The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Our generation is the most self-centered, self-absorbed, and self-focused the world has ever seen. The emphasis is always on “me” and if we are inclined to extend our coverage, we might include our families, but any inclusion, even then, is often based on self-interest. 

This preoccupation with self also leads to self-glorification to which most New Age movements and humanistic philosophers pander to, resulting in a huge cacophony of self-aggrandization. All we have truly succeeded in accomplishing, however, is becoming expert in the art of self-delusion, because for all the happiness that “doing our own thing” is supposed to bring us, what we really have is increased anxiety and insecurity.

Not surprisingly, given the practically non-existent border between the spiritual and the flesh these days, this is also evident in the community of believers. The “self” has been put on the throne upon which only God should reign, and there is a scornful contempt for "others" as one looks down from the throne with an obnoxious and inflated sense of superiority. 

What is the antidote? Jesus has a solution, and he offers it in the parable he tells of two men who go to the temple to pray. 

One is a Pharisee, the other a tax-collector. The Pharisees were a religious sect noted for their strict observance of the Law and the traditions of the elders. Although the term ”Pharisee” has now become synonymous with “religious hypocrite,” in the time of Jesus, they were highly respected as holy men who were deeply spiritual. 

The tax-collectors, however, were despised as extortionists and traitors. Extortionists, because they collected more tax than was required for personal gain; and traitors, because although they were Jews, they served the Romans.

When they are in the temple, these two men pray very differently from each other. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like other people—thieves, rogues, adulterers, or the tax collector who was praying near him. (We’re not sure if he was within earshot.) He then recounts his good deeds, telling God how he fasts twice a week and gives tithes of all he possessed. Both were far more than what was required by the Law. The Law asked for a fast to be observed only once a year, although the average Pharisee fasted once a week; and demanded only a tenth of one’s income, not a tenth of one’s total possessions. 

The tax-collector, on the other hand, stood “far off”, his eyes lowered, and beating his breast asked God to be merciful to him, a sinner.

And then Jesus, in typical style, rips into the former as he says: “I tell you, this man (the tax-collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).

It would have been shocking to all his listeners to hear him say this because Jesus was not parodying the man. What Jesus described was not the actions of one particularly proud Pharisee. All of them prayed in this manner. It was what was expected of them, and if you were to visit the Jerusalem Wall today, you would pretty much see the same thing. Jesus saw how they prayed and it upset him. We would do well to understand why. It wasn’t because the Pharisee was lying. There is every indication that he was speaking the truth. The Pharisees did lead lives that were according to the law, sometimes carrying it to absurd extremes. 

During a visit to Jerusalem a few years ago I stepped into an elevator and noticed two men standing there. It looked like they had been standing there for a while. As I pressed the button to my floor, they told me the floor they were going to, and it seemed like they expected me to press it for them. When I mentioned this later to my guide, he laughed and explained that it was the Sabbath. All forms of labor were forbidden, and since pressing an elevator button constituted work, they couldn’t, in good faith, press it. I thought he was pulling my leg, but when I researched this, I found out it was quite true. Upon their return from exile, they were so determined not to displease God again, they had written rule after rule of things they had to do and not do, (see Box) and they actually kept these rules.

So what then was his error, other than following a whole lot of seemingly bizarre rules? Gary Ingrig, in his insightful book, The Parables, suggests three things: an inflated sense of self, a deflated sense of God, and a distorted sense of values. 

Lesson: An Inflated Sense of Self 

In our examination of the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (page 42) we saw how a rich young man went to Jesus asking him how he could gain eternal life, When Jesus told him he needed to keep the Commandments, he claimed he did so, with a boastful self-righteousness that was typical of the Pharisees of that time. 

Jesus had tried to strip them of this sense of self-righteousness time and time again to little avail. On one occasion he told them: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

This is commonly understood to mean that one should not look at a woman lustfully (and one shouldn’t), but Jesus’ purpose in saying this was to let the men who believed they were holy and right with God simply because they didn’t commit adultery weren’t quite getting it. Even looking at a woman with lust in one’s eyes was a sin which meant they needed salvation as much as the adulterer did. 

The young man thought he was doing everything needed, but intuitively he knew that it was not enough, so he asked Jesus what else he needed to do. And when Jesus told him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, he went away, not realizing that he wasn’t keeping the Commandments after all. In fact, he was breaking the most important one—the first Commandment which said that there was only one God and we should worship only him. Money was the young man’s God. But when you have an inflated sense of self and your focus is entirely on what you have done to curry favor with God to merit a ticket into heaven, it is easy to be blinded to the truth. They should have read Isaiah. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (Isaiah 64:6). It may have helped them avoid a sense of self-righteousness and see God in the proper light. Which leads us to the second lesson to be learned.

Lesson: A Deflated Sense of God

The Pharisee’s prayer lacked praise, confession or petition. It was all about him and how holy he was, and with no sense of awe that he was standing in the presence of a mighty God all he could do was preen before his fellow-men. But then when one puts one’s faith in the law, believing that they can live according to what it dictates, a deflated sense of God is exactly what results—in addition to a contempt of one’s brothers and sisters who may not be able to do what they do.

Paul was one of their number, as self-righteous as they came, as he admitted. 

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Talk about a man who believed in “self”. But then he came to a realization of the truth, and this is what he wrote: Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard 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 one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith (Philippians 3:4‑9).

There is a proverb that states, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” that holds true for all of us. If we are able to do something, it is only because of the grace of God, and if we can travel on life’s journey with any degree of holiness it is only through the guidance of his Spirit. This proverb was probably inspired by something that Paul wrote to the people of Corinth. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Corinthians 15:8‑10).

When we realize this, it will help us avoid the mistake of the Pharisee, and give us a proper sense of the greatness of God and our role in the scheme of things. Which brings us to a final lesson.

Lesson: A Distorted Sense of Values

We only have to look at the world today to see how our entire value system has become inverted. The things that God says are forbidden to us because they are evil are now accepted as good and proper, and vice versa. As a simple example, pride, which was the downfall of both Satan and man, now becomes the value one clings to, and humility the value that is discarded as worthless. And given this value set, it is all about externals. Behold the Pharisees. It was about what he did, not who he was, and as long as people perceived him as being a holy man, it didn’t matter if the insides were rotten. 

Jesus wasn’t fooled by appearances. He said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi (Matthew 23:1-7). He then went on to call them white washed tombs and other choice epithets. 

Getting it Right

For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite (Isaiah 57:15).

The tax-collector got it right. Rather than take center stage, as the Pharisee did, he stays on the sidelines, unable to raise his eyes towards heaven, knowing only too well that he was not worthy to stand in the presence of the Holy God. One does not know what he did, but one does know that he was remorseful for his sin(s) which he acknowledged as he beats his breast in a familiar gesture of sorrow and grief. His prayer is short, all of seven words, but it carries with it everything he wants to say: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

God was merciful to him because he asked for mercy. The Pharisee didn’t get any because he didn’t think he needed any. Let us be like the right one and pray as David did: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me (Psalm 51:1-3).