Luke 18:9-14 - The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Sometimes the more familiar a parable, the harder it is for us to loosen ourselves from the ties that bind us to our understanding. Like so many of Jesus parables I really like them, until I realise I’m not exactly the ‘good guy’ in them. At face value, our parable this week is a nice reflection on prayer and ‘Well, I don’t pray like the Pharisee so I’m good.’ (The irony of that in context to the text is not lost on me). Then we dig a little deeper and we realise that, while prayer is indeed a factor in the parable, it’s about much more than that.
This parable is about ‘who is righteous?’ In a more crass light, it is about creating ‘the other’ which leads us to say ‘Well, at least I’m not like them!’. We love to divide the world between good people and bad people. As christians, we especially tend to divide people into whether they are ‘in’ or ‘out’.
Thankfully Jesus doesn’t think like us. He doesn’t divide the world up between good and bad, in or out. He does have thoughts that come through this parable and they are the categories of ‘proud’ and ‘humble’.
Where my paths cross with the Pharisee is in his self-righteousness. His sin corresponds to that of the elder brother in Luke 15. I, like them, so often have the sin of my self at the centre. ‘What about me?’ So often I still think I deserve God’s grace and mercy because I’ve been kind or I’ve done a good deed. Or because I’ve been a christian since I was 4 or I’ve listened to worship music all day long. That’s how it works right? Listen to more worship music, get more prayers answered?
What I’m taken by with this parable is ‘How do I respond to God’s rich grace, his kindness and the gift of his righteousness?’ The two men are most likely going to pray publicly during the atonement offering. The Pharisee uses it as an opportunity to compare himself to those around him which may make him feel better (momentarily). He may also have used his prayer as a not-so-subtle preach to those around him, exalting himself at the same time.
The tax collector is overcome with his own sin and, by beating his chest, is truly grieving. If we think about it, it’s quite a scene. Have you ever seen a middle eastern woman beating her chest at a funeral? It’s as distressing a scene as that. “God, be merciful to me (make an atonement for me), a sinner”.
In this case, a humble man is asking for mercy and he is justified. He is not concerned with the righteousness of those around him, only perhaps in the ways he has wronged them which he knows is how he wrongs God. He is beautifully and challengingly humble.
Jesus is letting us know that he interested in mercy and atonement not rule-keeping and seperatism.
When is the last time you thought, ‘Well, at least I’m not like him/her/them?” Let’s be careful who we scapegoat. Any time we say that phrase, that is exactly what we are doing. We are drawing a line, setting ourselves above them and proclaiming ourselves righteous, or at least more righteous. Election season, amongst other things, brings the worst of this out in us. Let us remember that we all have a long way to go.
There is something about people who have journeyed humbly with the Lord who exude thankfulness, humility, repentance. Everyone is welcome to their table. Sounds Christlike to me.
Ferg Breen is married with two kids and is a counsellor, psychotherapist, lecturer and pastor in Dublin. He also performs motivational seminars inspired solely by the work of David Brent.