The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

When one of my earliest mentors, Dr. Howard Lindquist, was a young pastor, he visited the home of an older woman who was highly regarded in the community.

At one point during their conversation she sighed, “Young man, has anyone ever told you how wonderful you are?”  Feigning modesty as best he could, Howard smiled and answered, “Why, no!”  Whereupon the woman said, “Then where did you ever get that idea?” 


During the time that I knew Howard, which was some 40 years later, he was still processing that comment.

From time to time, people debate which sin or character defect is the worst of the worst.  For British theologian C.S. Lewis, it was no contest.

“The essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride.  Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison.  It was through Pride that the devil became the devil.  Pride leads to every other vice.  It is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

It can safely be said that pride is in the mix of almost everything that goes wrong in our relationships with God and other people.

It’s fun to spot this character flaw in other people.  But it doesn’t take long before a disturbing realization dawns on us: 

Pride is not “somebody else’s problem.” 

That message is at the center of one of Jesus’ memorable short stories, the Parable 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 one a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed to himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—thieves, adulterers—or this tax collector. I fast twice 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 went home justified before God rather than the other. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

It’s worth noting that during the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the good guys.  The tax collectors were the bad guys.  But when it comes to who might impress God, Jesus flips the script.

Historians estimate that there were never more than about 6,000 Pharisees at any given moment.  They weren’t clergy and they had no official status in Israel.  The Pharisees (“the Separate Ones”) appear to have been a super-religious laymen’s club.  They took it upon themselves to live as religious stormtroopers on behalf of the whole nation, striving to be models of perfect obedience to God’s Law. 

At least a few rabbis taught that if the entire nation was obedient to God for just 24 hours, he would simply have to send the Messiah and set things right. 

The irony, of course, is that they were blind to the Messiah who was already in their midst. 

The vast majority of Judeans didn’t have the time or the resilience to do what the Pharisees did every day – study, discuss, and live out the finer points of the Law.  In the minds of ordinary people, the Pharisees were spiritual heroes.  They were the ones who were doing it right.  So it must have been jarring when Jesus regularly called them out for their spiritual arrogance. 

Notice that the Pharisee in the parable prays to himself.  His “prayer” is more like a declaration of his religious accomplishments.  He feels even better about himself when he notices that a tax collector has dared to show his low-life, traitorous face in the courts of God’s temple. 

Tax collectors were despised.  They were regarded as professional thieves.  The Romans (who had conquered Judea) demanded that something like 40-60% of personal income be sucked out of the country and deposited in Rome’s coffers.  They typically recruited “locals” to do the collecting – men who knew their neighbors and what they might be trying to hide from the authorities. 

Collectors generated their own compensation by demanding funds above and beyond what Rome required.  Many of them thus became rich at their neighbors’ expense, flaunting their wealth openly.

It’s no surprise that such individuals were regarded as soulless traitors.  Faithful worshipers may not have been able to describe exactly what they would see in heaven – but they were quite certain they would never see a tax collector.

While the words “Internal Revenue Service” rarely prompt warm feelings, most of us don’t hold personal grudges towards IRS employees.  If Jesus were telling this parable today, what kind of character might inspire the universal contempt his original audience felt?

Perhaps we should imagine a sex trafficker, or a drug dealer who peddles pills to local kids, or a businessman who ran a pyramid scheme that ruined the lives of several of your friends.  He walks into your church on Easter Sunday, unable to meet the gaze of others.  But there he is, hoping against hope that he can receive a shred of forgiveness. 

The tax collector in Jesus’ story doesn’t even dare to look in God’s direction.  “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The Greek is even stronger:  “God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”  He is the poster child for spiritual bankruptcy, and he knows it. 

But according to Jesus, he is right where God wants him to be.

What is the first of Jesus’ Beatitudes at beginning of his Sermon on the Mount?  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)  What a strange message.  How happy are the spiritual zeroes – those who have no bargaining chips when it comes to God, who realize they have absolutely no leg to stand on (as opposed to that Pharisee praying over there who thinks he’s doing quite well, thank you). 

There is no Beatitude describing the blessedness of those who congratulate themselves for being winners.  But the divine welcome mat is always out for those who stand before God with empty hands and broken hearts. 

No matter what lies behind us, there is always hope as we look ahead.    

In his book Breathing Under Water, Father Richard Rohr says that we have two choices:  We can come to God by getting rid of our sin.  Or we can come to God because of our sin – which turns out to be the only way anyone can actually come to God.

As far as figuring out a way to get rid of our sin…

Jesus has a gift to give us on Good Friday.