In this post we’re going to study the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. You can find that parable in Luke 18:9-14.
The Audience (Luke 18:9)
Luke 18:9 tells us for whose sake the Lord Jesus Christ spoke this parable.
So, that’s the audience. That’s whom Jesus is speaking to. He’s addressing the kind of person who: 1) trusts in himself and thinks he’s righteous and 2) who thinks little of others.
Are you that kind of person?
Do you think you’re a good person? Are you confident that you are better than others? Are you proud of that fact? Are you trusting in your own goodness? Do you despise those people whom you think are less righteous than you are?
If you’re like that, then this message is for you straight from the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s speaking to you right now. Listen.
The Parable (Luke 18:10-14)
The Scene (Luke 18:10)
Jesus starts to tell a story in Luke 18:10.
So, here these two guys are.
The first guy is a Pharisee. He’s religious. He’s viewed as a model of religious devotion. In Jesus’ days you couldn’t exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. This man was righteous – he was a good man – and he knew it and others knew it.
The other guy is a publican – a tax collector. Do any of you still have to file your own taxes? When you last filed your taxes, was that a pleasant experience? Some people aren’t too happy with the IRS these days, and it wasn’t any different in Jesus’ day. The Jews in Jesus’ time viewed tax collectors as traitors and almost sub-human.
Summary of the Two Guys
So, we have one really good guy and one really bad guy.
And where are these two? Luke 18:10 says that they’re in the Temple. They’re in the place of worship. The place where God’s people gather to praise and worship him. And they’ve come to pray.
Now, no one would be surprised to see the Pharisee in the place of worship in order to pray to God. But I think the appearance of the tax collector might have turned some heads. A man like that might not make it to the Temple very often. He certainly wouldn’t have been welcomed by most people.
The Prayers (Luke 18:11-13)
But nevertheless, they both show up at the Temple in order to pray. And in Luke 18:11-13, we get to hear the prayer of each of these men.
The Pharisee’s Prayer (Luke 18:11-12)
Jesus starts with the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12. So, let’s note a few things about this prayer.
Focus on Self
The content of this prayer is all about the Pharisee himself. He addresses God, but really the prayer is focused on himself.
He’s Not Bad
In Luke 18:11 he thanks God that he isn’t like other people. He’s not a extortioner – he doesn’t obtain things through force or fraud. He’s not unjust or an outwardly sinful person. He’s not an adulterer – he doesn’t commit adultery with someone who isn’t his wife. And he’s probably most thankful of all for the fact that he’s not like this tax collector who came up to the Temple to pray.
Then in Luke 18:12 the Pharisee shifts his focus from what he doesn’t do to what he does positively do. He fasts twice a week. He denies himself food for the sake of prayer two times every week. He also gives one-tenth of all that he owned.
So, taken together, this prayer to God consists of thanksgiving for what the Pharisee was not followed by a bare statement of what he was doing right.
Have you ever prayed this kind of prayer yourself? When you communicate with God, are you always talking about yourself and how good you are and how bad others are?
Have you ever heard this kind of prayer from others? What if you entered this service and the man who leads the people in prayer stood up and thanked God that he wasn’t like all the rest of you folks out in the audience here – and then he proceeded to list all of the good things about himself. What would you think about that?
We’re going to find out what God thinks about that kind of prayer in a few minutes.
The Tax Collector’s Prayer (Luke 18:13)
But first, let’s read Luke 18:13 where we get to hear the prayer of the tax collector and notice a few things.
Similarities Between the Prayers
Now, there are a few similarities between the prayer of the tax collector and that of the Pharisee.
The tax collector and the Pharisee were both in the Temple – the place of worship. They both prayed – they directed their words to God. They both stood up as they did this. They both even spoke of themselves as they prayed.
Differences Between the Prayers
But while the Pharisee stood proudly and proclaimed his own goodness in contrast to the wickedness of everyone else around him – this tax collector was focused only on his own wickedness and on God’s ability to pardon his great sinfulness.
Notice the posture of the tax collector as he prays. He stands just like the Pharisee stood. But he refuses to even lift his eyes to heaven. The weight and shame of his own sinfulness wouldn’t allow it. He beat upon his chest in sorrow over his sins.
And the tax collector’s words are addressed to God just like the Pharisee’s were. But he’s asking God for something. The Pharisee apparently didn’t feel the need to receive anything from God. He was good. He didn’t need a thing – or so he thought. But this tax collector knows he needs mercy from the Lord. He needs his sins to be forgiven. He needs peace with God.
Why does he need peace with God? Because he knows he’s a sinner. Literally, he’s “the sinner”. There are other sinners around, but he’s not thinking about them. He’s thinking about himself. The Pharisee also was thinking about himself – but he was thinking about his own goodness. The tax collector was thinking about his own badness and sinfulness and unworthiness to stand before God.
Have you ever communicated to God like that? Have you ever humbly confessed your own sinfulness to him? Have you ever asked him for mercy?
God’s Response (Luke 18:14)
If you do, then Jesus ends this parable telling you what you can expect if you pray to God with a tender heart and a heart broken by the weight of your sin against a holy God in Luke 18:14.
Jesus says that the sinful wretched tax collector was justified. He was declared righteous. This parable started off with Jesus addressing those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. This Pharisee was one such man – he trusted in himself that he was righteous. But ultimately, who is Jesus saying was declared by God as being righteous? It’s the sinful tax collector who was so grieved over his own sin and so humbled before God. That’s the kind of person whom God will justify.
But the Pharisee – as externally good and righteous as he thought he was and as he appeared to be in the eyes of others – his prayer didn’t accomplish anything. He came to the Temple thinking that he was righteous, but he leaves with Jesus’ evaluation of him that he was not righteous after all.
Why? Why would the sinner walk away from the Temple righteous while the externally righteous man walks away unrighteous? End of Luke 18:14.
Here’s the point. There are two actions under discussion – exalting and humbling. Every one of us has the choice of doing one or the other for ourselves. We can exalt ourselves or we can humble ourselves.
If we exalt ourselves – if we’re lifted up with pride over our own goodness – if we think that we’re good in God’s sight – then Jesus Christ promises that we will be forcibly humbled.
But if we humble ourselves – if we acknowledge our own sin and unrighteousness – if our hearts are broken by the weight of our sin against a holy and totally-righteous God – then Jesus Christ promises that he will exalt us. He will justify us. He will declare us righteous.
Where are you today? Are you’re the proud self-righteous person whom God will need to humble? Or are you the humble sinner who knows your need of mercy from God – the God who promises to resist the proud but to give grace to the humble?