ESV - 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.
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The context of Luke 18:14 lies in the passage of Luke 18:9-14. Jesus was condemning self righteousness and the act of despising others in the house of God. His use of a Pharisee and a publican in the parable is instructive because the religious leaders of his day were known for their pride and arrogance and often sought to oppose and demean the works of Christ (See Matthew 12). Jesus leaves no doubt that He disapproved the pride of the religious class, who of their own man-made rules had classified the publicans as sinners. Publicans were Jewish civil servants under Roman rule responsible for tax collection and were detested by the Jews for their ruthlessness and corruption. They were considered collaborators with the occupiers and were largely isolated under the decrees of the religious order. Jesus demonstrated by this parable that the publican expressed a godly attitude because he confessed his sinfulness but the Pharisee pointed elsewhere rather to himself as a sinner. None of us is without sin and the first thing to do in the presence of God is to ask for His forgiveness for our sins rather than to justify ourselves before a righteous and holy God or compare our self righteousness and religious piety with others. In the parable, the Pharisee foolishly declared himself righteous before God and at the same time condemned a person whose heart was more broken and therefore deserving of forgiveness (Psalm 51:17). It may well be possible that the publican heard the prayer of the Pharisee who was standing a few paces away (See Luke 18:13). Notice that the religious separation was evidence of the powerful class divisions among the Jews even in the Temple. The Pharisees would not mingle with or visit the home of a publican or any person they classified as a sinner. Jesus was once accused of associating with publicans and sinners (cf. Mathew 11:19, Luke 7:34). Now to answer the question, this parable does not teach that the publican went to heaven [though this is our hope!] but that even in the weight of his sinfulness he was more righteous than the Pharisee who understood the moral nature of God and His word but made an hypocritical stance in the presence of God. The Temple or church is not a place for condemning people but for leading people to true faith and obedience. The two characters in the parable were probably not literal persons but simply icons that Jesus used to teach divine truth in the most relevant way, as was the case with most parables of Jesus. What spiritual lessons do we learn from this parable? First, self righteousness can destroy our fellowship with God and with other believers. Secondly, only God alone can judge and determine our true standing in Him. No religious decree or proclamation can remove or hinder our access to God's throne of grace. Finally, church leaders, whether pastors, teachers, like their flock, are all sinners saved by grace and have an equal standing with their flock before God who is not a respecter of persons. Leaders should not condemn those but rather seek to use the biblical truths at their disposal to lead men down the narrow path in which they too should walk with circumspect because we are all ultimately answerable to God for our spiritual prudence or the lack of it. Paul taught that teachers shall be judged more harshly because they know the truths of God and would therefore be held on a higher standard of accountability than ordinary believers. James 3:1 (NIV) says "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly."
The term "justification" means "in right standing", in this circumstance, the implication is that the tax collector was "in right standing with God". Verse 9 tells us the attitude of the audience. "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:" Whenever we trust in ourselves that we are righteous, we are flying our pride in the face of God and saying, "I don't need you, I never needed you!" So Jesus' response was that everyone who exalts HIMSELF will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself (BEFORE GOD) will be exalted. Isaiah 64:6 tells us that all of our righteousness is as filthy rags. Verse 13 tells us the attitude of the tax collector." And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner." Whenever someone humbles himself before God and says, "Be merciful to me a sinner", God hears us, and we are in right standing with Him, and yes, we are now saved and eligible to go to heaven.
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