He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man 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.”
Let me begin this reflection about the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector with a question. Why does our Lord Jesus get on the Pharisee’s case? The man is not lying when he says he is not a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer. And he is most certainly different from the tax collector. He fasts twice a week, which is more than was required by the law. And he tithes faithfully. So, why does our Lord pick on someone who is obviously a “good” man?
Because the Pharisee believed this “goodness” was so impressive it couldn’t fail to make an impression on God! It was, after all, making a huge impression on the people as he made a public display of his religiosity, So, God would also be so impressed with the rigorous way he followed all the ceremonies and traditions of the law, God would seat him in the throne room of heaven! “But what is wrong with this?”, we might ask because it describes us, doesn’t it?
What’s wrong is this. The Pharisee’s prayer has none of the elements of a confession. He doesn’t ask forgiveness for his sins, quite possibly because he didn’t think he has committed any. After all, he hasn’t murdered anybody or slept with anyone’s wife, no matter that he thinks about both constantly. He doesn’t thank God for anything either. His entire prayer is about himself! I have heard similar prayers in the church, so I think we need to understand the lesson.
We know the story of Philip Neri, who, on seeing a murderer being led to the gallows, said in all sincerity, "There but for the grace of God go I." It is based on something Paul had once declared. I paraphrase: “I am the least of the apostles although I do not even deserve to be called an apostle because of what I did. But by the grace of God I am what I am ...” (1 Corinthians 15:8–10). The wise among us know this applies to us, and to every individual born in sin.
Paul then goes on to say that whatever he is able to do is because of grace. “Yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10b), he said. I have a pencil with me here. It is standing upright. How is it able to do this? Only because I am holding it. There is no way that a pencil can stand up on its own. We are like this pencil, and if any of us are able to lead upright lives, it is only because of the grace of God.
If we can just remember this, it will help us to avoid an attitude of self-righteousness that so described the Pharisees who angered our Lord, and be like the humble people he so likes.