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“Empty Hands”

Luke 18:9-14
Bob DeGray
August 6, 2006

Key Sentence

God graciously justifies those who come to him with empty hands.


I. Trusting in your own righteousness (Luke 18:9-12)
II. Coming to God with empty hands (Luke 18:13-14)


        You've all seen it at least once, though the only example I could find was from ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ - and it wasn’t exactly right. But it happens in police shows, in war movies, in terrorist movies, and especially in westerns. Here is this building with all these cops or soldiers around it, guns drawn, hiding behind barriers. And the head cop or the sheriff or the lieutenant yells “you’re surrounded, lay down your weapons and come out with your hands up.” Usually if the guy in the building does that, if he comes out with his hands empty and visible, he's safe, but if he comes out blazing with an AK-47 or a six shooter, he's in deep trouble. That's the same thing our text for this morning teaches: There is tremendous benefit in laying down your weapons, laying down your achievements, and coming to God with empty hands. Our text is Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It's one of several parables in Luke, like the parables of the prodigal son and the lost sheep, that teach the grace of God. As such it is a neon moment in the teaching ministry of Jesus, because perhaps the central truth of the gospel Jesus brought is the truth of grace. This parable states that truth both negatively and positively. God will never justify those who trust in their own righteousness, but God graciously justifies those who come to him with empty hands.

        Now notice the words justify and righteousness in that key sentence. Those two English words come from the same Greek root ‘dikaio’. To be righteous or just is to be right with God or in a right relationship with God. So what I’m saying is that God will never declare righteous someone who is trusting in their own righteousness. God will never look at someone and find that person righteous, worthy of eternal life, worthy of fellowship with him, unless God himself has done the work of righteousness in that person’s life. Because of sin you can’t put yourself right with God - and yet people constantly try to do so, or delude themselves into thinking they have done so, and this is what Jesus is warning against.

I. Trusting in your own righteousness (Luke 18:9-12)

        Let's start with Luke 18:9-12 in which we see the Pharisee, the one who does not come to God empty-handed. Luke 18:9-12 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

Verse 9 sets the stage. It tells us this parable is addressed to those who trust in their own righteousness and despise everybody else. It’s clear as the story unfolds that the Pharisee represents this kind of person.

        But we know it’s not just Pharisees who have this problem. Luke doesn’t name any one group of people who trust in their own righteousness, and the Gospels show that this disease was by no means limited to the Pharisees. And it’s still widespread. The simple truth is that at times we all fall into this category; this parable was spoken to all of us. Hasn't there ever been a case where you have been overly confident of your own righteousness and looked down on the righteousness of others? I think back to my college days: I went to engineering school in New Jersey - Stevens Institute of Technology in beautiful downtown Hoboken, right across the Hudson river from, at that time, the World Trade Center. I’d been a Christian since junior high, and involved in what I thought was a really good youth group. So when I went to college, I went with a bad case of spiritual pride I felt I knew it all, and had done it all. When I looked at the Stevens Christian Fellowship, I thought I was much more spiritual than they were. I couldn’t see the spiritual depth that was there. I made what I still consider to be a horrible statement: I said to myself: "I'll be running this show in two years" Well, the Lord used the next two years to rearrange my thinking. He taught me on the one hand just how little righteousness I had, how little I was able to live the Christian life in a hostile environment. And he also taught me to appreciate the depth of these believers, and their commitment and reliance on the word of God, and that appreciation has shaped my whole life.

         So Jesus is talking to me, to the kind of person who trusts in their own righteousness and looks down on everybody else. Maybe he’s talking to you too. We don't consciously say ‘I'm better than everybody else’. We don't consciously say ‘I'm righteous enough for God’. But the way we treat people, the words we use, the things we do, they all say to God, and even to others around us, ‘I've made it, I've got my act together’. We unconsciously carry around this attitude of self righteousness. And often we extend that to groups: our unspoken presumption is that our church, our social crowd, our group has a lock on righteousness and we rate as second-class those who have made other choices or have not had some of the opportunities we’ve had. And I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to be sensitive to those attitudes, and to recognize that kind of self centeredness as sin.

        In verse 10 Jesus says ‘a pharisee and a tax collector were going up to the temple to pray.’ The Pharisee represents those who trust in their own righteousness. We have to recognize that Pharisees were very respected in their society. They were looked up to as both religious and social leaders. In fact I had a professor at seminary who assured us that these were the kind of people you and I would be inclined to hang out with. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were despised, even hated. They were seen as greedy, unfair traitors to their people. They had put money first in their lives, and cozied up to their Roman oppressors. In our culture, maybe the Pharisee is the successful businessman, the tax collector is the drug pusher. The Pharisee is the respected church goer, the tax collector is the homosexual activist. The Pharisee is someone you respect and admire, the tax collector is someone you can't stand.

        It's these two who go up to the temple to pray. Now if you’re building a picture in your mind, don't imagine them going into an empty Temple courtyard. Instead, imagine a lot of worshipers there attending this temple sacrifice. Morning and evening, prayer was offered at the temple after the sacrifice, when the incense was poured over the burning coals on the altar of the Holy Place. A crowd was always present, and with them the Pharisee, trusting in his own righteousness, and the tax collector, despised by everybody. Jesus speaks first about the Pharisee and focuses on his attitude. Verses 11 and 12: 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men-- robbers, evildoers, adulterers-- or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

        The problem with this Pharisee wasn’t that he stood to pray; it was customary in Judaism to stand when praying. The problem isn’t that he prayed about himself; really it says ‘he himself prayed’. No, the real problem is the content: it’s the spiritual pride, the way the Pharisee tries to affirm his own righteousness before God. Now Jesus knew the hearts of all people, and in his parable, the Pharisee uses two forms of self justification that are still popular today. Picture the Pharisee as standing there with a sword in one hand, and a trumpet in the other. On the one hand he’s cutting down everybody around him, and on the other hand he’s blowing his own horn.

        He takes up the sword saying Lord, you should be sure to notice that I am much better than robbers and evildoers and adulterers. I am much better than this tax collector’. He elevates himself by putting down those around him. And we do the same thing. I magnify my worth in my own eyes, by comparing myself to others and finding myself better: ‘I don't get drunk. I don't cheat on my wife. I don't rip off my employer. Why, I'm such an all around good guy, its no wonder God likes me.’ You say "Now wait a minute, you're exaggerating.’ Of course I'm exaggerating; Jesus was exaggerating. This disease is so subtle that we need a magnifying glass like this parable, to see it clearly. Don't you ever find yourself making comparisons to the tax collectors in your life? When you go to work tomorrow, will you unconsciously have the attitude: ‘He's not as honest and hardworking as I am. That one over there is a workaholic. That guy uses language that I would never use. Overall I'm the best of the bunch here.’ Or as you look around your neighborhood you say: ‘Their house is a mess - they don't take as good care as we do. Their kids are wild - they've completely lost control. Their priorities are messed up - look at the cars they buy, the trips they take. Overall, we're the best family on the block.’ Don't you ever look down at your hand, and find in it a sword, to cut others down. I do. It happens even at church: you compare yourselves to other believers, to other families: ‘Man, I’m doing so much better than he is. We’re doing so much better than they are’ I’ve got to tell you folks, it’s a damaging attitude.

        So I’ve got a sword in one hand, and in the other I've got a trumpet, and I carry a list of every good thing I've ever done and with a blast of that trumpet, I announce my good deeds, before God, myself, and others. An old Hagar the Horrible comic strip showed Hagar sitting with Lucky Eddie, and Hagar says: It's a tough world out there! You can't be shy! You gotta blow your own horn! And Lucky Eddie thinks about that, and says "What if you're not musically inclined?" The truth is, we're all inclined. Listen to the Pharisee, verse 12: ‘I fast twice a week, and give a tenth of all I have.’ I mean in a sense this is really incredible: How can this Pharisee have the gall to try to impress God his creator, with this petty list of good behaviors. He's not even doing things God required in the Law The law only says to fast once a year. The Pharisee fasts twice a week. The law says to give a tenth of major crops and income. The Pharisee gives a tenth out of his herb garden.

        God hates spiritual pride: he hates the sin of being puffed up over your religious exercises. The Pharisee could have known this if he had read his Bible. David had said in Psalm 51 “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” And in Isaiah God had said that true fasting, was to loose the chains of injustice, and share your food with the hungry, and provide the poor wanderer with shelter. Is God against praying - no. Is God against giving - no. Is God even against fasting - no. But these deeds do not buy you any righteousness. And if they’re done out of hypocrisy, or to try to purchase God’s favor, these very deeds will be despised by Him.

        I imagine there’s a heavenly cash register someplace up there, where an angel sits and every time I think like this Pharisee, he totals up my credits, my heavenly bank balance. I say: I go to church every week - chi'ching, zero - no balance, no credit. I go to Sunday School - chi'ching zero. I give my money - chi'ching zero. No, wait a minute - I mean I give a tenth just like it says - chi'ching, chi'ching - zero. Blowing my own horn and trumpeting my accomplishments. gets me no credit with God. And deep down inside I know that - and I suspect you know it too. It's only my own insecurity that makes me blow my own horn. It's only a feeble attempt to convince myself that God should see me as righteous. And maybe you have that insecurity too - you're are scared to admit to others, scared to admit to God, that your life and your relationship with him isn't all its cracked up to be. So you take up the sword in one hand, the horn in the other You blow your own horn, you cut others down. Somehow you are trying to convince yourself, to convince even God, that everything is OK. But my friend, God says you are not OK, and God will not justify the person who tries to count on their own righteousness.

II. Coming to God with empty hands (Luke 18:13-14)

        Instead, God graciously justifies those who come to Him with empty hands. Like this tax collector, verses 13 and 14: 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.' 14"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Notice his attitude: Like the Pharisee, he stood to pray, but unlike him, he stood at a distance, he would not elevate his eyes toward heaven, and he beat his chest. And he says: "God have mercy on me, a sinner" Here we see the exact opposite of the Pharisee. The Pharisee came clutching his self righteousness in each hand. But the tax collector comes with empty hands He knows he’s not righteous, but a sinner. He knows he has no claim on God, And with empty hands he comes to God for mercy. In this he has the attitude all of us need to have. God delights to see people coming to him claiming no righteousness of their own, He loves to save on the basis of his own free grace. When God responds to the simple trust of someone who comes before him with empty hands, the cash register says chi'ching - infinite. An infinite amount of righteousness credited to your account.

        Why is this? Well, it starts with this word translated 'have mercy' The tax collector says: ‘God have mercy on me’, but the word really means atone for me, pay for my sin, hide my sin from your wrath. Remember this tax collector is coming to the temple at the time of sacrifice, and he looks at that sacrifice and says: ‘God, atone for me, a sinner.’ Not just ‘God have mercy on me because you’re such a nice guy’, but ‘God, take notice of this sacrifice, and make it an atonement for me, a payment for my sins so that I can be forgiven.’ God's mercy, God's atonement, is his action on our behalf to deal with the sin in us. And every other place this word is used in the New Testament, it talks about what Jesus did on the cross. It’s the word used in 1st John 4:10 “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Jesus is God's mercy. Jesus is God's atonement. He is the one who turns aside wrath and makes payment for our sins. When we blow that trumpet, when we swing that sword, it is Jesus who takes the blow - the punishment due us for our spiritual pride. When Christ spoke this parable, he had tax collector say "atone for me" "make this sacrifice effective for me" but Christ himself was the one who would make sacrifice effective.

        If we come to God, like this tax collector, saying God, atone for me, a sinner then our account receives the infinite righteousness of Jesus Christ and we are justified on that basis. We recognize that our hands are empty - there is nothing we can offer God to pay for our forgiveness, nothing we can do to earn it. The tax collector comes and he says: ‘I am a sinner and I need a sacrifice in my place or I will justly be condemned to suffer your wrath. God, atone for me: in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ accept his payment for my sins, and turn aside your wrath.’ The tax collector, then, is a profound illustration of the fact that God graciously justifies those who come to Him with empty hands.

        Jesus makes this even more clear in his conclusion to the parable: Verse 14: "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." The tax collector went down to his house justified. The Pharisee did not. Both were at the sacrifice, but one came trusting in his own righteousness, and one came trusting in God's mercy, and that made all the difference. Did you notice what word Jesus used to describe the man: He was justified. Justification is God looking at a person and saying, yes you are righteous. But the way Jesus uses the word here, and the way Paul uses the word, it implies that God also grants or gives the righteousness, by a free act of his grace. In fact, the teaching of this parable is remarkably similar to Romans 3:23-25 “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified - there's that word - made righteous freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement - there is the other word that we just studied - through faith in his blood. Don't let anybody ever tell you that Jesus and Paul weren’t on the same wavelength. They were! They both teach that God graciously justifies those who come to him in faith alone, with empty hands.

        Now how do we pull this all together? Jesus pulls it all together with one simple and unforgettable statement: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Those who trust in their own righteousness earn no credit with God. But those who humbly trust in his atoning sacrifice obtain the infinite righteousness of Christ. But what does this mean to you? If you have never trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior it means that you need to just give up on the idea of ever being good enough to earn God's favor. Today you can come before God, just as the tax collector did with empty hands, and throw yourself on His mercy. Trust him alone for your justification, for your salvation. This may be the moment when you should turn to God in prayer, and say that you depend on him, on the death and resurrection of his Son, for salvation from sin.

        And if you have already trusted Jesus, take a moment now and look down at your hands. What are you holding in your hands? Do you sometimes still use that sword, to cut down others And do you still continue to blow that trumpet, announcing to the world your good deeds. I invite you, as I invite myself, to lay down the sword, to lay down the trumpet and to come to him with empty hands. Spend some time praying that you will not take up the sword, will not take up the trumpet in this coming week. And then examine yourself - consciously look at your hands: When you find the sword in your hand, about to strike, about to criticize others and cut them down - lay it down When you find the trumpet in your hand, about to blow, about to say something out of spiritual pride - lay it down. Say: Lord God I come to you with empty hands.