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: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
‘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.”
‘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.’
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The Pharisee was a good man by human standards. He avoided ‘big’ sins, like robbery or adultery. He did good things, fasting twice a week and giving a tenth of everything he got. He thanked God for the things he saw as his blessings.
The tax collector, by contrast, was not a good man. He worked for the hated Roman rulers and he was probably on the fiddle. He certainly had serious sins on his conscience because “He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Yet Jesus says that it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified before God. Why was this?
Look at the words of the Pharisee’s prayer. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The prayer is about what the Pharisee has done, not about what God has done. The tax collector says “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The focus is on God, and what God is doing.
That is the big difference between the men; the Pharisee is relying on his own efforts, while the tax collector is trusting wholly to the mercy of God. That is why the tax collector and not the Pharisee went home justified before God.
We can learn more from this parable.
Let’s start by thinking about the Pharisee. What is wrong with his self-reliance?
Luke says it is wrong because the Pharisee feels himself superior to other people. He trusts in his own righteousness. Feeling superior to others is always bad, because it immediately puts a barrier between us and them. Ultimately, it is the cause of oppression and war. How often have people used the supposed superiority of their race to justify exploiting others?
Is it always wrong to be pleased with the way we live our life? Can’t we take any credit?
Actually, I don’t think we can. When we do God’s will, it is through his grace. We have to come to him in prayer to learn his will, and then trust him for the strength to do it obediently.
Does this mean we have to be always abasing ourselves like the tax collector? That’s not a very attractive prospect…
No, I don’t think we do. God welcomes us. God affirms who we truly are. God accepts us and loves us. To be called to do his will is a privilege. Our very best prayer is the prayer of worship when we look towards God and catch a glimpse of his glory.
We’re not expected to wallow in guilt; we can rejoice in God’s grace!
Thank you for creating us in your image. Thank you that you love each of us, and accept each of us. Thank you for the privilege of prayer and worship. Please help us to reach out with your love to all our brothers and sisters wherever they live.
In Jesus name, Amen