The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector teaches us the difference between religious life and spiritual life. The Pharisee is religious but not really spiritual. The Tax Collector is spiritual but not really religious. These words can be confusing as their meaning overlaps. To understand this teaching we need to think of ‘religion’ as formal teachings and outward ways of showing devotion to God. In contrast we can think of spiritual life as what goes on inside a person – in their heart. Do they really love God and other people - or is what they do just a show to gain approval by other people?
1. In Luke 18.4-14 Jesus teaches us the importance of repentance
Repentance is something emotional that happens inside a person. The Tax Collector was aware of his sins and loved God enough to repent them. Repenting means we feel the pain we have caused to the heart of God. Repenting means we die emotionally to whatever we have done. Our emotional death to the pleasure of the sin is accepted as sincere repentance. Jesus tells us the repentance ‘justified’ the Tax Collector in the eyes of God. Justified means that even though he had sinned; he woud be forgiven and treated as if he had not sinned. “Justification by Faith” is at the heart of Protestant Theology. We are justified because we have repented and have believed the promise of God that Jesus death on the Cross was to pay for our sins.
2. In Luke 18.4-1) Jesus teaches us the importance of grace
In contrast the Pharisee does not think he has sinned against God. He has worked so hard at keeping all the details of the Hebrew Law that he is sure he is still in a right relationship with God. Like many people in our time he is trying to earn his own salvation by his own efforts. He believes that by obeying God he is showing love for God. But he does not really love either God or his neighbor. The problem is that our hearts deceive us. We are not fully aware of all the desires in our hearts. We had a dramatic example of this in the 2010 conviction of a decorated military officer who was confronted with his secret life as a sexual predator and murderer. There was probably a part of his head that was really not aware of how evil his actions were. The good news is that he was able to repent and has some hope of divine forgiveness. In contrast the Pharisee could not see his sins, could not repent and was not able to receive forgiveness. The point Jesus is making in this Parable is that we are all completely dependent on the grace of God for forgiveness and restoration to right-relationship.
3. Paul helps us understand this difference in his letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 4.6-8)
Paul is facing his death in a Roman prison. He is encouraging Timothy to follow his example as an evangelist. Paul had made a dramatic change from what we could call the life of a super religious person to the life of a super spiritual person. As a religious person he had been a Pharisee – like the one in the Parable, only more so. Paul was a senior leader in the Jewish religious establishment. He kept all the Hebrew Laws and even all the detailed religious practices derived from those Laws. Paul was about as religious as you could be. If it was possible to have a right relationship by hard work and right knowledge and good behavior –without grace - Paul was in.
Then Paul encountered the Risen Jesus. Then his life turned upside down. Instead of being totally dependent on his own cleverness, Paul became dependent on Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gave him the guidance and spiritual energy to:
- Fight the good fight against fear, the lies of Satan and false religious teachings
- Complete the race without becoming discouraged and giving up
- Keep the Faith in spite of opposition, unpopularity, beatings and death threats
Spiritual life is what goes on in your heart