Pharisee and Tax Collector
This parable is simple.
It strikes at a spiritual condition that anyone who has been a believer for some time can suffer from.
The sense of security in God morphs into personal smugness.
What once was thanksgiving to God becomes self-congratulation about one’s life of faith.
Put very simply – humility becomes pride.
The story Jesus tells here centres on two men.
One the expected example of devotion to God. The Pharisee.
The other the expected example of sin. The Tax Collector.
They both come to the place of worship to pray to God.
The Pharisee is described first.
Jesus’ description about him is revealing.
“He stands and prayed about/to himself”.
In two verses he refers to himself five times.
His prayer, at first glance, appears to be a prayer of thanksgiving. But he does not thank God for His works of grace or divine acts.
He thanks God that he, the Pharisee, is such a great guy!
He picks up the language of Psa 17:3-5 and Psa 26. Psalms which have their place because they are mindful of God and His work.
But this Pharisee has emptied such prayers of God and located himself dead centre.
He recites all that he has done and it is scriptural but emptied of the Spirit of God and love of God and others.
Then the tax collector prays.
At a distance and briefly.
He cannot approach God, cannot face God – yet God hears every word.
The tax collector draws on the language of Psa 34 and 51.
Both “pray-ers” have something in common.
In their prayer, they compare themselves to someone else. But that’s where the similarity ends.
The Pharisee compares himself to the tax collector.
He compares himself and makes a judgement based on what he knows about the occupation and draws all sorts of conclusions.
He looks down on the tax collector and despises him.
The Pharisee’s comparison breeds pride. There is no more room for God. This man believes he is complete.
There is no room for God…
The tax collector also makes a comparison.
He compares himself to God.
He has a vision of God.
The tax collector’s comparison creates humility.
He craves God’s mercy. His life is a vessel. There is room for God.
I suppose today we might have in mind who might be a Pharisee and who might be a tax collector.
How would define a Pharisee today?
Who in your mind would be someone who appears to relish their spiritual strength?
Whose prayers seem especially eloquent?
Can you think of anyone who appears to live out the Christian life with rigour?
Someone who seems to give a lot, tithe, fast and lead a very moral life?
Someone who can quote scripture very well and has an answer to everything.
Maybe when you come into worship you spot that person.
Maybe as we have read this passage of scripture today that person immediately came to mind.
Maybe you located yourself in this story as it was read.
Maybe you cringed reading about the Pharisee and his prayer.
As one commentator has put it – maybe you find yourself thanking God that you pray like the Tax Collector.
This is a simple and powerful parable.
The moment we begin identifying the Pharisee among us; or thanking God that I am like the Tax Collector – we become the Pharisee in the story!
Remember, this is a story told to people who were confident of their own standing and looked down on others.
It is a story about no longer feeling the need for God.
A story about when prayers become so centred on us that it is stretching the definition of prayer to actually call it that.
It is a story about what happens when we cease to hope in the mercy of God.
It is a story that shows what happens when the counsel of Micah 6:8 is forgotten:
"He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
Jesus’ final words state that the one who exalts themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
This is not a hint about how to camouflage your prayers so as to guarantee a good hearing from God.
Jesus is making a statement about the condition of the human heart. He is making a fact about the attitude we bring to God.
These words of Jesus emphasise that it God’s place to exalt. And God’s prerogative to humble us when we attempt to take God’s place.
Scripture is strong on a key feature of life in God – God gives grace to the humble.
1 Peter 5:5-6 puts it especially well.
Maybe because Peter had this parable in mind.
Maybe because Peter had his Pharisee moment – “Even if all forsake you I never will!”
Maybe because Peter had his Tax Collector moment – “And he went out and cried bitterly”.
1 Peter 5:
"And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time." (1 Peter 5:5-6)
This parable is about the spirit in which we live and approach God and consider others.
It is explained that the parable was told to those who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on others.
At is heart – this is a story about believers convinced they are in the right.
Which of course can be the case. People can come to a place of being sure about things.
But this “rightness” [righteousness] is full of pride.
This parable is set in the temple. In the context of worship.
I think there are three particular aspects of the Christian faith which can have us in the role of the Pharisee very quickly.
“Sinners” – “I thank God that I am saved and that I do not need to live life like those who don’t know you. How do they do it God? How do they live without faith in you?”
Worship – “I thank God that I have it all together and know exactly what needs to be done. When I worship I know that you are pleased – unlike that person over there…etc”.
The Spirit – “I thank God that my understanding and experience of the Holy Spirit is so with it and that I am so in touch with the Spirit. Unlike those people who do not believe or experience the wonderful things that I have”.
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.