The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The teachers you’ve had in your life fall into the category of either memorable or not. It seems like the teachers at the extremes who are the memorable ones. We remember the really good teachers. We remember the teachers who make us miserable. Jesus was a great teacher, and we have an example of that in today’s parable.

In Christianity, on our side of the reformation, the key truth regarding salvation is this: “The just shall live by faith.” We believe that the righteousness God requires cannot be achieved. Righteousness can only be given as a declaration from God. God declares us to be righteous. We don’t earn and can never attain that status. The problem is that justification by faith is difficult to accept.

The common views stand in opposition to this doctrine. “Those who are good enough will be allowed into heaven.” God will like me more tomorrow than he does today if I could be a better person.”

And so, these false ideas drive the way many people live! They pursue self justification. They consider themselves to be self righteous.

They have no other choice. If you think that righteousness and justification are based on your actions, you have to find a way to be self-righteous and self-justified. If you don’t, the only other option is despair. Nobody wants to live in a state of despair. So they figure out how to appease God by human effort.

This brings us back to Jesus as a great teacher. To help people trapped in self-righteousness, Jesus told a powerful story.

In the parables we’ve seen already - Jesus frequently told stories within a particular context to make a particular point. He told the parable of the unmerciful servant in response to Peter’s question about how many times he had to forgive his brother. He told the parable of the good Samaritan in response to a man who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He told the parable of the prodigal son after religious leaders criticized Him for welcoming to His table sinners who repent. Jesus told stories that aimed for the hearts of His hearers.

Today’s parable is similar to the others. Jesus told this story in order to address a spiritual need. Take a look at the preface that Luke gave before recounting Jesus’ story:

Principle One: Self-justification causes you to look down on others. (Luke 18:9)

Luke 18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:

We don’t know the specific details of the conversation, but there are two things we know. The listeners were self-righteous. They trusted themselves for their righteousness. And, they proudly looked down on others and treated them with contempt.

We live in a world that prizes the “self-made individual.” Trust in yourself. Believe in yourself. Do it yourself.

All of these messages come encourage us to seek independence and to chart our own course. It’s good in some ways. But, when you apply that mind-set to salvation, you will dig your own spiritual grave.

Again - it’s the common belief that you somehow work your way into heaven. To arrive at that conclusion, you’ve done at least three things!

First, you’ve elevated yourself and you think you’re much better than you really are.

Second, you’ve downplayed God’s standard. You can’t read the Bible honestly, and come away with the idea that you can what God requires. You have to either think that God really didn’t mean it, or you have to conclude that God takes your effort and sincerity into account, and give you extra credit for meaning well.

Third, you corrupt the gospel message and so contempt for the cross. Jesus had no need to die if you can earn your salvation.

Living this way goes hand in hand with having contempt for others. As soon as you remove God as the standard for righteousness, you need to replace Him with a new standard. That new standard is the people around you! I feel good about myself because I‘m better than you! As long as I’m better than most people, I’m probably OK. Even worse, I actually don't’ want you to do well and live properly. If you don’t swear when you lose your temper, it makes me look bad if I do. If you avoid temptation on a business trip, it makes me look bad if I don’t.

So the pursuit of self righteousness causes you to look down on others with contempt, and actually find delight in other people being sinful.

Here is the cycle: You trust in yourself and become self-righteous, which leads you to look down on others. Then, as you look down on others, and notice their sins. That causes you to trust even more in yourself because you see yourself as more righteous than they are. Then you look down even more on others.

The gospel presents a completely different paradigm. The gospel tells you that you are righteousness and never can attain righteousness. Jesus was perfectly righteous. On the basis of what Jesus accomplished, righteousness is granted to you.

Think of it this way: As long as you are looking up to God for salvation, you can’t look down on anyone else. Once you know how much you need the mercy of God, how in the world can you look down your nose on someone else in need of the same mercy?

Jesus launches into this parable, first presenting the self-righteous character:

Principle Two: Self-righteousness can be easily disguised. (Luke 18:10-12)

Luke 18:10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get [acquire].’

As we read the New Testament, we tend to read the worst possible motives into anything that the Pharisees say or do. That would not be the case with anyone listening to Jesus speak live. They would never have assumed that the Pharisee was the bad guy in Jesus’ story - at least not at first. The Pharisees instructions for worship, prayer, and righteous living had heavy influence on Jewish religious culture. They would have seen this Pharisee as a model citizen. The Pharisee was a decent, upstanding religious man. The Pharisee was pious in his practice. As far as religion goes, this is a great guy!

What kinds of things is the Pharisee doing to pursue his religion?

Fasting was only required of Jews only on the Day of Atonement, but this guy is fasting twice a week. As the Bible attests, people facing crises would also fast. Particularly godly people would fast more frequently.

In tithing all he acquired, that’s almost crazy to us. You would tithe your paycheck. Then when you take that money and acquire a car, you tithe on the car.

He’s at the the temple to pray. That’s a good thing, right? He must be seeking the Lord, and he seems to be a prayerful man.

On top of all this, he seems to be thanking God for the good things he had done. Not the things God had done, but that he, the Pharisee, had done. Thank you God, that I’m not an extortioner.

So what’s the problem with the Pharisee? The problem is somewhat subtle. He’s not thankful for God’s grace and mercy in keeping him from sin. What’s he’s really says is that he’s thankful that he’s not like other people. “Oh Lord - I look around and I see these other men - Extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. Thank you that I’m not like them!”

If this Pharisee really understood sin, how might his prayer have been different? He would see himself on the same level as the tax collector—a lowly sinner in need of mercy. Look how often he uses the word “I.” The Pharisee may be addressing God, but he is praying about himself.

Self-righteousness wears many disguises. The scary thing about self-righteousness is that we usually don’t recognize it in ourselves. We think because of our religious practices that we are okay with God. We think because of how we pray that we are trusting in Him, not in ourselves. We think because of how we live that we are doing better than the people around us. If self-righteousness had a stink to it, we’d be the last to smell it on ourselves.

It’s very easy for us to feel justified in ourselves. Our positions in the church, our good works make us feel good about ourselves. We realize that we’re probably better people than the cross section of society. So we think that this makes us better off with God. If someone dares to notice this tendency in us, they become the enemy. We feel things like: “Who are you to challenge my spirituality?”

In contrast to the Pharisee who took his stand in the temple and prayed about himself, the tax collector took a much different approach. We see that...

Principle Three: Humbly pleading for mercy is evidence of divine grace (Luke 18:13-14)

Luke 18:13 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!’ 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.”

Notice the contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector.

The Pharisee

  • Standing by himself, but perhaps in the center of attention

  • Looked all of the people around him for the sake of comparison

  • Prayed about himself before God

  • Attitude of elevating himself above all the other people around him

  • Repeatedly used the word “I” in his prayer about himself

The Tax Collector

  • Standing far off, a focus of ridicule and private

  • Looked down and wouldn’t raise his eyes to heaven

  • Prayed for mercy for from God

  • Attitude of humility himself before God, seeing himself as a sinner

  • Repeatedly struck his chest in conviction and humility

This is where the story takes a twist for the listeners! The excellent Pharisee, with his robes and his eloquence left the temple that day - confident in his righteousness. He felt great! But having taken his stand on his own merits, the Pharisee left the temple unaccepted, unjustified, and under God’s wrath.

But the tax collector, A man who had made his money by exploiting his people - a traitor - By having repented and having humbly cast himself on God’s mercy, left the temple justified. Just like that his sins were gone. In a flash God’s wrath was turned away. In an instant he had a new life.

This is a powerful paragraph: “Picture two or three of the most hated, despised criminals in our day—the pedophile, perhaps, or a pimp who sells women in a trafficking ring. Imagine if the story were told about a Christian social worker and a pedophile or pimp. If your sense of justice seems outraged at the idea that a repentant pedophile or pimp would leave justified instead of the Christian social worker, then you’re beginning to understand the shocking power of the story. You’re supposed to feel this way because this story is about the shocking truth of justification by faith alone—that it is not by works but by grace we are saved (Eph. 2:8-9). If we are no longer scandalized by this story, it’s because we have lost sight of just how revolutionary this doctrine is.”

Luke wants us to see from this story that the great doctrine of justification by faith has its roots in the teaching of Jesus. The doctrine was made possible by Jesus himself. Paul would tell us:

Romans 3:21-22 ‘But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe’

For decades, Larry King hosted an evening talk show on CNN. He would often invite Christian preachers and press them at two different points of Christian teaching. First, he would press them on the issue of Jesus being the only way to God. In a pluralistic society, how could someone say that Jesus was the only way of salvation? Was the pastor saying that good people from other faiths would be condemned?

The second issue King would press them on concerned the idea of a murderer who converted to Christianity on his deathbed. Would the murderer find forgiveness if he sincerely repented? Larry always seemed scandalized by the preacher’s response: “Yes, a repentant sinner will be justified by God.”

Do you know what’s fascinating about Larry King and those who think like him? In both cases, it wasn’t God’s judgment that was scandalous. It was God’s grace.

The idea that the “good” unbeliever would face God’s wrath while the repentant murderer would receive God’s eternal blessing seemed unacceptable. It really is shocking! But this is the scandalous beauty of grace.


What we have in this parable is a contrast between two ways of approaching God: We can approach God from the standpoint of our own meerits and abilities, and seek to appease Him with how great we are. We can approach God in humility and realize that our only hope is to humbly beg for mercy.

The contrast is clarified by the quote from Daryl Bock at the end of the chapter: Pride preaches merit; humility pleads for compassion. Pride negotiates as an equal; humility approaches in need. Pride separates by putting down others; humility identifies with others, recognizing we all have the same need. Pride destroys through its alienating self-service; humility opens doors with its power to sympathize with the struggle we share. Pride turns up its nose; humility offers an open and lifted-up hand.


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