Luke 17-18 Parable: Pharisee and the Tax collector

From Luke 17-18

Gospel Jesus is risen ChristToday’s reading includes a passage that says a few things about pride, condemnation, repentance and justification. Its the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Do you think Jesus would whisper this parable in your ear?

This post is part of my bible in a year series.

Passage and Comments

Luke records another parable of Jesus. He only told this parable to a select few.

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: (Lk 18.9)

Jesus didn’t tell this parable to everyone. Only on a select few did he use this and he did it with strong reason. He told the parable to those who;

  1. trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and
  2. treated others with contempt.

What does it mean to treat others with contempt?

He told this parable to these people to secretly criticise their self-assurance and contemptuous treatment of others. Hopefully to get them to change the way they view themselves and the way they treated others.

10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. (Lk 18.10)

Hubbard, S. et al. with Logos Bible Software and KarBel Media, 2012. Faithlife Study Bible Infographics, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Both of these men came to the temple. The temple is the place where the Jews worshiped God, prayed and in particular offered sacrifices to make atonement for their sins.

Pharisees were the religious hero’s of first century Israel. People looked up to them. They were devout, serious about God, lived according to the Jewish law and sought other Jews to do the same.

Tax Collectors were the opposite. They worked for Rome (the resented foreign power ruling over the Jews) and went door to door, person to person, collecting tax. Of which they gave most to Rome and some to themselves. Because they worked for Rome and because they took money away from others, people generally feared and hated them.

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.’ (Lk 18:11-12)

Freeman, J.M. & Chadwick, H.J., 1998. Manners & customs of the Bible, North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.

The Pharisee stands alone praying because no one wants to stand with him. He speaks about other people and identifies them by their sins. He looks down on people with contempt, including the tax collector.

What is the tax collector doing?

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!’ (Lk 18:13)

The tax collector has come to the temple to repent for his wrongdoing. He has recognised his sin and seeks mercy from God.

14 I tell you, this man [the repentant tax collector] went down to his house justified, rather than the other [the self righteous and contemptuous Pharisee].

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 18:14)

Jesus says the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee. The irony is – the person who thought he was right with God – wasn’t. The person who thought he wasn’t right with God – became so. Jesus performs a role reversal.

The tax collector became righteous in the eyes of God. We can assume he repented of his sins and resolved not to continue in them.

Jesus says the Pharisee was not justified. The Pharisee treated others with contempt and was blindly oblivious to his own arrogance and pride. Jesus’ parable is intended to highlight this to those he speaks to.

So in the context of the gospel, Jesus told this parable to people like the Pharisee to stop them from promoting themselves and treating others with contempt. They need to repent of their own pride and the way they treat others.

General Points about Application

I’m not assuming all readers of this post are like the Pharisee just in case you think that by sharing it with you I am.

All people can succumb to pride and treat others with contempt like the Pharisee. But that doesn’t mean all people are behaving this way. We need to keep in mind Jesus didn’t share it with all people. He didn’t operate with that assumption. He only targeted some people (Lk 18.9).

I say this because I’ve heard many press this parable into service beyond what Jesus intended it. In seeking to apply their particular explanatory function they want to humble all people and get them to think they should become like the tax collector asking for mercy.

All have sinned, but God’s people have been forgiven and they don’t keep on sinning (1 Jn 3.6-10; 1 Cor 15.34; Rom 6.1-2). They resist sin, pray to God to avoid temptation (1 Cor 10.13). Ongoing sin in the life of someone is an indication they are not a believer (Rom 14.23).

People pressing this parable to get all people to become like the tax collector don’t acknowledge the tax collector was righteous after he repented and asked for mercy (justified). We can assume from this he no longer persisted in the sins that brought him to the temple in the first place. He could humbly admit he sinned in the past and be thankful for the LORD’s forgiveness. But then acknowledge since then having been made righteous he has not kept on sinning. God’s people repent of their sins. They turn from them and to God.

We can learn more from the parable. We need to remember who is humbling who. At the end Jesus humbles those who exalt themselves and exalts those who humble themselves (cf. Mt 23.12; Lk 14.11).

Jesus instructs us to humble ourselves.

Its always a good idea to humble yourself before God. He is a lot bigger, more loving and holy than we will ever be.

The warning for all of us is to beware pride and exalting ourselves above others, because at some point in time all people who do so will be humbled. On the other hand you don’t have to be humbled by arrogant Pharisees who want to put you down making blanket condemnations about sin.

The parable also envisages another situation where people who have led sinful lifestyles are in the process of coming to Jesus. How will existing and long term followers of Jesus treat them?

This would have been a real issue because Jesus had a heart for sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors. Many of them entered the kingdom before the Jewish leaders (Mt 21.32). When after meeting Jesus, they sincerely repented of their sin and desired to follow him, how should they then be received by Jesus’ long term followers? When someone recognises their sin and turns to Jesus we should rejoice and not treat them with contempt.

About Jesus

Jesus opposes the self righteous who treat others with contempt. He recognises that God is merciful and forgives sinners who come to him. God’s forgiveness and mercy restores them to righteousness.

The main point from this passage for non-believers is:

God has mercy on repenting sinners who trust in Jesus and come to him.

You should come to him and turn from any sin and wrongdoing you may be indulging in. Then follow Jesus by listening to what he says.

Believers should be warned against being like the Pharisee. Keep checking yourself to see if you are proud and treat others with contempt. We all can be unaware of our own issues and can still fall into sin ourselves.

Make a consistent practice of humbling yourself before the LORD.

Believers also need to be prepared to welcome former sinners who have repented of their sin, now trust in Jesus and follow him.


Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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