What Jesus Really Said: Pharisee Versus Tax Collector

Young blond man reading the Bible with bright green background

Pharisee Versus Tax Collector

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” i

This Summer we’ve been examining some of Jesus’ parables. In June we looked at parables explaining the general characteristics of the Kingdom of God. Jesus told us his Kingdom was like a seed; it grows mysteriously of its own power. You and I don’t build it and we don’t need to defend it with direct, right-handed power or political action committee donations. Nothing can stop the work and growth of God’s Kingdom.

This month we’ve been looking at parables Jesus told to explain God’s grace – his one-way love of the last, the least, the little, the lost, and (most especially) the dead. Last week, we looked at Jesus’ collection of party parables in Luke chapters 14 and 15, framed by the Great Banquet parable and the Prodigal Son (or Prodigal God/Prodigal Party) parable. We learned that grace is an exclusive offer to those made to see their own “deadness” – their inability to keep books with God and the futility of keeping books with other humans.

For the final parable of grace in our series, we’re examining the parable of The Pharisee and the Publican. Next week we will begin looking at some of Jesus’ parables of judgment that surround his final week in Jerusalem.

CONTEXT

Kingdom “Now”

The Pharisee versus Tax Collector parable fits with the ideas Luke has been developing since 17:20, “20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” ii

Jesus tells the Pharisees that the Kingdom is “right here right now but you can’t see it.” There will come what Jesus calls, “the days of the Son of Man” (17:22, 24, 26, 30) when sudden, open, visible, right-handed judgment comes. “25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.iii

Kingdom “to Come”

Chapter 17:20 through 18:8 forms Jesus’ very general instruction on the hiddenness and left-handedness of God’s Kingdom in the present age compared with its visible, right-handed, direct, character in the age to come. Jesus finishes that instruction with a parable on hopeful and persistent prayer to a loving God (the Persistent Widow parable). iv

Prayer forms a bridge of trusting hope between the left-handed, indirect Kingdom of God in this present age and the coming vindication for believers (like the widow) in “the days of the Son of Man.” The theme of prayer connects the Pharisee versus Tax Collector parable with the Kingdom-themed material that precedes it.

The Publican parable shows the contrast of Jesus’ Kingdom and the New Covenant God is initiating in Christ with the Old Covenant and the 1st-century Jewish misunderstanding of it. In 17:20, Jesus told the Pharisees the Kingdom wasn’t coming in observable ways. It grows like wheat among poisonous look-alike weeds. Its main ingredient is a grace far beyond the imagination of our bookkeeping religions.

Kingdom Hidden

The parable is about who sees God as the gracious benefactor. Who are those who come to God with open hands in trust and expectation? It comes after Luke’s frequent references to Jesus’ traveling to Jerusalem for death and resurrection; the series of contrasts in this parable confronts Luke’s readers with clear choices about Jesus’ mission and God’s saving purpose.

Luke highlights the need to respond to Christ by the way he portrays the disciples. They have been arguing over their relative greatness. The last we hear of them in this chapter, Jesus’ statements about his coming death and resurrection “was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said” (18:34). v

The general lack of distinction between these disciples and others (like the Pharisees) who witness Jesus’ ministry is intended to be uncomfortable.vi It highlights again what Jesus told the Pharisees in 17:20; God’s kingdom is not obvious and clearly observable because we are all hardwired for relative morality, not unconditional grace.

DEATH AND RESURRECTION

Target Audience

Luke says the target audience of the Pharisee vs Tax Collector parable is “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt…” vii That means this parable is directed at Pharisees, the disciples fighting over who was greater (Lk. 9:46-50; 12:1-2), and at you and me.

Setting

The setting for this parable is in 18:10, “10 Two men went up into the temple to pray….”viii The scene Jesus paints is consistent either with public prayer (as a part of daily temple service) or with private prayer. The temple functions as a place of prayer and as a “cultural center”— that place where the Jewish world is ordered by temple architecture. The temple has separate areas for various classes of people. ix

Temple structure separates Jews from Gentiles, men from women, priests from the high priest, Levites from priests, and clean from unclean, healthy from unhealthy. These various distinctions of Old Covenant separateness come to light in Jesus’ parable.x

OC Man vs. NC Man

The very first thing we should know after so many weeks studying Jesus’ parables is that this is NOT a lesson on the virtue of humility. It’s an instruction on the futility of misunderstanding the Old Covenant and rejecting the New Covenant Jesus is establishing by heading to Jerusalem to die and rise again.

It is instruction on the futility of human religion and the very idea that there is anything man can do to put himself right with God. It’s about the futility of even trying to win by bookkeeping – a warning to drop all religious, moral, and ethical attempts to justify yourself with God. In short, it’s about dropping dead and trusting into a God who raises the dead.xi

Let’s forget about the serious bashing Jesus gives the Pharisees and give this parabolic Pharisee all the credit you can. He is a good man. He doesn’t rip people off. He’s not a gold-bricker on the job. He’s not a womanizer. He takes nothing he doesn’t earn and gives everyone the full measure they are due. He’s a faithful husband, patient with his kids, steadfast to his friends, and the ideal neighbor.

He is nothing like the man across the temple courtyard – this publican, this tax-collector, this legalized mafia-style enforcer working for Rome against his own people. His franchise operation lets him collect all he can bleed from his fellow Jews as long as he pays his franchise fee to the Roman occupiers.

He’s made a fine living for years on the “cream he has skimmed off Roman milk money.”xii He drives a Porsche 918 Spyder — $929,000 but it’s worth it. He has a case of Macallan “M” single malt scotch at $628,205 a bottle. He’s not married, but he rents very high-class companions (if you know what I mean, and I think you do).

The Pharisee, however, is not just good; he’s passionate about all things God – and not hypocritically so. “His outward righteousness is matched by an inward discipline.”xiii The Old Covenant required him to fast once a year but he fasts twice a week. He tithes even out of his herb garden. He doesn’t just conform to Torah; he lives over and above all its ceremonial and moral requirements.

Listen to his prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.xiv Best of all, the Pharisee thanks God for his blessed state. Luke said Jesus told this parable to those who trusted in themselves, but this fine man is thanking God.

Maybe he went to the temple that day because he had slipped up the previous day and started to think his righteousness was entirely of his own doing. So he came to specifically thank God for his part in the Pharisee’s blessed state. “What the Pharisee said about himself was true. His trouble was not that he was not far enough along the road, but that he was on the wrong road altogether.”xv

Jesus tells us this scrupulously-good Pharisee is not only in bad shape, he’s in worse shape than the tax collector with his ill-gotten gain and his rented women who simply shuffles into the temple and does nothing more than admit exactly who he is. “In short, [Jesus] tells you an unacceptable parable.”xvi

We would gladly accept Mr. Pharisee’s church membership. He would be the perfect Presbyterian elder and churchman. But would you accept me if I had used church funds to buy a flashy new Porsche and some “rented companionship?” What if after that, I came in on a Sunday, stared down at the tips of my shoes, and simply said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”? Would you forgive me then?

Would the Presbytery send me a commendation letter for living out this parable before your eyes? Jesus says God would forgive me but – no offense – I have some doubts about you and the South Texas Presbytery. Of course, I wouldn’t blame you or them one bit. It’s near impossible to see this parable of grace from God’s point of view (rather than your POV or mine).

In the “real” world sin has consequences. In the “real” church world we have lots of apostolic imperatives for holy Christian living. But this is NOT a parable about “the Christian life;” it’s a parable about the limitless, scandalous nature of grace. This is a parable about justification, not sanctification.

Like King David’s plea for grace unavailable under the OC for murder and adultery (because there was no forgiveness for deliberate sins under the OC), the tax farmer cries out for something no Old Covenant expert could conceive of giving: forgiveness for deliberate sins.

Do you see Jesus point? He is saying that as far as God is concerned the Pharisee is no more able to win a game of rightness with God than the tax collector. In fact, the Pharisee is way worse off because he cannot recognize the fact and trust God’s offer of unconditional one-way love. “The point of the parable is that they are both dead, and their only hope is someone who can raise the dead.”xvii

It’s the tax collector who recognizes his death to bookkeeping as he cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a [THE] sinner!xviii The verb “be merciful” is hilasthēti, “be propitiated”, “let your anger be removed”. Even as he looks for forgiveness he recognizes what he deserves. And he calls himself not “a” but “the” sinner.xix

He cries out to be “mercy-seated,” to have the blood sprinkled upon the Arc of the Covenant applied to him. By his time in Israel’s history, there is no more Ark of the Covenant inside the temple’s most holy place. Scripture is silent about that crucial piece of Old Covenant furniture after Babylon sacks Jerusalem and destroys the first temple.

The tax collector, like David before him, is crying out for a new kind of forgiveness, for a New Covenant that does not depend on temporary symbols and that looks beyond the sacrifice of animals to merely postpone God’s wrath against sin (Heb. 10:1ff.). He needs a New Covenant that offers a once-for-all sacrifice for intentional sins. He needs a one-way love that never depends on upon his performance.

And that’s the point you and I don’t like very much at all. Sometimes, we catch a glimpse of the depth of God’s grace. “But our love of justification by works is so profound that at the first opportunity we run from the strange light of grace straight back to the familiar darkness of the law.”xx

I’ll bet you don’t really believe that. Let me try to prove it. The tax collector goes home justified. Hooray! But let’s follow him home and through his week. What do you think he SHOULD be doing following his justification at the temple? Aren’t you just itching to tell him he needs to find a new job? After all, Matthew quit tax farming and just started following Jesus around.

If you read a chapter further in Luke, you will meet a real live tax collector named Zacchaeus who, after meeting Jesus, promises to give half his stuff to the poor and repay 4 times as much as he’s stolen (Lk. 19:8). But what about our parabolic tax collector? What if he keeps on tax collecting? What if he doesn’t repay anything to anyone?

Don’t you feel compelled, as his accountability partner, to insist on just a little reform? But what if he returns to the temple the following Sabbath after a whole week of strong-arming outrageous taxes, of high-priced female companionship, of speeding through school zones in his Porsche 918 Spyder while sipping his Macallan “M” single malt scotch? Now, he again walks into the temple and begs to be “mercy-seated” with God.

On the basis of Jesus’ parable, God will not change HIS ways any more than the tax collector changed his. Our tax collector will STILL go home justified. Do you like that? Of course not! You gag and sputter. I shake my fist at the unfairness of it. This scumbag, without any reform at all, is getting off absolutely free.

Now let’s suppose he has come back to Sabbath services having listened to us, just a little bit, as his accountability group partners. Let’s say he swore off his rented women for the week and started drinking a reasonably-priced blended scotch. He even dropped some money in the poor box and paid a portion of his temple tithe.

What should God do with him now? Should God pat him on the back and tell him to keep trying a little harder and start doing a little better? If God didn’t count the Pharisee’s truly impressive list, why should he bother with the tax collector’s piddling reforms?xxi

Maybe you want God to look on the tax collector’s heart and dole out some props for good intentions. I do. But WHY? The point of Jesus’ story is that the publican confessed that he was dead to bookkeeping, not that his heart was in the right place. “Why are you so bent on destroying the story by sending the publican back for his second visit with the Pharisee’s list in his pocket?xxii

The honest answer is while we get the thrust of the parable, our sin nature (our Old Adam) is in desperate need to believe the exact opposite. Sin nature hardwires us to establish our identity by seeing ourselves as approved in other people’s eyes – relative morality. No matter what the preacher may say, we’re still pretty certain that justification by grace is simply a starting point for creating a better list than the one the Pharisee recited.

“We fear the publican’s acceptance because we know precisely what it means. It means that we will never be free until we are dead to the whole business of justifying ourselves. But since that business is our life, that means not until we are dead.”xxiii

Jesus came to raise the dead; and ONLY the dead. He doesn’t reform the reformable or improve the improvable. Only when you are able to admit, with the publican, that you are dead will you be able to stop adding any “Yes, but…” to the grace Jesus clearly preaches.

That is, I know, a terrifying step to take. It means you have to stop playing the only game you know. It’s a terrifying step, but it’s only ONE step. And it’s not a step out of reality into nothing, but a step from fiction into fact. Finally, it will make you laugh out loud at how short and pleasant the trip home was – because it wasn’t a trip home at all; you were already there.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4) xxiv

i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 18:9–14.

ii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 17:20–21.

iii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 17:25.

iv Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 643.

v The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 18:34.

vi Green, 643.

vii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 18:9.

viii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 18:10.

ix Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 646.

x Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 647.

xi Capon, 338.

xii Id.

xiii Id.

xiv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 18:11–12.

xv Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 3, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 281.

xvi Capon, 339.

xvii Id., 340.

xviii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Lk 18:13.

xix Morris, 282.

xx Capon, 342.

xxi Id., 343.

xxii Id.

xxiii Id.

xxiv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 6:3–4.