3/9/2020 – The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Passage: Luke 18:9-14
Written By: Nick Irby – PhD Student and Wesley President
This parable is put in a chapter with a few other parables, which Jesus usually addressed to someone specific. Here, verse 9 states that he was talking to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others”. I find this verse especially interesting as I dissect it a little bit, so why don’t you do that with me?
“Some who trusted in themselves”. These people were very self-assured. Have you ever met someone who trusts in themselves? They have no doubt that whatever challenge comes, they will be able to find their way out through their own skill.
“…that they were righteous,” These people are sure of their righteousness through their own abilities. One can probably assume that they felt they were dedicated followers of the law and had achieved righteousness that way.
“and despised others”. Some translations read “viewed others with contempt” or “looked down on everyone else”. The general feeling I get is that these people feel superior to others around them due to the fact that they’re so good at keeping the law, thus more righteous in their own eyes.
Jesus gives us what I like to call “parable examples” of these people. They’re pretty extreme versions of people we encounter every day. There’s the Pharisee, who says “I thank You that I am not like other men”, while we have a our frequent societal villain, the tax collector, who can’t even bring himself to look up to God; all it seems he can do is ask for God’s mercy. Jesus wraps this up by saying “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted”.
So what’s Jesus saying here? The Pharisee isn’t on his way to be humbled because he kept the law, it’s the fact that he “exalted himself” that will cause him to be humbled. If you read throughout the New Testament, Jesus is pretty clear that 1) he came to save everyone and 2) everyone needs saving. Salvation isn’t granted through “keeping the law”, it’s granted through faith in Christ. Certainly our actions should demonstrate our faith (as “faith without works is dead”, according to James chapter 2), but our works do not grant us special status in the eyes of God. Yet the Pharisee in this story is thanking God for his special status; a status he had granted himself due to his keeping of the law. Meanwhile the tax collector who freely admits his faults is the one who goes home “justified”.
So with this in mind, I ask for God to grant me the recognition of the fact that I need his love and mercy as much as everyone else. I’m neither superior nor inferior to anyone else, but we are all made equal by the promise of salvation. Rather than “exalting myself” because I endeavor to live according to God’s commandments, give me an eternal attitude of gratefulness for salvation, without which my righteousness would be that of the “filthy rags” in Isaiah 64.