Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. 3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin. 6 Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them. 7 You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.

In this Psalm of David, he reveals who actually stands upon the high ground, safe from the rising waters. It is not the one who appeals to his own record of righteousness but the one who confesses his record of unrighteousness.

Isn’t this precisely what we see in the tax collector’s prayer? The more he dug in his heels the greater the Lord’s hand was heavy upon him, pressing in with tough love until he was ready to confess.

Finally, he is broken of his stubborn sin-denying, self-justifying ways. Once broken, he is able to pray with raw honesty. No pretense. Crying out from the depth of his being and finding his prayer answered with an unreserved, overwhelming, “Yes!”

Jesus says that the tax collector “went home justified.”

Justified? What does this mean?

The Greek word for justified is a courtroom term that was used by a judge to render a not guilty verdict. But it is more than that in the courtroom of God, where we are declared not only innocent but righteous — not just as if we had avoided sin, but as if we had perfectly obeyed all the law all the time.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism put it like this:

“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us which is received by faith alone.”

The definitive ruling that Jesus renders is that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, is the one who is justified in the courtroom of God.

By assuming the moral high ground, this religiously conscientious Pharisee, who was so confident that he was justified, he went home unjustified. In his spiritual blindness, he is unforgiven, unreconciled—deceived by self-righteousness.

Remember, the Temple was the center of sacrifice in Judaism. It wasn’t intended to be a place of boasting in self but of confessing sin and receiving mercy. From the beginning, God’s message to humanity had always been, “You need a perfect, blemish-free substitute to suffer your sin-debt in order to be reconciled to God.”

Cosmic justice demanded that the penalty for treason be paid—the sentence of death.

All the sacrifices that took place in the Jewish Temple pointed to the final sacrifice, where the penalty would be paid by Jesus upon the altar of a cross outside of Jerusalem.

It is because of that cross you and I, like the tax collector, may go home justified, free from accusation and reconciled with God.

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