The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
One of my favorite parables is found only in Luke (18: 9-14). It’s the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In the parable both go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee prays to (and about) himself, congratulating himself on what a good person he is and how much better he is than almost everyone else, including and especially the tax collector. The tax collector stands off at a distance, disgusted with himself and asking God to have mercy on him. Jesus pronounces his verdict on the two: I tell you this man (the tax collector), rather than the other, went home justified before God. Now, there are two parts of this parable that capture my imagination and attention.
First, Jesus uses the word “justify.” The word refers to being set right in the eyes of God. It doesn’t mean to pronounce a person innocent, but it has more to do with acquittal or to be set right. Let’s face it, since the beginning, when God set the angel to bar the way back to the garden and sent Adam and Eve off, innocence has been removed as an option for any of us. We may be preoccupied with establishing our innocence—judging, comparing, blaming, and excusing, but the real issue for all of us is maturity—growing up, becoming like Jesus. And, it would seem, from Jesus comments on our two worshippers, that the self-satisfied are judged “out,” while those who come to grips with themselves are judged “in.” By using the word “justify” in this parable Jesus makes the issue fundamental to salvation.
A second thing that especially appeals to my imagination is their “going home.” I imagine the Pharisee went home feeling very good about himself and his worship. He believed in himself and his own moral superiority. He believed God thought well of him. He went home well thought of in the community, respected and admired. All the while he is damnable, on his way to hell, and has not a clue. Meanwhile, the despised tax collector goes…where? He would not
be allowed in the synagogue. He would not be welcomed in any respectable home and no good family would have him as a son-in-law. He was completely outside society and had only others like himself to associate with.
I imagine the Pharisee went home to his family. Perhaps they had friends—people just like themselves—over for dinner. They all would’ve felt comfortable in their own skins, content with themselves, and at ease in the world. The tax collector goes back to his lair, where his only companions would be outcastes like himself—people who reminded him of his own guilt and shame—and who, perhaps, were as content with themselves as the Pharisee. He was alone, miserable, and inconsolable…yet, Jesus says, he is the one set right with God. Why? It was solely because he threw himself on the mercy of God. He did not compare himself to the Pharisee or anyone else. He knew who and what he was and put all his hope in the grace of God.
They both went to church. One came home well pleased with himself; the other came home despising himself and the life he was leading. The one who was most certain of his good standing was out. The one who knew he deserved nothing was judged in. Luke writes that Jesus told this parable to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. It is a warning to people like me who enjoy a measure of respect and are tempted to believe in their own good press. It is also an encouragement for us to throw ourselves on the mercy of God, and, in the words of my wife, “don’t judge, and do the next loving thing.” It is an invitation to be free of self and alive in the mercy of God.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Rev. Don Muncie