The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector is one of my personal favorites of the parables. It’s simple nature allows the listeners of Jesus day and readers of today to put themselves in the context of the parable to find meaning and significance. As we discover the message of the parable, we’ll see how the larger picture of the kingdom fits the paradigm of this parable. Let’s begin.
This parable takes place right after the parable we just discussed of the widow and the judge. There is this contrast being made here between the oppressed and oppressors, the poor and the wealthy. Social statuses of injustice are being brought out here but more so is the fact of how God sees people and His kingdom. This parable in Luke 18 can hit at the core of any society and any individual life. Let’s read this parable.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.””
What we have here is a two character parable with contrasting views of the characters. We have a self-righteous religious leader who thinks very highly of himself because of his position and what he does according to the Law. Then we have this other character who is portrayed as this ashamed and sorrowful scoundrel seeking mercy from God. Jesus then tells the crowd that the ashamed tax collector was justified before God and not the Pharisee. Luke makes sure to mention at the beginning that the crowd to which Jesus is speaking is prideful and thinks highly of themselves. This parable would be shocking to this crowd as most of them would assume that Pharisee is in the right, not the sinful tax collector. This is where Jesus’ idea of the kingdom comes in.
As Jesus is announcing God’s kingdom, He makes people aware of the nature of God’s kingdom. We have mentioned this in other parables and it is the same with this parable. The kingdom does not work in the same way as the world does. In God’s kingdom, those who humble themselves will be exalted by God, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled. The Pharisee was exalting himself, claiming he was better than the man beside him. Jesus’ shocking announcement to a prideful crowd was that the Pharisee, one who thinks highly of himself, is actually least in the kingdom. This parable is about the surprising, upside-down nature of the kingdom Jesus is proclaiming.
The tax collector knew his sins, his wrongs, and his shortcomings. He knew that he had probably not been honest when asking people for taxes countless times. He had cheated, robbed, and took advantage of so many people, and he was truly sorry. He came before God, not even approaching the Pharisee and stood far away. He might have felt too ashamed to even go into the temple. He didn’t even have the courage to look up and just poured his heart out in sorrow, begging for mercy. The Pharisee had no problem going into the temple, praying to God, and thanking Him that he was not like other sinners. This is where we can learn a lesson.
Romans 3:23 claims that everyone has sinned. Not just some or a few, all have sinned. We are all sinners and we are all in need of a Savior. The Pharisee didn’t recognize his own hard heart and his own sins. The tax collector knew his sins and begged for mercy. When we realize that everyone is on the same playing field so to speak, it takes the hierarchy that we create in our minds of who’s better and who’s worse away. We can see each other as equal and all in need of Jesus. The kingdom of God is not for only those who never sin, in which case no one would ever take part in it. The kingdom is for everyone who realizes their sin, comes to Jesus, and allows the Spirit to work in and through them. The kingdom does not work in the same way the world does and that means that we can’t think the same way the world does. Jesus provides a way for us to humble ourselves and only through Him can we then be exalted one day.