The Story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

June 27, 2024


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Throughout His life and ministry, Jesus often taught in parables. One of the shortest, yet most profound of all His parables was that of the Pharisee and the tax collector recorded in the Gospel of Luke. The Bible tells us that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).

The Pharisees were the most influential of all the Jewish religious sects of Jesus’ day. The word “Pharisee” literally means “the separated ones, separatists.” They were distinguished by their strict observance of the traditional and written law and pledged themselves to obey and observe all the rules, traditions, and ceremonial laws of orthodox Judaism. They considered themselves to be the only true followers of God’s laws, and therefore felt that they were superior and holier than others. Thus they separated themselves not only from the non-Jews—the Gentiles, whom they considered pagans—but they even set themselves above and apart from their own Jewish brethren.

The tax collectors, on the other hand, were considered by their fellow Jews to be the worst kind of characters, since they collected taxes for Rome, the foreign occupier and ruler of Palestine. As Jewish tax collectors for Caesar, they were therefore considered traitors by their brethren. The Romans would instruct them as to how much to collect from the people in taxes, and then the tax collectors could charge whatever more they wanted for their own income. They were considered extortioners, cheaters and robbers of the Jews, and were despised by their Jewish brethren.

When Jesus told this parable, comparing a Pharisee and a tax collector, He chose two opposite figures in the community. One was held in high esteem as the most righteous, religious, the most holy of all men, whereas the other was looked on as the most despicable of all men. The hearers would have assumed that the Pharisee would represent the virtuous person in the story.

Here is the parable in Jesus’ words:

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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 18:10–14).

It would have surprised the people listening to this parable in Jesus’ day to hear which of these two men Jesus said was justified before God.—Not the Pharisee who appeared to be so righteous and holy, and who no doubt felt that he was a very godly and good man. Rather it was the tax collector, the sinner, who was despised by others, and who apparently even despised himself, who felt so ashamed of himself that he wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but simply begged God to have mercy upon him and forgive him.

God’s way of looking at things is often different from ours. He says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways” (Isaiah 55:8–9). Although the tax collector’s sins were undoubtedly many, because of his honest and humble confession and recognition of the fact that he was a sinner who needed God’s help, Jesus said he was the one who left the temple justified that day.—Not the Pharisee who was so confident of his own goodness and righteousness that he didn’t think he needed God’s help.

But in the sight of God, self-righteous pride like this Pharisee manifested is the greater sin, as it causes people to despise and look down on others and to treat them with contempt. Instead of loving, forgiving, and understanding others, they stand in judgment of others and condemn people for their failings and sins, while not being aware of their own sins and shortcomings.

The Gospels tell us that “When the Pharisees saw Jesus sitting down and eating a meal with many tax collectors and sinners who came and sat with Him, they were enraged, and asked His disciples, ‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But Jesus answered them, ‘You need to go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:10–13).

In other words, Jesus was saying, “I would rather see you have love and mercy, and not just your dutiful keeping of the Law and making of ritual sacrifices! I’d rather you be loving to others than condemning of them.”

None of us have any goodness of our own; God is the only one who is good. His Word says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). Those who have accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for their sins on the cross receive the goodness of God and His love and righteousness, through “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5–6).

Jesus loved and had compassion on the sinners, the marginalized and the outcasts, and He told the Pharisees who questioned Him: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). At one point, Jesus told the Pharisees that they were worse than the drunks and the prostitutes, the tax collectors and the sinners whom they despised, and said, “Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God before you do” (Matthew 21:31).

Jesus once told His disciples, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees were too confident in their own righteousness and works to confess that they were sinners like everyone else. They not only couldn’t confess their sins, they couldn’t even see their own sin or acknowledge their sinful human nature. They could not accept Jesus’ teachings and His gift of forgiveness of sin through His grace, not through our own good works or righteousness.

It has been said that while there may be thousands of different religions in the world, they all fall into two categories. The first one consists of the many different faiths premised on the belief that we must earn our own salvation or place in the afterlife by doing good deeds and by keeping different kinds of religious laws, rituals, and commandments.

The second category of religion—Christianity—consists of those who acknowledge that they are sinners and know that they are incapable of saving themselves, and place their faith in Jesus and His atonement on the cross to save them. The difference between these two religions comes down to attempting to earn salvation through works or confessing that you need a Savior to rescue you from your sins and failings.

The Bible says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). And “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5).

God’s idea of righteousness is not sinless perfection, but the humble sinner who knows he needs God and casts himself on the mercy of God, even as the tax collector did in this parable, who cried out, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” And Jesus said that “he went down to his house justified … for the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). These are the people Jesus said He came to seek and save (Matthew 9:13).

God’s idea of goodness is godliness—a sinner who knows he needs God and depends on Him for salvation. God’s idea of saintliness is a sinner saved by grace, a sinner who is not confident in his own righteousness, but is dependent on the grace and love and mercy of God. Saved by the mercy of God and “loved by God and called to be saints” by His grace (Romans 1:7). These are the only kind of saints there are in God’s book!

Lord Jesus, please help us to walk in humility and love today, and to depend on Your grace and mercy. May we pour out Your love and grace on others through Your Holy Spirit. Help us to not be critical or condemning of others, or think ourselves better than others. You said, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” As we spend time with You, help us to learn what this means and to love and forgive others, just as You have forgiven us for our sins. May we show the same mercy and grace to others that You have shown us. Amen.

From an article in Treasures, published by the Family International in 1987. Adapted and republished June 2024. Read by Reuben Ruchevsky.

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