The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Why Jesus Is My Hero #31 of 52

Jesus was the master storyteller. He knew exactly how to get under people’s radar, and his stories frequently shocked and deeply challenged his hearers, as indeed they still do today. One such parable that contains a glorious surprise is that of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:

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

The Pharisee looks like exactly the sort of person you would imagine to be right with God: he’s a morally upright man who seems to be deeply religious, giving generously of his resources. It’s understandable that he should approach God with a sense of confidence. The Tax Collector, on the other hand, is utterly empty-handed before God: as a traitor to his country and his people, a collaborator with the Romans, he was no doubt precisely the kind of “unjust extortioner” that the Pharisee was so quick to distance himself from. He has no assurance at all as he feebly approaches God – not even daring to lift his head towards heaven. It’s all he can do to utter a few simple words begging for mercy.

Yet look what Jesus says of this ungodly tax collector: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other“.

What a glorious gospel message of hope! The death of Jesus in the place of needy sinners means that the way of salvation is entirely opposite to what we would expect. People like the Pharisee who “trust in themselves that they were righteous” fail to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, whilst the most unlikely of candidates get right with God, because they are the ones who recognise their need and cry for mercy.