We need to be careful in reading Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
It would be easy, on the one hand, to look at the Pharisee and think we really shouldn’t be like him. He went into the Temple to pray and was quick to thank God that he was such a good person who did so many good things. The Pharisee compared himself with the tax collector, who was obviously a bad person just because he was a tax collector, and looked down on the tax collector because he thought he was better than the tax collector.
This can teach us that we should not look down on others like the Pharisee. There is truth in this, however if we start looking down on the Pharisee, we can actually be like the Pharisee. His example reminds us that faith is not about comparing ourselves with others, or looking down on others because of what they might do, or not do, or how they look, or the way we worship, or for any reason. Remember, Luke opens this story by saying that Jesus told this parable to people ‘who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else’ (NIV). We have no right to look down on anyone else for any reason.
On the other hand, we can look at the tax collector and think that he represents what we should be like. He was a humble man who was earnestly seeking the grace and mercy of God. The danger with holding the tax collector up as someone we should be like is that we can begin to put on a false mask of humility. I wonder sometimes if a lot of Christians fill the back of the church first because we want to identify more with the tax collector than the Pharisee. In the end, though, God cares a lot more about our hearts than where we sit in church.
The other danger with holding up the tax collector as an example to model ourselves on is that people can carry a lot of unnecessary guilt through their lives. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, as Paul says in Romans 3:23, however when we make our sin the main thing we focus on, we can neglect the grace of God and forget that Jesus died to save us from guilt. Faith in God’s grace to us is more about living in the joy that comes from salvation in Jesus (see Nehemiah 8:10; Psalm 51: 12) than living in guilt.
We can also see the tax collector as a person who is basically being honest with God. He is real about being a flawed and broken person who is in need of God’s mercy. He doesn’t try to hide behind the mask of good works or church involvement or what he gives to the church. He doesn’t try to justify himself or his behaviours by looking around and comparing himself with others. Instead, he looks down because he is real about his situation before God. While the Pharisee looks down on the tax collector because he thinks he is a better person, the tax collector looks down in humility and repentance because he is real about who he is before God.
If we think that this story is about not being like the Pharisee and being more like the tax collector, we actually miss the point. This parable isn’t about us. This parable is about what God is doing. We see when Jesus concludes the parable by saying that the tax collector who goes home justified, not the Pharisee. The main point of the story is that God justifies sinners. We heard this same good news a few weeks ago when Paul gave his trustworthy saying in 1 Timothy 1:15, that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (NLT). It is the tax collector who went home justified because Jesus, who became sin for us, met him at the back of the Temple, took all his sin from him, and freed him from sin by forgiving him.
In saying this, Jesus turns our entire idea of what it means to be a Christian on its head. Christians aren’t good people who don’t cheat, don’t sin, don’t commit adultery, who fast regularly and give a percentage of what they have to the church. What Jesus is telling us here is that Christians are sinners who are forgiven and justified by the mercy and grace of God. This good news gives us the freedom to come to God just as we are, with no pretensions or masks, with all of our flaws, brokenness and sin, to find mercy in Jesus. This parable is about God looking down from heaven, seeing us as we are and who sending us home as justified people when we are honest about our condition before him and dare ask for his mercy.
We know that God hates sin and he recreates us to live a new life through faith in Christ by the power of his Spirit. However, that is for another day. The scandal and the blessing of this particular story is that the parable of the Pharisee who looks down on the tax collector, and the tax collector who looks down in shame, is not actually about either the Pharisee or the tax collector. It is about God who looks down at us all, sees us as we are, and justifies us freely for Christ’s sake.
More to think about:
- It would be easy for us to hear this parable saying we should be less like the Pharisee and more like the tax collector. If we are honest, though, in what ways can we act like both the Pharisee and the tax collector?
- Do you find it easy or difficult to ask God for mercy? Can you explain why?
- How can our understanding of this parable change when we shift from focusing on the Pharisee and tax collector to focusing on God’s work of justifying sinners?
- When the tax collector went home, do you think he had a sense of being justified by God? How important is it for people to leave worship knowing that we are justified by God?
- How might the good news of God justifying sinners through faith in Jesus help you find a greater sense of freedom, peace, hope and joy in your life?