Madonna once spoke candidly of what drove her:
‘[It] has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy… And that’s always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.’

Why do you think many of us feel we need to prove ourselves – whether to others, ourselves or God?

Historical Context

Jesus’ relationship with religion is disorientating. We have seen repeatedly that throughout Luke’s account it is the least religious and moral people that seem to connect with Jesus and the most religious and moral people who tend to reject him. 

One of the major religious issues that loomed large among Jesus’ contemporaries was the question of who would be accepted by God and granted eternal life. The Old Testament prophets spoke of a future day of judgement by God for all who have ever lived. To some God will give everlasting life with him in his kingdom, but others will be sent away from God and condemned to eternal death. The common understanding was that acceptance by God and eternal life depended on successfully obeying the Old Testament law. Only a few or the religious elite had sufficient confidence in their moral record to be sure they would be granted eternal life. Here Jesus turns everything on its head.

Luke 18: 9–14

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

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 all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’


Jesus paints a vivid picture of the Pharisee. How would you describe him?


Why does the Pharisee think he should be accepted by God?


How would you describe the tax collector? How does he contrast with the Pharisee?


The Pharisee is apparently ethical in his business, faithful in his relationships, generous with his income and pious in his religion. In contrast, as we learnt in study B, the tax collector would have been viewed as the complete opposite: unscrupulous, an extortioner, a traitor to his people and his God.
The historian and (then) sceptic AN Wilson once described this as a ‘shocking, morally anarchic story’. Why do you think he saw it this way? How, according to Jesus, can a person stand justified before God?

Luke 18: 15–17

The little children and Jesus

15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’

As Jesus travels towards Jerusalem he continues to be popular and in demand as a teacher and healer. Luke records that many people brought their children to Jesus so that he would bless them and pray for them.


Why do you think the disciples react against people bringing children to Jesus? What does this incident suggest about how children were viewed in Jesus’ day?


Given this rather unsentimental perspective on children, what do you think Jesus could have meant by saying that heaven is to be received ‘like a child’?

Luke 18: 18–27

The rich and the kingdom of God

18 A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

19 ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.”

21 ‘All these I have kept since I was a boy,’ he said.

22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’

23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’

26 Those who heard this asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’

27 Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God.’


Luke now introduces us to someone deeply concerned about their eternal destiny.
As you read through this incident, how would you describe the ruler?


Consider Jesus’ (rather surprising) response to the courteous way the ruler addresses him (verse 19). What issues do Jesus’ words raise for the traditional religious belief that you gain eternal life by being good?


How does the ruler respond when pointed towards keeping the commandments? What might this suggest about how he judges his own ability to inherit eternal life?


Jesus elsewhere summarised God’s commandments as ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself’. How does Jesus expose to this man, in particular, his inability to meet God’s requirements?

While the ruler could say that he had a good record when it came to treating people well, he was unable to meet God’s standards of loving others and God with all he had. In verse 27 Jesus seems to say that getting eternal life is impossible for human beings. The ruler looks like the ideal candidate and yet even he falls short.


Think about Jesus’ parable about the tax collector and what he taught about receiving the kingdom of God like a child. What do you think was Jesus’ motivation for exposing this man to his spiritual poverty?

What does this mean for us?

By approaching Jesus as a teacher who could tell him how to get to God, the young man was taking the classic religious approach to life. It is the approach that says: “My life, my acceptance, my worth, my salvation are ultimately down to me and what I can do.” Jesus revealed to this man the inadequacy of this approach before God. The man didn’t need a religious teacher to show him what to do; he needed a Saviour to do for him what he couldn’t do himself. 

In a famous invitation to just such a person, Jesus says: 
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28–30).

Do you find this offer of rest attractive? What might it feel like to be free from the need to prove yourself?

A common psychological strategy for meeting our need for self-approval is to compare ourselves with those we feel superior to – be it on the basis of moral standards, religion, race or education, or even taste in music or clothes. How does Jesus’ teaching in these passages undermine this strategy?


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