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Martin Luther was so moved by the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector that he preached at least 13 sermons from the passage.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish philosopher and theologian preached that this parable highlights three points about a humble and repentant relationship with God.
(1) When we are alone with God, we realize how far from God we are.
(2) When we look downward, we see God’s holiness and realize our own wretchedness.
(3) Before God, we become aware of the danger of being in his presence. If we feel safe like the Pharisee, we really are in peril.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Kierkegaard had it right. This parable is more about our relationship with God than it is a lesson on how to pray. Jesus used this instance of prayer to teach us about living in a right relationship with God.
Jesus told the meaning of the parable before he started the story.
Luke notes, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt (Luke 18.9).
The heart of the matter is this: Can a person be righteous and hold other people in contempt at the same time?
Or, can a person be outwardly righteous and judge other people with a condemning heart and be in a good standing with God?
The parable answers these questions. Jesus said, “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'” (Luke 18.10-12).
The designation, “Pharisee,” is a very negative term today. However, in Jesus’ day it was the opposite. They were highly respected members of society and viewed as the model of what a God fearing individual should be.
The words of the Pharisee sound quite familiar to many of the Psalms where the praying person declared his or her innocence and righteousness before God.
Pharisee literally means “separated ones,” and this man embodied the designation by standing by himself in the Temple. He was probably there for either a morning or an evening sacrifice, and it is quite probable that he was in prayer during the observance of the sacrifice.
This man would have been very welcome in any church in America. He was a good person and devoted to God. He fasted on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the sake of his nation and her people. He gave liberally and obediently of his money.
Like the church in Ephesus that is recorded in Revelation, he was a stickler for proper behavior. Jesus spoke these words to the church, but they may have also applied to the Pharisee.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false” (Revelation 2.2).
However, Jesus also could have said this to the Pharisee. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2.4).
The Pharisee was outwardly righteous in many ways with the exception of one. His critical spirit and his willingness to compare other people with himself revealed that he failed the “love” test.
Jesus also described another person who came to the temple that day.
He said, “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!’ (Luke 18.13).
The tax collector was the exact opposite of the Pharisee. He was viewed with the same hatred as was reserved for murderers and thieves. He couldn’t serve as a witness in court, because he was thought to be dishonest by nature.
The tax collector was viewed to be of such low status that there was a special place in the Temple for people like him. Thus, we find him “standing far off” during the time of prayer and sacrifice.
The tax collector brought nothing laudable to God. His position caused him to be viewed as a traitor to his country. Any money he may contribute would be seen as “dirty” money that was obtained by oppressing his fellow citizens of Israel.
The only thing the tax collector brought to God was his need. He prayed that God would show him mercy and the sacrifice for sins would apply to him, too.
Like Kierkegaard’s sermon, when the tax collector was alone with God, he realized how far from God he was. Sensing his own wretchedness and danger of judgment, he appealed to God’s mercy.
Jesus applied the parable and said, “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” (Luke 18.14).
No one who first heard Jesus’ evaluation of the situation would have believed that a tax collector had a better standing before God than the Pharisee.
People today are so familiar with this parable that we easily accept and rejoice over the statement that the tax collector went home justified.
With these distinctions being noted, we still need to examine our hearts and make sure we are on the right side of this parable.
How are we like the “bad guys”?
I remember a time, when I had a meeting with God and he reminded me of how much I am like the Pharisee. The occasion was a time, when I was volunteering to do something on my day off.
I didn’t have a relationship with anyone who was present for the event, so I stood alone by myself. When my part in the event was ready to take place, a family member had not arrived.
Thirty minutes later, the person still wasn’t present. Nearly an hour went by, as I waited for my ten minute part in a celebration.
All of this waiting gave my mind ample opportunity to be critical of the crowd that I was there to serve. In the middle of my mental musings, the Lord reminded me of this parable and of how I was thinking, “I thank you God that I am not like these people.”
Since that time, I have often caught myself thinking like the Pharisee. If someone does not share my political beliefs, I think “I’m glad I’m not like that.”
I can be quite critical of preachers who don’t meet my standard of excellence can behavior. I am sure that attitude makes God happy. Not!
The list could go on. The bottom line is this. If my spiritual life does not lead to a greater love for God and for other people, something is wrong. Adjustments need to made.
I have now confessed some of my sins. Now, let’s all turn and consider Kierkegaard’s counsel.
(1) Let’s alone with God and let him show us how are we are from him.
(2) Take a serious look at God and see his holiness. Then, let’s realize our own wretchedness.
(3) Realize that if we feel safe like the Pharisee, we are really in peril.
About This Blog
Klyne Snodgrass has devoted 12 years of study to produce the book, Stories With Intent. His book is recognized as the best book on the parables in print. I am indebted to Dr. Snodrass’ work that helps shape my articles.
If you have a prayer request, please email me at email@example.com or private message me on Facebook. I will pray for you and so will the prayer team at Maywood Baptist Church.