BIBLE BACKGROUNDS: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

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Kieran Beville-3
Kieran Beville (D.Litt, Ph.D, BA, PGDE) is Pastor of Lee Valley Bible Church (Baptist), Ballincollig, Co. Cork, Ireland and Visiting Professor of Intercultural Studies and Practical Ministry at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Badhoevedorp, Netherlands. He has written several books and numerous articles and he has taught intensive courses in Theology and Biblical Studies on leadership training programs in Eastern Europe, the Middle-East and India.

In the parable of The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk. 18:9-14), we see two different kinds of men, two different approaches to God and two different outcomes. It is an ancient message, which demands modern application. It has to be taken out of the “then and there” and applied to the “here and now.” It also needs to be taken out of the “THEM and there” and applied to “US and now.”

This parable tells us something about the right and wrong way to approach God. The Pharisee is a religious man who is unaware of his need for mercy. He belonged to an elitist group of experts in Judaic law. They were the theologians of their day. As custodians of truth, they corrupted it by adding man-made regulations which became burdensome traditions imposed on people. Pharisees were the strictest sect of the day. They took pride in their piety and privileged position. They were prejudiced against Gentiles and Hebrew sinners.

Unaware of His Unworthiness

We encounter this Pharisee praying in the temple but he seems completely unaware of his unworthiness. His greatest need is for mercy but he is ignorant of it as he prays about himself in what is an exercise in public self-congratulation. This man’s approach to God contrasts with that of Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost.” (Isa. 6:5) Isaiah was acutely aware of his sinful condition in the presence of the holy God. However, this man recited the good things he does and the bad things he abstains from doing. His is a misplaced confidence in self-righteousness. God despises every manifestation of hypocrisy but rewards humility.

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Sacrifice

If what the Pharisee said was true, there was some degree of sacrifice in his religious observance. He did not steal (he said) but was he not at that very moment robbing God of the honor due to him? He says he does not commit adultery, but Christ taught that to look at a woman with lust was adulterous. How pure can any man’s heart be in this regard? He says he is not an evildoer, but Scripture teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23) He says that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets. However, this sacrifice is offered to God in order to gain merit and so his approach is fatally flawed.

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Sincerity

There is also a degree of sincerity in his religion but he is sincerely wrong in his approach to God. This is true of much religion today that is characterized by sacrifice and sincerity. He expresses contempt rather than concern for the tax collector. This lack of compassion is contrary to the heart of God. The Lord is: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Ex. 34:6-7) The Pharisee compares himself, by contrast, to a sinful wretch. He did not compare himself to one of the great holy men of the Old Testament (even though they were all sinners) as this would have shown him in a less favorable light. His prayer was nothing more than a form of self-deception. We must beware that we do not engage in prayer in an unworthy manner.

Many people today console themselves that they are not as bad as so-and-so. He has had an affair but I have been faithful to my wife. He has stolen things from work but I have been honest. He does not go to church but I always attend Sunday services. He does not give money to charity but I am on the charity committee and I tithe a tenth. He drinks alcohol but I abstain. He smokes and uses coarse language but I abstain from these. What the Pharisee did and abstained from doing was appropriate but not as a package offered to God to earn merit toward justification. Isaiah says, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isa. 64:6) This being so, what are our sins like?

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True Standard

In weights and measures, there are true standards by which we make judgments about the value of things, such as 2 kilos of sugar, 1 acre of farmland or a square meter of carpet. Imagine carpeting your home by guessing the length and width of the rooms. It cannot be a matter of speculation. A measuring tape is required to identify precise dimensions. In evaluating our righteousness there is also a true standard; that standard is Jesus. There is no other standard. When measured against him we become conscious of our own unworthiness and our need for mercy. Our religion must be characterized by compassion for sinners and our concern should be evident in our prayers. In practice, people need to feel welcome rather than labeled, despised, excluded, and rejected. We are mere beggars telling other beggars where to find the bread of life.

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Real Encounters with God

Real encounters with God are life transforming. They may not be dramatic, but they move us closer to the mind and heart of God. The Pharisee went to a good place; the temple and for a good reason, to pray. Many religious people today go to special buildings to pray but leave those places without having met with God. They are coming to God on their own terms seeking meritorious favor for their acts of righteousness and are ignorant of their greatest need, for mercy.

However, there is another man in this parable, a tax collector. First-century tax collectors in Palestine were generally ruthless, as one would have to be to collect tax for the Roman occupying power. Their work involved other unpleasant duties such as repossessions, evictions, and imprisoning poor defaulters. Many of them were extortionists who demanded more than was due, thus making their living by keeping the surplus. Many of them sub-contracted their duties to others and became rich by obtaining a percentage from each of their sub-contractors. Thus unfortunate debtors often had to pay exorbitant additions to what they owed. Contractors would frequently engage sub-contractors from the localities where debtors lived. This local information helped contractors but made the tax collector a detested traitor and instrument of oppression. However, this tax collector found favor with God because God seeks humility in all our approaches to him. In an age when self-esteem is highly valued, we need reminding that Jesus preached, “Blessed are the meek.”―Matthew 5:5.

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Pharisees taught their students not to associate with tax collectors because they were often in contact with Gentiles and worked on the Sabbath. This made them ritually unclean. This is one reason why they despised Jesus. This tax collector stood at a distance. This signifies that he was conscious of his unworthiness and sinful condition and equally aware that God is holy. He stood at a distance because he recognized the immense distance between himself and God. He does not dare to look upward because he is ashamed of himself. His prayer was simple, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” He acknowledges his need for mercy. The Pharisee advertised his merit but the publican agonized for mercy and the outcome for both was completely different.

Spurgeon said, “The publican was the best theologian ~ for he prays like David of old.” The events, which inspired David’s great penitential prayer (Ps. 51), are adultery and murder. He gratified his lust by committing adultery with Bathsheba. He arranged the killing of her husband, Uriah, who was a loyal and able warrior in the King’s army. Thus we read these words, straight from the broken heart of God’s anointed servant who had sinned and is now sorrowing: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” (Ps. 51:1) In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector Jesus sums up the message, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”―Luke 9:14.

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