The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Luke 18:9-14
This is mind-bending! It’s confusing. It’s scandalous. The good guy, the model citizen does good things, goes to the good place, the temple, to pray. He does a good thing by praying. But, in fact, it’s not good. To God, it’s disgusting. It’s wrong. Then, the bad guy, not the guy you’d invite around to dinner, comes to God and it’s good. You see how this would have messed with the heads of the people who first heard this parable?
The issue here is righteousness. Who is righteous? Who is justified? At the end of our lives we will stand before God, the books will be opened, it will be time to find out who’s in and who’s out. Jesus teaches this parable to answer that.
The Pharisee – yeah! The tax collector – boo! Jesus sets up the extreme contrast. We ‘get’ this as we view from a New Testament perspective. However, in Jesus’ time the people didn’t see Pharisees as bad guys. They had unparalleled knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures. They were the pillar of society. They ‘fast twice a week and give a tenth of all’ they have (Luke 18:12). Fasting is going all day without food and devoting the day singularly to prayer, to God. The Pharisees also tithed, giving a tenth of all they had, giving God the first-fruits, the best of their income. From a religious standpoint, this Pharisee is a pretty good deal.
Then there’s the other guy – the tax collector. He would have been the scum of society. The Romans were a pagan empire who had slaughtered many and took taxes. Some of God’s people had joined the opposing team and bullied and intimidated the rest of God’s people, joining the foreign Romans. They would bankrupt people. They were socially and morally disgusting.
So, here they are, two people – the hero and the heathen, the Pharisee and the tax collector. They both came to the temple. 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 (Luke 18:12). The tax collector wouldn’t even look up to heaven, ‘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.’ (Luke 18:13). Jesus continues, ‘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.’(Luke 18:14).
Why is the good guy not right with God and the supposed bad guy is?
Here we see displayed righteousness and received righteousness. There is a world of difference! Which one are we most like? Are we like the Pharisee, righteousness displayed? We are right and others are wrong. This could be shown in secular ways – being self-righteous., thinking we are better than others because we recycle, because we care for the environment. It could be we get in a car and think we’re a better driver than others. Maybe it’s a cause we support – we’re an activist, supporting an environmental cause or charity, thinking of ourselves as being better than others. This is self- righteousness displayed.
May be it is even worse, religious self-righteousness. The Lord asks, why should you be in glory? If your answer begins with ‘I’ you’re in big trouble, thinking it’s all to do with you. The Pharisee’s prayer has only one mention of God and four mentions of himself. It is all about him and what he’s done. Now he thinks he is righteous. And God says, ‘No, it’s not good enough.’ God is perfect, just perfect. So compared to Him, our best isn’t good enough, to God it is offensive. The Bible says no-one is righteous, no not one. No matter how good we think we are, our displayed righteousness is no good at all.
Received righteousness is beautiful. This is righteousness received as a gift from God. The tax collector knows what’s he is like, ‘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.’ (Luke 18:13). He is essentially in mourning, grieving his sin. We’re in that boat too, we are all in that situation. The tax collector sees his sin as obvious. He can only utter, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13). He knew he was morally bankrupt. All that was left for him was to throw himself on the mercy of God. Mercy, God’s free gift, given through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
As Jesus tells this parable He knew what was going to happen. His naked, bloody body would be beaten, broken, hanging off a cross. It is only when you realise, this is it, this is the only way, that you realise your best is never good enough. The only thing we can do is hold our empty hands, say we have nothing to give and ask for His mercy. You will have His mercy. The price is paid. It’s done. Finished. This is the gift of righteousness. The only righteousness that is acceptable to God. If you haven’t put your trust in Jesus’ righteousness, come to Jesus and receive His grace. There is no other way. Throw yourself on God’s mercy and you will be saved.