Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess’. And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ (Luke 18:10-13).
Our Lord was the Master Teacher. One of His most noted forms of teaching was His use of parables. A parable was a story, but more than “just” a story, it was a story about earthly events that contained within it a spiritual truth that Jesus wanted to get across. Jesus would tell a story and “throw alongside it” a spiritual truth. What memorable teaching tools they were! What about the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector? Let us break it down and search for some lessons.
The Setting of the Parable – When we study the Bible, it is often the case that just prior to the beginning of a parable we find a thought or statement that helps us understand what point the Christ was seeking to emphasize in that particular story. That is definitely true in this instance. Why did Jesus tell this parable in that place at that time to that group of hearers? Here is the Bible’s clear answer: “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9). That declaration helps prepare our minds to see the spiritual truth which Jesus wanted His audience to see and accept. His listeners on this occasion included self-righteous people who looked down their noses at others.
The People of the Parable – There are only two: a Pharisee and a tax collector. In this case, both of them believed in God, both went to the temple, both prayed, and both evidently believed in God’s power and willingness to hear prayers. In general terms, our Lord described the Pharisees as “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14). Jesus warned His disciples and others to beware of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy (Luke 12:1; Matthew 23:2,3). What about first-century tax collectors? In general, the Jews strongly disliked those who worked as tax collectors for the Roman government, considering them as corrupt, dishonest, and traitors to the Jewish cause.
The Prayers of the Parable – The first prayer was the Pharisee’s. He went to the temple to pray, so he was a religious man. If his words about himself were true, then from a moral standpoint he was a decent
man (18:11). Furthermore, he fasted regularly and gave tithes of all that he had (18:12). He is not to be faulted for any of those habits.
Notice how the Pharisee’s prayer began: “God, I thank You that I am not like other men” (18:11). In reality, he did not have a heart of appreciation for what God had done for him. Instead, he talks about how great he is! When the Pharisee thought he had done something good, his words were “I,” “I,” “I,” “I.” His prayer manifests the attitude of self-righteousness (18:9). The Pharisee makes the mistake of boasting about what he feels he has done right, but fails to mention his sins. Could it be that he does not see himself as a sinner, while at the same time he easily sees the sins of others?
The Pharisee also makes the mistake of comparing himself to others in order that he might look good and make others look bad (2 Corinthians 10:12). Brothers and sisters, we need to evaluate ourselves each day (2 Corinthians 13:5). Remember, faithfulness in God’s sight is not based on comparison with other humans. We will be judged by God’s standard, His word (John 12:48).
What a refreshing contrast we see in the prayer of the tax collector. The man’s prayer consisted of a mere seven words, but the Christ praised him. He was an example of a person that is “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Instead of boasting about his good qualities, he labeled himself as “a sinner” (18:13; Romans 3:23). He confessed his need for God, pleading for God’s mercy (18:13). After He finished telling the story, Jesus said that this tax collector was justified, whereas the Pharisee was not (18:14).
The Main Lesson of the Parable – We have no trouble identifying the main point of this story. Jesus declared that the tax collector was justified “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (18:14). The main lesson of the parable is the need to be humble. Humble people recognize their weaknesses and strive to do better. They count others better than themselves (Philippians 3:13,14; 2:3,4). The humble do not seek after man’s glory and praise, but God’s. Indeed, the truly humble will humble themselves before the Lord and obey Him, being His servant rather than the servant of self: “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:10).
The church needs humble servants, not self-righteous boasters. Let us look to Jesus as the supreme model of humility (Philippians 2:5-8).
— Roger D. Campbell
TRUTH is published monthly by the Klang church of Christ in order to help educate, edify, encourage, and equip the saints of God.