Today we’re going to study the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and learn why God accepted one and not the other. The parable is found in Luke 18:9-14:
“Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” (Luke 18:9)
Jesus told this parable to people who were trusting in their good works to make themselves right with God. These were people who did good things, and thought that because they received praise from men, they would also receive praise from God. But Proverbs 14:12 tells us that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
The mistake they made was looking at things from man’s perspective instead of God’s perspective. Jesus had met people like this before in Luke 16:15 – “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10)
Jesus begins by holding up the best and worse society has to offer – Pharisees and tax collectors.
- Were a sect of Judaism. Their name means “separate”. They sought to live separately from the godless by strictly following the law.
- Believed in many of the same things Christians believe — the resurrection of the dead, future rewards and punishments, angels and demons, the providence of God and the books that make up the Old Testament.
- Put great emphasis on good works such as feeding the poor, visiting the sick and caring for orphans.
- Were loved and respected by the people. Mothers would pray their sons would grow up to be Pharisees.
- Worked for Rome. The Roman government didn’t collect their own taxes. They divided the empire up into districts then sold the rights to collect taxes in each district.
- Were often Jews and were considered traitors because they served Rome.
- Made their money by overcharging people. For example if Rome said a person owed $100, a tax collector might charge $200, and pocket half.
- Were described as having a life of “unrestrained plunder, unblushing greed and shameless business”.
Now we would expect the Pharisee to be right with God and the Tax Collector to be condemned. But that’s not how the parable goes.
“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.’” (Luke 18:11-12)
Notice two things about the Pharisee’s prayer:
1) The Pharisee makes no mention of his sin. People tend to have the ability to see sin in others but not in themselves.
2) The Pharisee holds up his religious deeds as the reason he feels he’s right with God
Now let’s look at the tax collector’s prayer.
“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 18:13)
1 John 1:9 tells us that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And that’s what the tax collector did. He knew his sin was great, and that he had no way of paying for his sin, so he simply begged God for mercy.
Who Are We Comparing Ourselves To?
“’I tell you, this man – the tax collector – went down to his house justified rather than the other; For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
1 John 1:8 reminds us that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” That’s the Pharisee. He deceived himself into thinking he was without sin. Instead of comparing himself to God’s perfection, he compared himself to man’s imperfection.
Here’s another way to look at it: Let’s say I offer you a glass of water. You look at the glass and notice that it looks dirty. You say, “You know, this glass looks dirty.”
I respond, “Oh, the glass is contaminated with deadly bacteria, but don’t worry, it’s filled with spring water.” Would you drink it? Of course not, because it doesn’t matter how clean the water is, the glass has contaminated everything within it.
Think of the glass as our hearts and our deeds as the water that fills the glass. Some people lead very bad lives — like our tax collector — they fill their glass with ditch water.
Others – like our Pharisee — lead wonderful lives. They fill their glass with spring water. They boast because their glass is filled with spring water while the tax collector’s is filled with ditch water.
But it doesn’t matter whether your glass is filled with ditch water or spring water, the glass is dirty. The good deeds you offer God to earn your salvation are contaminated through sin and He cannot accept them.
But God will give a new glass to any one who asks.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezek 36:26)
Christ’s heart is pure, and His work is pure, and His sacrifice on the cross is pure. Romans 5:9 tells us that those who call on Christ to save them are now “justified by His blood” and “saved from wrath through Him.”
Our good deeds, then, are not done to earn our salvation but done out of appreciation of our salvation.
God doesn’t take good people and make them better, nor does He leave bad people without hope. God, through Jesus Christ, takes sinners and makes them a new creation, forgiven, able to stand blameless, able to be called children of God.