Of Pharisees and Tax Collectors

Reading Time: 2 minutes

From some of the stuff I’ve seen on Facebook recently, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector came to mind. To save you the time of looking it up, I’ve posted it below:

“Two men went up to the temple complex to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this: ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people —greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

– Luke 18:10-14

The Pharisees were a religious sect within ancient Judaism. I think that they started out like a lot of us who would be called “fundamentalists” or “conservatives” today. As they read the Law and the Prophets they observed how God’s people were given over to the surrounding nations when they turned away from God. By bringing the people of Israel back into right relationship with God they probably hoped that God would send a savior to free them from the oppressive Romans.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, this is a very good thing! However, those who take the moral high ground are prone to lifting themselves up over others. In the case of the Pharisees, their pride inflated them to the point that when they met Jesus, God in the flesh, they had Him executed. I’m afraid that myself and some of my conservative/reformed brethren run the same risk.

The tax collectors were just the opposite. They were Jews who had sold out to the Romans by enforcing their taxes on the Israeli people. Not only were they traitors supporting the occupying power, but they were often dishonest- taking more than the Romans actually demanded. They were the lowest of the low- pond scum. I think of them as equivalent with those who sold out to the Nazis in World War II France.

Jesus’ parable was striking to His original audience because He points out how when representatives of these two groups comes before God, it was the scumbag who was made right with God instead of the holy man because he humbled himself.

So many of my generation have been so focused on fighting back against our ultra-conservative/Pharisaical past that we ourselves are adopting the very pride we hate. We walk around saying “Thank you for not making me like that hell-fire and brimstone preacher!” or “Thank you for not making me like that legalistic hypocrite.” or “Thank you for not making me like that guy on Fox News.” When we do this we essentially twist the parable so that instead of crying out to God for mercy, both sides are thanking Him that they are better than the other.

I probably haven’t earned the right, whether by age or friendship, to offer advice. But as someone who is having difficulty in this area himself, I would just caution you to check yourself if you ever start to despise someone as a religious hypocrite- you may have indeed just become one yourself.