Pharisee or Tax Collector?

This Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector as they come to the Temple is rich with spiritual truth. In fact, it contains the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

"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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 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!’ 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.” (Luke 18:11-14)

Jesus explains the reason for giving this parable in verse 9, "He (Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt" It was spoken to teach a lesson to all those who trusted in themselves and their own abilities - their religious actions. They thought that this alone made them righteous before God. Furthermore, they despised those who were not up to their standard of supposed holiness. It was also a word of encouragement and hope for those who felt they couldn't match the zeal and holiness of their religious leaders and felt unworthy to even approach a holy God.

Jesus often spoke on the issue of righteousness, i.e. being "right" in the sight of God. He pleaded with them to understand their utter inability to be righteous enough by their own efforts, to attain the kingdom of heaven. God demands perfection, his standards are high. This knowledge was essential if they were to understand why he was sent by his Father to earth, which was to save sinners, those who know they cannot save themselves by their own efforts and therefore please a holy, righteous God.

Jesus gives the example of one of the Pharisees. They thought their own righteousness, their "goodness" was so wonderful and perfect that it could not fail to make an impression on God. They held rigorously, tenaciously, to the ceremonies and traditions of the law, making a public show of their practice, all to be seen and praised by other men, many of whom they despised as being beneath them. The Pharisee in the story is the perfect example of one who is self-justifying. His prayer is all about him, what I have done. His prayer had no confession of sin. He does not ask forgiveness for them, perhaps because he believes he has nothing to confess! Nor is there any word of praise or thanksgiving to God. The thanks he does offer up is only to puff himself up and place himself above others whom he treats with contempt. He has no time for such people and doesn't mix or socialise with them (he stands by himself in the temple). Jesus tells them if you pray like him, it is not pleasing to God, or even heard by God.

Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector stood “afar off” or “at a distance,” perhaps in an outer court, but certainly away from the Pharisee who would have been offended by the nearness of this man. Tax collectors, because of their association with the hated Romans, were seen as traitors to Israel and were loathed and treated as outcasts.

This man didn't stand like the Pharisee reciting his prayer before the presence of God. His stance spoke of his unworthiness before God. I imagine he was even on his knees, unable to even lift his eyes to heaven, the burden of his guilt and shame weighed heavily upon him, and the load he carried had become unbearable. Overcome by his sin, he beats his breast in sorrow and repentance. He realises his sorry condition and appeals to God for mercy. He has failed and admits it. I'm not good enough. The prayer he speaks is the very one God is waiting and willing to hear and answer, and his attitude is exactly what God wants from all who come to Him. This man went home justified, that means just-as-if-he-had-not-sinned, for God had cleansed and washed away his guilt and sin. This man was loved by God.

The tax collector exhibits precisely what Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3) Being poor in spirit means admitting we have nothing to offer to God to take away, to atone for our sin. We can only come to God as empty, impoverished, despised, bankrupt, pitiable, desperate sinners, admitting our failure before him. The tax collector recognizes his condition and seeks the only thing that can bridge the gap between himself and God. He cries out in despair, “God be merciful to me,” You know what I'm like, but have mercy on me! Don't treat me as I deserve to be treated!

What about our attitude?

His deep heartfelt attitude should be our attitude regarding sin, and the need to plead for God's mercy. Only then can we be assured of God’s boundless love and forgiveness in and through the merits of Christ Jesus. John the apostle said this, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:9-10)

On the other hand, like the Pharisee, no amount of good works, whether it be; giving to charity, worthy causes, church attendance, tithes, community service, loving your neighbour or anything else. None of these things are sufficient to take away the blot of our sin. We cannot stand before a holy God on our own.

We must also be careful of self-pride, and not make the mistake of comparing ourselves with other people, thinking ourselves to be better off before God than they are. We must not look sideways to justify ourselves. Jesus specifically warns us against holding onto this exact Pharisaical attitude. When we try to justify ourselves we naturally end up despising others and fail to see the depth of sin in ourselves. Instead, we are to compare ourselves to God's holy standard as given in his word. Why? "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) There is only one person who ever satisfied all the demands of the law, for he was without sin, and offered up himself as a sacrifice well pleasing to God. We are justified by the merits of Jesus Christ alone.

Which one are you more like, be honest; the self-righteous, congratulating Pharisee, or the struggling, humble tax collector?

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