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The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The Parable of
The Pharisee and
The Tax Collector


Two weeks ago was Easter. What a wonderful day of celebration it was as we commemorated the resurrection of Jesus.

I am always struck by the significance of all Jesus did. I especially think of that on Easter.

Of course, Christmas is important. It was critical that Jesus come to be on the earth He created. But if that was all He did, His birth would have been just another in history.

Of course, He was not just born. Thirty-three years later - on Good Friday - He gave Himself to die as the perfect sacrifice for sin. That made His time on earth more important than anyone else’s time. However, had it stopped there, His death would have been just another death.

But it did not stop there. On Easter - on the third day after He died - He came back to life. He then proved His resurrection. He did that over and over again, that day and for the next few weeks, as He appeared to many people, that happening before He returned to Heaven, from where He had come.

Christmas, Good Friday, Easter. What important, meaningful days those are. Days to celebrate all Jesus did for us.

But between those holidays - between His birth, His death, and His resurrection - Jesus over and over again did something else that is important and meaningful. He taught, so many of His lessons giving instructions about how people - the people to whom He spoke directly and people, including us even now - should live.

Today and for the next three messages, we are going to consider some of Jesus’ teachings, each week pulling a few words - a few themes - from what Jesus taught. The teachings may all be familiar, but the word themes will hopefully give them a unique feel, maybe easier to remember and apply.

All the teachings will come by way of parables told by Jesus. A few quick comments about that.

According to something I read, there are 46 parables in the New Testament and 15 in the Old Testament.

A parable is a story told to teach a lesson. Biblically speaking, a lesson spiritual in nature.

It was pointed out in something else I read that Jesus did not tell parables at the beginning of His earthly ministry.

When I read that, it occurred to me that early on, He did speak with direct instructions. Examples of that are found in His first recorded sermon, which was the Sermon on the Mount. Teachings in that sermon included that blessed are those who mourn and those who are persecuted, do not even be angry with a spiritual brother, let your yes be yes and your no be no, as in mean what you say, do not be hypocritical, judge not, and do not be anxious about tomorrow.

Those are all very direct teachings, are they not? Being direct was how Jesus began His preaching ministry. But as time went on, He switched to speaking, much of the time anyway, in parables. In story-telling.

Which, He said in answer to the question of why - His disciples wanted to know why Jesus’ method changed - was to conceal the truth from those who were not willing or ready to understand what He taught.

Why would Jesus want to conceal His truths? Well, here is something I have heard. When we know spiritual truth, it becomes our responsibility to obey it and apply it.

Which we can do - we can know the truth - by studying Jesus’ parables. In fact, He often explained them to His disciples. He did that because they wanted to know the truth. They asked Him for the meanings of some of His parables. But by not making everything clear, Jesus left it up to those who heard Him to decide if they wanted to know the truth.

There were many in the crowds, especially late in Jesus’ ministry, who did not want to know His truth. Maybe some of them changed later. If they did, they could then have learned and obeyed and applied what He said.

But for us, the question is, “Do we want to know the truth?” I think we do. I hope we do. And we can know the truth because we, through study and prayer, can know what all of Jesus’ parables mean. The truths they teach.

So it is we will, over the next few messages, consider some of His parables. But remember. When we know, we need to obey and apply what we know. That is our responsibility. So listen carefully.

Or I guess you can close your ears and, to yourself, sing and say “la-la-la-la, I’m not listening.” But let’s listen carefully, even for what the parable for today teaches. The parable found in Luke 18:9-14. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. There are three theme words to highlight today. They are pride, humility, and mercy.

Luke 18, beginning with verse 9. Jesus told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others,” which brings up the theme word pride. Jesus told this parable to those who were sure they were about as spiritual as anyone could ever be. A righteousness for which they took credit, as if it was something they had achieved on their own. By their own goodness. A confidence that made them - what is a good word - maybe snobs. They considered themselves better than others, to the point they despised those not as righteous as them. They were spiritually arrogant.

Jesus told this parable to those who were spiritual snobs.

Two men went up into the Temple to pray.

One was a Pharisee. Remember this is a parable. It is a story told to teach a spiritual point. So Jesus was not at that moment pointing out a particular Pharisee. But Pharisees were a group of Jewish religious leaders who worked very hard to know all of God’s commandments, along with all the explanations religious teachers had developed over the years about what God had meant when He had spoken His commandments.

Pharisees worked even harder to do all the commandments and their explanations. Pharisees were very dedicated to that. They were very disciplined.

The problem was that they worked so hard, they had become snobs about it, looking down on those who were not as dedicated and disciplined.

One who went up into the Temple to pray was a Pharisee. The other was a tax collector. What a contrast that was since the tax collector referred to would have been a collector of Roman taxes. As respected as Pharisees were, Roman tax collectors were hated.

They were hated, first of all, because they did collect Roman taxes, which the Jewish people despised. The Jewish people wanted nothing to do with the Roman government, but Roman taxes forced an association.

Second of all, tax collectors were known for cheating. They had to turn over to Rome what Rome called for, but they could charge the people anything they could get away with, keeping the extra for themselves. Since tax codes were not published like ours are now, whatever the collector charged was the final word. At least many collectors cheated so much they were wealthy, that happening at the expense of others.

Two men went up into the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. The other was a tax collector.

With pride, the Pharisee prayed. How was his pride displayed? The display came in how he prayed - both his posture and his words.

His posture? He stood. Which here refers not just to standing, but standing as tall as he could make himself. Tall enough for others to be better able to see him, that even more the case because the word stood also refers to him having his hands raised.

And listen. Standing with hands raised during prayer was a common thing to do back then. There is nothing wrong with standing and raising our hands when we pray or when we sing. It is just that in this parable, the Pharisee’s posture was not prayerful or worshipful. His intent was to overdo the standing and the hand-raising so he would be noticed.

His words? I assume he spoke loudly enough for those who noticed him to hear him. His words were these. “God, I thank You that I am not like other men - extortioners [who cheat those with whom they do business], the unjust [who mistreat people], adulterers [who violate marriage vows], or even like this tax collector [who everyone knows charges too much, thereby lining his own pockets, getting rich off the suffering of others].”

The Pharisee added, “In fact, God, remember how I show my religion. I fast twice a week [which was a common thing for devout Jews to do, Mondays and Thursdays being set aside for that] and I give tithes of all that I get [which was also common, in fact being Jewish law].”

You know what? The Pharisee in the parable was a mighty fine guy. he did avoid sins common to others. He did fast. He did tithe. All those things were good things on his spiritual record.

But did you catch the one word the Pharisee used over and over again. I am not like other men. I fast. I give tithes of all I get. Over and over again, the Pharisee used the word “I.” Only in passing did he mention God, thereby ignoring the fact it was God who gave him the strength needed to avoid sins, the discipline needed to fast and tithe, the blessing of getting something that could be tithed from. Throughout his prayer, the Pharisee mentioned his goodness, which he attributed to himself. So it is Jesus described his prayer as praying “with himself.” It was more for show than it was a communication with God. And yes, that is pride.

The tax collector, though, was completely different in his approach to prayer. His was an approach that reflected the second theme word, which is humility.

The tax collector stood far off. He stood, but not in the open. He stood far off, maybe in a corner or along a wall or behind a post. He did not want to be seen.

Neither did the tax collector stand as tall as he could get. His head was down. He hoped not to be noticed. Especially by the Pharisee, who was so proud of his own goodness.

Nor would he lift his eyes to Heaven. Nor his arms. His arms were down. He used them only to beat his chest, doing so in repentant agony.

His words? He prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Isn’t that interesting? The tax collector admitted he was a sinner. So he probably had been cheating people. He probably had other sins in his life. We do not know what they were, but there may have been other sins. At the least, he might not have been in the habit of fasting and tithing.

The tax collector admitted he was a sinner, fully knowing that made him unworthy of being in God’s presence. So he asked for the only hope he had. He asked for mercy, which is the third theme word for this message. Mercy, defined as not receiving what is deserved.

What is deserved for sin? Punishment, separation from God, Hell. That is what every sinner deserves. Including you and me. And may none of us deny that. Remember the verse that comes later in the Bible. The verse that proclaims “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That includes everyone everywhere.

Like the tax collector in the parable, everyone deserves punishment. The only hope anyone has to avoid it is mercy, which comes not by trying to be good enough, nor from fasting or tithing, as important and wholesome as those things are, but from God, who promises to forgive all who confess their sins and rely upon Him rather than themselves, that last part shown by accepting His Son Jesus as Savior.

Pride. That was displayed in how the Pharisee prayed. That is what we are avoid.

Humility. That was displayed in how the tax collector prayed, which is how we are to approach God.

As we do that, we prove we rely on God’s mercy, which will be rewarded. As Jesus added, “I tell you, this man [the humble tax collector] went to his house justified rather than the other [rather than the arrogant, self-righteous Pharisee], for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Remember a point made toward the beginning of this message. When we know the truth - a spiritual truth - it becomes our responsibility to obey and apply it.

Unless any of us closed our ears and sung “la-la-la-la” during this message, we know the meaning of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It therefore is our responsibility to avoid pride. It is our responsibility to have humility. It is our responsibility to rely on God for mercy as our only hope to avoid punishment, separation from God, and Hell. The only hope to enjoy God’s blessings, including His presence now and later in Heaven.

With that in mind, let me share this wording, which starts with the question, “With whom do you compare yourself?” And I will use myself as the example. That seems a bit more polite. The Pharisee compared himself to others. With whom do I compare myself. Like the Pharisee, I may be spiritually better than others. But is that good enough? No.

I instead need to compare myself with God. That is what will keep me in the mind and the mood to know I need His mercy.

Let’s go a few more verses in Luke 18. That will be followed by a quick story.

Right after Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, some parents, knowing Jesus was in their area, started arriving with their children. Their hope was that Jesus might touch them. The parents wanted Jesus to bless their children.

When the disciples saw the parents, they rebuked them, which was probably what they thought was the right thing to do. Jesus had been very busy. His disciples knew He should be tired. They wanted Him to have a chance to rest.

However, Jesus corrected His disciples, telling them to let the children come to Him. “Do not hinder them,” Jesus said. Why? Because, He explained, “to such belong the kingdom of God. Truly,” He said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Are children humble? In some ways, maybe not, but in other ways, definitely they are as they know they have to rely upon their parents for things they need, including housing, food, protection, love.

And there is this. While I was always a perfect child and was always obedient… Oops, that is getting pretty close to how the Pharisee prayed. While children, including me, do disobey from time to time, it is easy for parents to forgive, is it not, when their children ask for mercy?

Like a child, may you and I be humble. Like a child, may you and I ask for mercy whenever we do something wrong. To such belong the kingdom of God.

The story is this. There is a report about a woman, not known for being especially beautiful, having her portrait painted. She repeatedly said to the artist, “Be sure you do me justice.” “Be sure you do me justice.” Apparently she made that comment once too often. The artist blurted out, “Lady, what you need is not justice, but mercy.”

No matter how spiritually good we look in comparison to others - how good we think we look, may we alway avoid pride. May we instead humbly know we need God’s mercy. That is the teaching of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The teaching we know. The teaching we are now responsible to obey and apply.

Today’s closing song is the hymn My Heart Is Fixed on Jesus.

My heart is fixed on Jesus, the Son of all my thought;
What wondrous work of grace His love within my soul has wrought!
He found me poor and helpless, by every sin oppressed,
And died that I might be redeemed and have eternal rest.
My heart is fixed on Jesus, no other hope have I;
I could not live without Him, and without Him dare not die.

My heart is fixed on Jesus, without Him life is vain;
His promise is through all my days to comfort and sustain.
I love to hear Him whisper, “Be not afraid, ’tis I!”
As o’er the stormy sea I sail beneath a clouded sky.
My heart is fixed on Jesus, no other hope have I;
I could not live without Him, and without Him dare not die.

My heart is fixed on Jesus, since I to Him belong;
For every day He gives me hope, for every night a song.
Through trial and deep water His promises are sweet,
And, sheltered ‘neath His wings of love, I find a safe retreat
My heart is fixed on Jesus, no other hope have I;
I could not live without Him, and without Him dare not die.

Lord, pride. Help us to avoid that. Humility. Give us have more and more of that. Help us to be humble enough to know the only way to be right with You is to ask for and accept Your mercy.

Thank You for Your teaching. Help us to obey it and apply it. Amen.

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