Robert Jeffress - Confessions Of An I.R.S. Agent
Hi, I'm Robert Jefferson and welcome again to Pathway to Victory. Which sin do you think is worse? Robbing a bank at gunpoint or cheating on your tax return? Well, the answer might surprise you because God's view of sin and salvation is far different than our own. To make that point today, I'm going to tell you one of Jesus' favorite stories. My message is titled "Confessions of an IRS Agent", on today's edition of Pathway to Victory.
I always loved that story about the snake that went to the optometrist for a pair of glasses. And the optometrist said, "What do you mean a pair of glasses? You don't have ears on which to hang them and your eyes are in the wrong place. Why not try some contact lenses"? So the snake said, "Okay, we'll try contacts". About three weeks later, the snake comes back to the optometrist. The optometrist says, "Well, how are you doing"? The snake says, "Well, I can see perfectly, but I'm all depressed". "Well, why are you depressed"? The optometrist asked. The snake said, "Because I've just discovered for the last three years, I've been living with a water hose".
You know, clear vision can be painful sometimes especially when it comes to seeing ourselves as God sees us. And yet seeing ourselves clearly the way God sees us is the first step to receiving God's gift of forgiveness. That's the point of the parable we're going to look at today. If you have your Bibles, turn to Luke 18. Luke 18, as we look at the confessions of an IRS agent. It's the parable found in Luke 18. And I think this parable, this teaching of Jesus perhaps more than any other clearly answers the question, how a person can be saved, how a person can know for sure he's going to be in heaven one day. Luke 18 beginning with verse 9.
Now, Jesus at the beginning tells the purpose of this parable. We don't have to guess about it. We don't have to theorize. The purpose of the parable is very clear beginning in verse 9. Luke says, "And Jesus also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous". This parable was directed toward a specific group of people, the pharisees. And the pharisees were trusting in themselves. The literal translation says it was based on themselves. That was the foundation of their faith, themselves. They were trusting in their inherent goodness rather than in God's unconditional grace to be saved. I do the best I can, I love other people. I may not be perfect, but I'm as good as most people. Well, that was the pharisees. They trusted in themselves that they were righteous. And not only that, it says, "They also viewed others with the contempt". I mean, after all, what's the use of thinking highly of yourself if you can't think lowly of other people?
And that was the pharisees. They had this inflated view of themselves. And when we look at this parable, we need to be certain that we're not like the fourth grade Sunday school teacher who after teaching this parable about the pharisees to her fourth grade Sunday school class said, "Now boys and girls let's bow our heads and thank God that we're not like the pharisees". We don't want to be proud of our humility. In this parable, we need to say at the outset is not a parable that tells us how to pray. It's not a parable that teaches us what kind of prayers God answers and which he refuses to answer. This is a parable about salvation. And you see it beginning in verse 10. Jesus tells us that there are two players in this parable. Look at verse 10. "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a pharisee and the other a tax gatherer". Some of your translations say, "A pharisee and a publican". Not a republican, but a publican. That means tax gatherer, a pharisee and the tax gatherer.
Now in selecting these two characters, Jesus could not have chosen two people more at the opposite end of the religious spectrum in Israel. And that was the difference in the Jewish mind between the pharisee and the tax gatherer. Let's look, first of all, at the character, the pharisee. "The pharisee stood and was praying". Now, whenever we hear the word pharisees, I can almost hear the hissing the pharisees. We think of them as villainous characters. Nobody could be more evil in our mind than the pharisees. Jesus' audience did not take it that way. You see in, in Israel, the pharisees represented the most holy group of the Jews. They were people who were intent not on breaking God's law, but on keeping God's law. They supposedly loved God. They obeyed God, at least outwardly. There were only 3000 of them in Israel. They were a very holy group of people. The pharisee, he came to the temple and the Bible said he stood as he prayed.
I've heard preachers and teachers teach from this passage and say, "Oh, that's the problem. Instead of kneeling before God, he stood". That's not the problem. Jews stood to pray in Jesus' day. People stand to pray today. There's nothing wrong with standing. The problem with this pharisee was not his posture in praying, but his attitude in praying. I love the phrase that Jesus adds. "He stood praying thus to himself". His prayer didn't make it out of the temple. And you can see why when you look at the content of this prayer. He said, "God, I thank thee that I'm not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax gatherer standing beside me. Instead, I fast twice a week and I pay tithes of all that I get".
In this short prayer, the word is used five times. I am not like other people, I fast twice a week. I pay tithes of all that I get. I think kent hughes hits the nail on the head when he points out what the problem with this prayer is. He writes, "After an initial nod to God, his was essentially a self congratulating monologue disguised as a prayer". He wasn't praying to God, he was praying to himself and notice what he says about himself. He says, "I fast twice a week". Now, according to Jewish law, the Jews only had to fast once a year. But the pharisees up to the little bit they fasted once a week, but this pharisee, he exceeded them all, he fasted twice a week. And not only that he said, "I pay tithes of all that I get". According to the law, you would pay tithes of your income, but not this pharisee. He paid tithes of his income and perhaps his capital as well. He was a holy man, at least in his own eyes. But what is so clear that is missing from this prayer, something that even a child could recognize is nowhere in this prayer is there any sense of repentance. No seeking God's forgiveness, no supplication for God to do something in his life. It was I, I, I.
Now I want you to contrast him to the second character, the tax gatherer. Verse 13, "But the tax gatherer, standing some distance away". Again, you couldn't pick anybody any lower on the religious ladder than the tax gatherer. He ranked right down there in Jewish society with televangelist and used chariot salesmen. I mean, people hated tax gatherers. And when you understand something about them, you can understand why. See, the tax gatherers mostly were fellow Jews. They were Jews who got the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Roman government. They bought what would be like a franchise today. You know, if you want to open a McDonald's hamburger stand, you have to buy a franchise from the McDonald's corporation. That gives you the right to sell McDonald's hamburgers.
Well, in Jewish society, if you wanted to collect taxes for the Roman government, you would purchase a franchise so to speak. You would agree to pay the Roman government so much money for the right to collect taxes and then you could charge whatever price you wanted to. You could charge whatever taxes you wanted to and keep the difference for yourself. And so these tax gatherers were hated for two reasons. First of all, they were fellow Jews who were helping support the oppressive Roman government. And not only that, they were guilty of cheating people out of their money. Two distinct people, a pharisee who loves and obeys God and a tax gatherer, who is a traitor to his people. And not only that, cheats his own people.
James Boyce in his commentary on this passage raises the possibility though that perhaps there was something different about this tax gatherer. Maybe Jesus was inferring that this tax gatherer was not as bad as the other ones. Perhaps this tax gatherer could be compared to, you know, the neighborhood bartender who along with liquor, dispenses good advice. So he's not quite as bad as other bartenders. Or perhaps he's like the prostitute in those old western movies who although she was a prostitute, she had a heart of gold. Maybe that's what Jesus is inferring here but nothing in the passage would suggest this. This man was just as much of a sinner as the pharisee was. The difference was in their attitude toward their need.
Notice the prayer. "But the tax gatherer standing some distance away," verse 13, "Was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner'". One of the shortest prayers in the Bible. Seven words in the English text, six words in the Greek text. "God be merciful to me, the sinner". But in this prayer, I want you to notice two essential components. First of all, he expressed sorrow for his sin. God be merciful to me, the sinner. In the Greek text, the word sinner is articular. Simply meaning it's not, "God being merciful to me, a sinner, it's God be merciful to me, the sinner". In other words, "I am the chief of all sinners," this man is saying. We don't know what drove him in the temple to pray that day out of desperation. Perhaps he had just committed a sin so horrible, so heinous that even he himself did not think he was capable of doing that. Or maybe his life had just slowly unraveled over a long period of time and now he was at the end of his rope. And all he knew to do was to cry out to God, "God be merciful, the chief sinner of all".
By the way, you see that desperation in the way he placed himself. When the pharisee came into the temple, he stood as near to the holy of holies as he possibly could, without being struck dead. Not this tax gatherer. This tax gatherer it says, verse 13, "Stood some distance away". He didn't feel worthy to come into the presence of God. And by the way, that's a principle you'll find in your own life. The closer you get to God, the more unworthy you feel before God. The closer you come into contact with a holy God, the more you realize how unholy you are. You see that throughout scripture. Remember Isaiah the prophet when he had that vision of God on the throne and he said in Isaiah 6:5, "Woe to me, I am ruined for I am a man of unclean lips". Or think about Peter after seeing one of the miracles of the Lord in Luke 5:8. He said, "Depart from me, Lord, I am a sinful man". Or think about John on the island of Patmos after he saw the Lord glorified in all of his glorification. The Bible says, "He fell down before the Lord as though one dead".
When you come into a realization of the holiness of God, you realize what a distance there is between you and God. God be merciful to me, the sinner. But you see that's the test. The closer you get to God, the more unworthy you feel before God. That was this tax gatherer. "Lord be merciful to me, the sinner". He expressed sorrow for his sin. But listen to me this morning, it's possible to be sorry for your sin without ever saved from your sin. And that's the second important component of this prayer. He secondly requested God's mercy to cover his sin. "God be merciful to me, the sinner". Be merciful. He was saying, "Lord, mercy seat me. Cover over my sin. I am not capable of atoning for covering my guilt. You're going to have to do that for me". He requested God's mercy to cover his sin.
Two men who approached God in two very different ways. One, the pharisee who came to God on the basis of his own inherent goodness. The other who came on the basis of God's grace. Jesus stopped the story right here and given a pop quiz to his audience and said, "Okay, you've heard the story about two men who went to pray. Which one left forgiven"? The pharisee would have won hands down. No question in Jesus audience's mind. Why, you've got a pharisee who does all of these good things: loves God, keeps the law. And then you got this tax gatherer who who's done who knows what, that makes him so desperate and he thinks one little prayer is going to get rid of his sin, why? That's ridiculous. Obviously the pharisee is the one who's forgiven. Jesus dumbfounds them in verse 14 when he turns their expectations upside down. He says in verse 14, "I tell you this man, the tax gatherer, went down to his house justified rather than the pharisee".
You see, I'm just imagining this but I think when the pharisee left the temple and went back to his house, I think he felt pretty good about himself. "Nothing like some time spent with the Lord," he probably said. And the tax gatherer, I'm just imagining he felt as badly about himself after he left the temple as when he went into the temple. But you see ladies and gentlemen in the final analysis, it really doesn't matter what we think about our relationship with God. It's what God thinks about his relationship with us. That's what matters. And the Bible says that it is the tax gatherer who went down to his house from the temple justified. That word justified is a legal term that means not guilty. When this tax gatherer simply expressed sorrow for his sin and requested a covering for his sin in the great courtroom of heaven, God hammered down the gavel and said, "Not guilty, not guilty". And it's the same with us.
The only way in God's eyes we will ever be forgiven is by requesting God's mercy, the blood of his son to atone for our sins. And then Jesus adds this well-known phrase in verse 14, "For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted". That is the person who like the pharisee, engages in self congratulations before God, who is trusting in his own relative goodness for salvation. One day when he stands before the judgment of God, he's going to be humbled as he realizes that no matter how good he was, it wasn't good enough to enter into heaven. On the other hand, the person who humbles himself in this life, who says, "God, I am sorry for my sin. I request the grace of Jesus to cover over my sin". One day he will be exalted.
In his book, "The Grace and Truth Paradox," Randy Alcorn writes, "Westley Allan Dodd tortured, molested, and murdered three boys in Vancouver, Washington 15 miles from our home. Westley Dodd was scheduled to be hanged, the first is hanging in three decades shortly after midnight, January 4th, 1993. At dinner that evening, both of our daughters, then 11 and 13, prayed earnestly that Westley Dodd would repent and places his faith in Christ before he died. I agreed with their prayer but only because I knew I should. I stayed up and watched. Reporters from all over the country crowded around the prison. 12 media representatives were firsthand witnesses to the execution. When they emerged 30 minutes after Westley Dodd died, they recounted the experience. One of them read Dodd's last words. 'i had thought there was no hope and no peace, but I was wrong. I have found hope and peace in the Lord Jesus Christ'. Gasps and groans erupted from the gallery. The anger was palpable. 'how dare someone who has done anything so terrible say that he's found hope and peace in Jesus? Did he really think God would let him into heaven after what he had done? Shut up and go to hell you child killer. You won't get off so easily'. The idea of God's offering grace to Westley Dodd was utterly offensive and yet, didn't Jesus die for Dodd's sins just as he did for mine? No sin is bigger than the Savior. Grace is literally not of this world. I struggled with the idea of God saving Westley Dodd only because I thought too much of myself and too little of my Lord. I'd imagined that the distance between Westley Dodd and me was as the difference between the south and the north poles. But when you consider God's viewpoint from light years away, that distance is negligible, in my standing before a holy God apart from Christ, I am Westley Dodd".
Do you believe that about yourself? Do you believe that in God's eyes, you are just as guilty as someone who rapes, tortures and murders a small child? Do you believe in God's evaluation that you are just as deserving of hell as those three men this week who murdered Matthew butler and Steve swan? Until you are willing to accept that evaluation of yourself, you will never be ready to accept God's gift of forgiveness. Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner.