Walk Just as He Walked #5: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

By Steve Flowers

The contrast of living a successful spiritual life versus a faithful one was not only in Jesus’ actions but also in his parable teachings.  Over the next few posts we will meditate on three parables to uncover how Jesus taught to serve God faithfully, not successfully.

Parables were Jesus’ primary instructional method.  There are approximately 31 unique parables recorded in the Gospels.  The word parable is transliterated from the Greek word parabole and literally means “a placing beside, a comparison.”  A parable is a short, fictitious narrative based on a familiar experience that has an application to the spiritual life.  Jesus used elements in his parables familiar to his 1st-century Jewish audience to compare what the “kingdom of God” is like both then and to come.

The first parable we will look at is The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 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!’ 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.  (Luke 18:9-14)

This is a brief but straight-forward tale that contrasts the words and actions of two people in the same setting— praying in one of the Temple courts.  But each man comes from a very different status.  For Jesus’ Jewish hearers, a Pharisee would epitomize a most righteous person while the tax collector would represent a social outcast.  Tax collectors in 1st century Palestine included Jews who willing allied themselves with Rome, a government which all good Jews believed should be not ruling over them.

The Pharisee’s prayer is to thank God for being above others in his religious position, reputation, and authority.  The tax collector is removed from where everyone can see him, admitting how he is in need of God’s mercy.  At this point, Jesus’ audience would be nodding along, agreeing with how they perceive Jesus to be describing them— Pharisee, very good; tax collector, very bad.

But then comes the tale’s twist for his audience (which there always is in Jesus’ parables).  Jesus says it is the tax collector who left the Temple “justified” (i.e., right with God) while the Pharisee was not!  If our Bibles contained sound effects as we read (which would be really cool by the way) this is where you’d hear a giant gasp as Jesus’ Jewish audience sucked the air out from around Him.  Jesus wanted them (and us) to know that what really matters when contrasting any two people is whether you are consumed by your perceived successes for God or humbly submit yourself before God.

This parable fits well with the previous post on how Jesus prayed.  The posture with which we approach God will be the best indicator of whether we are positioning ourselves to follow Jesus successfully or faithfully.  Being a faithful disciple is a call to humble ourselves each day so we can hear God’s call.

Jesus concludes his parable with a symmetrical idiom: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  It reflects similar sayings by Jesus from a section in Mark’s Gospel that is centered in defining what it means to be Jesus’ disciple:

  • “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
  • “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
  • “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31)
  • “But whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43b-44)

These sayings are not merely clever word play but reveal how our desire to honor God can stand in opposition to how God desires to be honored.  Each pair of statements is an explanation on the same theme: the posture of faithfulness required to prepare ourselves if we want to genuinely follow Jesus is rooted in surrendering of self.

Reflection: How do you approach God?  By noting position, favor, or reputation you have attained?  Or by humbling yourself, losing your life for Jesus’ sake and being servant of all and the last?

Next post: The Parable of the Two Sons

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