9. "The Pharisee and the Tax Collector"

Luke 18:9–14

The Pharisee (left) and the tax collector

Scripture warns us that "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6; Proverbs 3:34, and 1 Peter 5:5). Jesus paints a vivid story of two men at prayer. What's the point or lesson he wants us to learn? Luke gives us a hint: Jesus warns us about the danger of despising others.
Jesus' story caused offense for those who regarded "tax collectors" as unworthy of God's grace and favor. How could Jesus put down a "religious leader" and raise up a "public sinner"?
This parable presents an opportunity and a warning. Pride leads to illusion and self-deception. Humility helps us see ourselves as we really are and readies us for God's grace and mercy. God dwells with the humble of heart; those who recognize their own sinfulness and acknowledge God's mercy and saving grace.

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The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Luke 18:9–14

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The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Luke 18:9–14

"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.’” (18:9–10)

Luke precedes the parable by naming its intended target. The first characteristic of the target is "confident of their own righteousness."

In Jesus' day, the Pharisees were the strict Jews. They believed. They were disciplined. They took the Law seriously — so seriously, in fact, that they created a "hedge" around the law, the Oral Law, with the idea that if they kept the rules of the Oral Law (the tradition of the elders), then they wouldn't be breaking the Mosaic Law. Each was passionate about pleasing God and avoiding godless ways.

Tax collectors weren't just hated because they were considered turncoats and traitors. They were also considered cheaters. They would sometimes assess more taxes than was legal. Many tax collectors didn't play by the rules, while the Pharisees played them to their advantage.

There's nothing wrong with rules. Each family has to have family rules. Each church needs to have family rules, too. It's a requirement of any human organization. We just need to keep our rules in perspective and realize that they're not necessarily God's rules, merely derivatives of God's rules.

A problem arises, however, when we are "confident in our own righteousness" or "trust in" our own righteousness to save us and justify us before God. When we move from righteous living — which is right — to trusting in that righteous living so that it might give us a standing before God, then we commit a fatal error. In this case, it becomes self-righteousness.

Looking Down on Others (18:9–10)
But when we begin to take pride in our own righteous behavior, it's very easy to look down on those who don't behave this way and see them as morally inferior to us.

The phrase "looked down on" is Greek exoutheneo, "to show by one's attitude or manner of treatment that an entity has no merit or worth; 'disdain.'"

Let's consider who we, faithful, righteous, Christian, Hearty Boys tend to look down on. Tax collectors aren't at the top of our list, are they? On whom do you look down? Jesus' parable was intended for our ears.

Priding Oneself (18:12) [Click to open/close each link to Scripture.] “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” (18:11–12)
Now Jesus, the storyteller, sets the figures into action.

Jews often stood as they prayed, looking up to heaven, often with hands raised. Look at the telling statement "prayed about himself." But the Pharisee's entire prayer is about himself! He thanks God — not for blessings — but that he isn't a sinner like others. He first lists those who were known to be evil. He then also reminds God of how pious he is by fasting and tithing. (If you haven't yet seen the accompanying video, please watch it now to appreciate the pious posture of the Pharisee.)

No Excuses (18:13)“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.’” (18:13)
The tax collector's prayer is as remarkable as it's short. First, he addresses God, just as the Pharisee had done. Next, instead of telling God all the good things about himself, he describes himself as a sinner. He then asks for mercy. For the tax collector to ask for forgiveness and restoration of his relationship with God is a bold and faith-filled act, especially for a man so despised by his society. He's obviously humble and repentant of his sins, but his faith has made him bold enough to ask for something that he has no right to expect — forgiveness and restoration before God.

Having contrasted the Pharisee's self-righteous and disdainful piety with the tax collector's sincere and faith-filled penitence, Jesus pronounces judgment.

Justification Before God,
Exalting or Humbling of Self (18:14)
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (18:14)
Finally, in verse 14, Jesus brings home the application of the parable, the point, the meaning. He highlights a paradox of spiritual life — exalting oneself leads to humbling, while humbling leads to exaltation.

Faith and humility are marks of the men and women who follow Jesus. May they be earmarks of your character and mine, as well!

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