Jean’s Gospel: Pharisee and the Tax Collector
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’ ” (Luke 18:9-14)
“Two men went up into the temple to pray.” Here we have two men, both circumcised Jews. At some point, their paths diverged radically. One man, a Pharisee, dedicated his life to Torah and the traditions of his people. To pursue the path of a Pharisee meant tremendous dedication and discipline. Pharisaic Judaism was highly esteemed by the Jewish people.
The other man, a tax collector, dedicated his life to the values of the world, abandoning both Torah and the traditions of his people, to serve mammon. He chose to make his living by extorting and oppressing his people on behalf of his Roman employers. Tax collectors were considered manifest sinners by the Jewish people.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray.”
Both men were of the people of God, but which one would make a suitable candidate for election to church council or elder, or appointment as a Sunday School teacher or small group leader? What do we look for in a person?
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ ” (Luke 18:11-12)
The Pharisee had an awesome résumé. He did not commit a laundry list of outward sins. He would not bring embarrassment to our church. It would be safe to leave our children alone with him. He is super committed, even going beyond what the Law requires in his lifestyle. Notably, the Pharisee was a tither.
True, the Pharisee comes across as prideful. But, then again, no one is perfect, and his positives far outweigh his negatives, do they not?
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ ” (Luke 18:13)
The tax collector, on the other hand, had a spotted résumé, to say the least. He worked as an officer of Roman occupation, in an office which was notorious for dishonesty, extortion and oppression. Would he be welcome as a member in good standing in our churches? Could he serve as an elder or on church council, or teach Sunday School?
True, the tax collector might be one of the good ones, like Zacchaeus, but how would visitors know? True, the tax collector admits his sin and demonstrates remorse, but has he really repented? What proof do we have that he has forsaken his dishonest practices? He seems a bit risky to embrace, does he not?
What is Jesus teaching us?
(1) “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous”
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men….” The Pharisee thought he was better in the eyes of God than other men. He even thanked God for making him a better man. Since in his mind he was righteous, the Pharisee had no need of God’s mercy. He trusted in himself and His works.
The Pharisee actually was much worse off than the tax collector, who had not a shred of righteousness to offer God in his short prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” With respect to our standing before God, our holy living avails us nothing.
No one is righteous before God, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom 3:23-25) By trusting in his own holy living, the Pharisee rejected the righteousness of faith, which the tax collector longed to receive from God’s mercy.
Jesus never says that living a moral and holy outward life is sinful or bad, but warns us against placing our trust in our own works. The righteousness of faith is always the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by God the Father for the sake of His Son who gave His life for us. In other words, our righteousness is not our own, but is outside of us, received by faith in the Word of grace proclaimed for us: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” (Rom 5:8-9).
(2) “He also told this parable to some who … treated others with contempt”
The Pharisee despised his neighbor. He was quite pleased to stand aloof with his prayer and his good deeds and condemn the tax collector to judgment and hell. If the Pharisee truly understood the meaning of the Law, he would have known that love fulfills the Law: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Gal 5:14)
Conversely, without love, our works are worth nothing. “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:-3)
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom 5:10)
Christ died for God’s enemies, that is: you; me; the Pharisee; the tax collector; racists; leftists; the LGBT community; etc. If Christ gave His life for the whole miserable lot of us, then we who confess Christ as Lord cannot despise him or her who Christ has died for. If Christ is our Good Samaritan, then are we not to be the good Samaritans of our enemies?
- Could the Pharisee have prayed for, rather than against, the tax collector?
- Could the Pharisee have asked if the tax collector would like someone to speak with?
- Could the Pharisee have offered to help the tax collector with a plan of restitution for anyone defrauded by the tax collector’s prior practices?
“I tell you, [the tax collector] 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.” (Luke 18:14)
The Pharisee in the parable missed his chance that particular day to receive God’s mercy, but Jesus is a merciful and forgiving Savior. Perhaps God humbled the poor Pharisee while there was still time for him to repent.
As for us, may the Lord humble us, keep us from the errors of the Pharisee, repent us when we fail, and above all, teach us to trust solely in the grace of God for our salvation, as it is written:
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:8-11) Amen.