Luke 18:9-14 the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else,Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fasttwice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“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.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Pharisee’s prayer is full of self commendation and aggrandisement. He sees himself to be perfect, doing the right thing, an exemplary person all based on his works. He even goes so far as to assert the inferiority of the tax collector who is right there next to him. He prays with many words and probably very loudly so that everybody can hear exactly how good he is. He has got it together and this is not really a prayer but a boast before God with him presenting a list of his achievements.
The tax collector is brief and to the point and with just a few words acknowledges his true state- he is a sinner in need of mercy. No doubt he was a man in conflict with himself collecting money from hardworking people to support a tyrannical government and in other places in the gospel the tax collectors were seen as the worst kind of people. When accusing Jesus Christ he was referred to as a friend of tax collectors and sinners Luke 7:34. They were the poster boys for sin and enemies of God. However something is different about him as he comes to God with a broken and contrite spirit- that which God can not despise Psalm 51:17
During the sermon on the mount the first beatitude is “ blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God” Matt 5:3. Poor in spirit not poor in material things. One who is poor lacks and is very aware of that lack and does what is necessary to make ends meet and stay alive. In the spirit it means that one also realises that they lack something and need to reach out to God. If you think you are okay spiritually you will be oblivious of a need for God and will continue as normal. This is very much what the Pharisee was doing, he thought that since he was doing and saying all the right stuff he was okay but nothing could be further from the truth and Jesus brings that out in the parable in verse 14 that the tax collector is the one who went home justified. He went on to add that who ever exalts himself shall be abased but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.
What can we learn from this? First when coming before God it is not a show to tell how great we are. It may look like that the Pharisee was being outrageous but we do it in our own ways. We imagine that if we tell God how good we are and focus on the good works we've done he’ll hear us. It may look all nice and holy but it is actually about us not Him. Even worse when we compare ourselves to “sinners” who are so wicked and we are so much better than yet nobody can do anything to forgive their own sin but it is by the grace of God. I also have fallen into that trap sometimes and looking at it critically it is just an exercise in making myself feel good. As much as we don’t have tax collectors as the “bad people” nowadays we have similar groups of moral punching bags. I think if this parable was written today the “sinner” would probably be the homosexuals that we have become so good at bashing. We've seen how not to do it from the Pharisee so what about the other side?
The tax collector was simple, stood afar off and knew his state well and what he needed. He was honest with himself and knew that it is not about what he did but God’s great mercy that he was even able to stand before God. He asked and he received unlike the other who did not bother to ask and went away with nothing. It reminds me of what the church in was told in Revelation 3: 17 you think you are rich but you are poor wretched blind and naked. If there is anything that we should learn from the tax collector is to be humble, like I mentioned earlier it is not about our works but God’s grace.
So are you here and like the Pharisee you have been going around thumping our chest and looking down on others who you deem better than yourself? It is time to humble yourself and come back to the realisation that the righteousness comes from God’s grace. Are you like the tax collector and have realised your need for forgiveness? God is always willing and gracious to forgive.