A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the temple…
It feels like the beginning of a groan-worthy joke, but it’s not! It’s a scathing parable Jesus shared with His followers.
Jesus told about forty parables. Some are vague or cryptic. Some are difficult to sort out, while some are easily understood by what was around his listeners. And then some parables are so straightforward, so pointed, that I almost laugh. This one—about the Pharisee and tax collector—falls into that last category.
Luke tells us Jesus pointed this parable at people who were “confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9). Yes, it was the Pharisees, but let’s be careful not to point our fingers at them. Only Jesus gets to point fingers.
The two men enter the temple at about the same time. The Pharisee marched right in and approached the most holy space while the tax collector hung back. Being male and Jewish, the tax collector had just as much right to be in the temple as the Pharisee. Yet he approached the experience very differently.
I ask myself… When is the last time I entered a place of worship with awe, with a little fear of the Lord to stifle (in a good way) my attitude. When is the last time I knew I wasn’t worthy to approach the throne of grace apart from Jesus’ salvific act?
The Pharisee turned the focus
of his prayer onto himself.
The Pharisee starts his prayer right away, and his introduction is good. We can all start our prayers with, “God, I thank you…” (Luke 18:11) but in the next word he twists the attention onto himself. He is not like other people, he says. And who gets the credit for that? It reads as if the Pharisee thinks he deserves the acclaim for his exceptional status in life, as if God should be thanking him.
At first, he speaks in generalities about all the “bad guys” in the world, but then he gets specific. Can’t you just see him standing erect, looking toward the top of the curtain, speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear? He gestures toward the back, indicating the tax collector. Maybe he even points his finger. “I’m glad I’m not like him, Lord, and You should be, too. Look at all I do for you.” He assumes the tax collector neither fasts nor tithes. We don’t know that.
Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. -Luke 11:42
There’s some finger pointing for you.
I ask myself…
Do I pray, “Thank you that my life is better than so-and-so’s life”?
“Thank you that my husband is better than her husband.”
“Thank you that I haven’t had to deal with a prodigal child.”
Do I pray, “Look at all I’ve done for you”?
“Remember all the ways I’ve served you.”
“Consider all the sacrifices I’ve made for you.” (More about this.)
I’ve said these kinds of things to myself…to God, thinking I was holy. I’ve even thought them in church. Now Jesus is pointing His finger at me.
The tax collector, on the other hand, won’t even look toward the front of the space. His reaction to the representative presence of God reminds me of Isaiah.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” -Isaiah 6:5
The tax collector talks about himself, too, but his words are put together so differently. His words magnify God, not himself.
The one they despised became
the hero of the story.
When Jesus told this parable, His listeners went into the story thinking one thing—that Pharisees were good and tax collectors were bad. Jesus drew them into the story by playing on their stereotypes. But then Jesus turned that presumption on its head! The one they despised became the hero of the story.
As a writer, I see a fantastic model for storytelling here, but that’s not the point today. The Christ-life isn’t about checking off all the boxes or getting your life just right. It’s about recognizing your humble position before the God of the universe and confessing His glory—not your own—every moment.
Hmm. I guess it’s #NotAboutMe.
Then I read this…
You know I love it when Jesus turns conventional wisdom on its head. What about you? What do you like about this parable? Which part steps on your toes? We’d love to know your response. Just answer in the comments below!