#78. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 18:9-14

[9] To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: [10] "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. [11] The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men -- robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- or even like this tax collector. [12] I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

[13] "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.'

[14] "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."


Exposition

If you think that looking down on others was exclusively a First Century phenomenon, think again. This parable speaks loud and clear to Twenty-First Century churches. Listen for what Jesus says to us disciples.

Self-Righteousness (18:9-10)

"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.' " (18:9-10)

Luke precedes the parable by naming its intended target. The first characteristic is "confident of their own righteousness." The word translated "confident" (NIV) or "trusting in" (KJV) is Greek peitho, which can mean variously, "convince, persuade, depend on, trust in, be convinced, certain."[1] "Righteousness" is Greek dikaios, "pertaining to being in accordance with high standards of rectitude, 'upright, just, fair.' "[2]

Holiness churches are filled with people who are scrupulous in their observance of a rigid menu of moral standards. So are evangelical and mainline churches, Pentecostals and Catholics, Orthodox and Seventh Day Adventists. In each of our denominations there are sincere, God-fearing people who are careful to obey God as they understand his laws.

In Jesus' day the Pharisees were the strict Jews. They believed. They were disciplined. They took the Law seriously -- so seriously, in fact, that they created a "hedge" around the law, the Oral Law, with the idea that if they kept the rules of the Oral Law (the tradition of the elders), then they wouldn't break the Mosaic Law.

We too, have our "hedge" around the law. At various times and in various churches there have been rules against open-toed shoes, sleeveless dresses, slacks for women, mixed bathing, not genuflecting before the host, abstaining from wine and hard liquor, beards, smoking, drugs (but not herbs and pharmaceuticals), lack of beards, lack of head coverings, eating pork, eating any meat, drinking caffinated drinks (coffee, but hot chocolate is okay) -- have I forgotten any important ones? :-) You get the idea. None of these is stipulated clearly in the scripture, but each comes from a desire to please God and avoid godless ways.

And there's nothing wrong with rules. Each family has to have family rules. Each church needs to have family rules, too. It's a requirement of any human organization. We just need to keep our rules in perspective, and realize that they are not necessarily God's rules, but derivatives of God's rules.

A problem arises, however, when we are "confident in our own righteousness" or "trust in" our own righteousness to save us and justify us before God. When we move from righteous living -- which is right -- to trusting in that righteous living to give us a standing before God, then we commit a fatal error. In that case it becomes self-righteousness.

Looking Down on Others (18:9-10)

But when we begin to take pride in our own righteous behavior, it's very easy to look down on those who don't behave this way as morally inferior to us.

"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.' " (18:9-10)

The phrase "looked down on" is Greek exoutheneo, "to show by one's attitude or manner of treatment that an entity has no merit or worth, 'disdain.' "[3]

Let's consider who we faithful, righteous Christians tend to look down on:

  • Punk rockers, surely, and
  • Teenagers with body piercings and gothic clothing,
  • Pregnant teenagers,
  • Divorced men and women,
  • Gamblers and junkies,
  • Emigrants and illegal aliens,
  • Those who are of a different religion,
  • Poor, smelly homeless people who don't exactly belong in our churches and might steal our purses if given have a chance,

and the list goes on.

My dear friends, Jesus told a parable that is intended for our ears, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Pharisees and Tax Collectors (18:9-10)

 "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.' " (18:9-10)

Just as the judge and the widow of the previous passage are opposites, so are the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Pharisees were members of an exacting party of the Jews who believed in strictly observing God's law. The tax collectors, on the other hand, followed another law entirely -- the law of the Roman oppressors. It was their job to collect taxes for the Romans. They worked on a tax farming system. Chief tax collectors bid on the contract for collecting taxes for a certain district. If the won the contract they would be responsible for delivering to the Romans the amount of money agreed upon. Then these chief tax collectors would employ others who resided in the various villages and sections of town to collect the tolls, taxes, and tariffs.

Tax collectors weren't just hated because they were considered turncoats and traitors. They were also considered cheaters. They would sometimes assess more taxes than was legal. If a farmer or businessman or caravaner couldn't or wouldn't pay, they would turn him over to the soldiers. Extortion and threats were part of this system. Tax collectors were considered the scum of the earth.

It isn't hard to see the contrast between them -- the righteous Pharisee and the morally bankrupt, turncoat tax collector.

Priding Oneself (18:12)

Now Jesus, the storyteller, sets the figures into action.

"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men -- robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' " (18:11-12)

Jews often stood as they prayed, looking up to heaven, often with hands raised. Look at the telling statement "prayed about himself." The preposition pros can be translated "about" (NIV), "with reference/regard to," but it could also be rendered "to" (NIV margin), "toward, towards, to."[4] It could mean that he prayed silently, though the normal practice was to pray aloud, but quietly.

But his entire prayer is about himself. He thanks God -- not for blessings -- but that he isn't a sinner like others. He first lists those who were known to be evil: (1) robbers, Greek harpax, "swindler or rogue" [5], (2) evildoers, unrighteous people in general, and (3) adulterers. Then he compares himself to (4) the nearby tax collector.

He also reminds God of how pious he is -- fasting and tithing. Pharisees developed the practice of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays to intercede for the nation as a whole.[6] Pharisees far exceeded the requirements of the law in this regard. They scrupulously tithed or gave one tenth (Greek apodektaoo) on everything they acquired, even down to the herbs in their garden (11:23). As Jesus tells the story, I can almost hear a ripple of laughter sweep over the crowd. They all recognize the type of Pharisee Jesus is describing, and are amused. Jesus' description might have been a slight caricature of the Pharisees, but not too much of a stretch.

No Excuses (18:13)

"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.' " (18:13)

Notice the tax collector's posture. Jesus describes three kinds of body language before he voices the tax collector's prayer:

  • Standing at a distance. He doesn't feel worthy to draw close to God or the temple.
  • Not raising his eyes to heaven, but standing with head level or bowed, as a sign of his sense of guilt.
  • Beating his breast. Though we don't see many instances of this in scripture is a sign of mourning,[7] Josephus, a Pharisee who lived a few decades after Jesus, described David's mourning for his son Absalom in this way: "David ... wept for his son, and beat his breast, tearing [the hair of] his head, tormenting himself all manner of ways...."[8]

The tax collector's prayer is remarkable and short. First, he addresses God, just as the Pharisee had done.

Next, instead of telling God all the good things about himself, he describes himself as a sinner, hamartolos, "pertaining to behavior or activity that does not measure up to standard moral or cultic expectations, 'sinner.' "[9] Notice that he makes no excuses for his behavior, offers no mitigating circumstances. He is confessing his sinfulness before God and taking full responsibility for it.

Finally, he asks for mercy, Greek hilaskomai, "to cause to be favorably inclined or disposed, 'propitiate, conciliate.' When used in the passive, of one addressed in prayer, to act as one who has been conciliated, 'be propitiated, be merciful or gracious.' "[10] I was expecting to see the common Greek word eleeo, "to be greatly concerned about someone in need, 'have compassion/mercy/pity on or for someone.' "[11] The difference between the two words is significant. Hilaskomai calls for forgiveness from one who has been wronged, while eleeo asks for compassion and pity for one in tragic circumstances.

For the tax collector to ask for forgiveness and restoration of his relationship with God is a bold and faith-filled act for a man so despised by his society. He is obviously humble and repentant of his sins, but his faith has made him bold to ask for something that he has no right to expect -- forgiveness and restoration before God.

Justification before God (18:14a)

Having contrasted the Pharisee's self-righteous and disdainful piety with the tax collector's sincere and faith-filled penitence, Jesus pronounces judgment:

"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God." (18:14a)

The word translated "justified" is Greek dikaioo, "to render a favorable verdict, 'justify, vindicate, treat as just' ... 'to be found in the right, be free of charges.' "[12]

Can you imagine the impact Jesus' parable had on the Pharisees present? They must have been livid with anger. How about the crowd? They were amazed, wondering, pondering. But the prostitutes and tax collectors, thieves and adulterers in the audience may have been weeping, for Jesus had declared that it was possible for them to be saved, to be forgiven, to be cleansed, to be justified before God. There was hope for them yet. Jesus had given them hope.[13]

Exalting or Humbling Oneself (18:14b)

Finally, Jesus brings home the application of the parable, the point, the meaning:

"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (18:14b)

The word "exalt" is Greek hupsoo, "to cause enhancement in honor, fame, position, power, or fortune, 'exalt.' "[14] The word "humble" is Greek tapeinoo, "to cause to be or become humble in attitude, 'humble, make humble.' "[15]

Jesus highlights a paradox of the spiritual life -- exalting oneself leads to humbling, while humbling leads to exaltation. Jesus' brother James carries on this theme when he says: "... But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.' " (James 4:6) When we are proud, we make ourselves into God's opponent, his enemy.

Disciple Lessons

The lessons for would-be disciples are obvious.

  1. We are saved by God's atonement and mercy, not by our righteous deeds.
  2. God abhors the haughty, but welcomes the humble. I can see myself here. I must guard against the sin of pride that is so repugnant to God. Instead, I must humble myself and be thankful for the grace of God.
  3. We cannot, we must not look down on others. While they may be sinners, they are certainly not beyond God's forgiveness. In the final analysis the only thing that saves either of us will be God's forgiveness, and not our pure lifestyle.

Is Jesus trying to undermine piety and obedience? By no means! But this parable attacks with a vengeance any pride and sense of superiority that our piety and obedience may foster.

Jesus is laying the groundwork for the kind of people whom God accepts. The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (18:1-8) teaches the importance of persistent faith, while this parable teaches the importance of humility before God, and the story of Jesus and the children that follows this (18:15-17) underscores this point. Faith and humility are marks of the men and women who follow Jesus. May they be earmarks of your character and mine, as well!


Prayer

Father, we live in such a wicked world. It's so easy for us to develop an ugly pride in our piety and look down on others. I can see that tendency in me. Forgive me. Cleanse me. Please help me to humble myself before you that I me enjoy the comfort of your mercy rather than the sting of your judgment. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.


Key Verse

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14b)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All 120 lessons now compiled as a 808-page e-book and paperback. Get your copy for easy reference
  1. What makes us confident in our own righteousness? (18:9) Have you ever known anyone like this? Have you ever been this way yourself? What causes it? What are the symptoms of this feeling?
  2. In what ways do Twenty-First Century Christians look down on others? Who are the people we look down on? How does this grieve Jesus' heart? How does it injure the cause of Jesus' church?
  3. Why did the Pharisee's prayer consist of? What does that tell us about him? (18:11-12)
  4. What did the tax collector's prayer consist of? What do his prayer and his body language tell us about him? (18:13).
  5. Extra Credit. In what way can the forgiveness of gross sin feel like a threat to the righteous person? How can the righteous person avoid feeling threatened? Should Christians consider themselves righteous persons? How can this be consistent with humility?
  6. In what way (if any) is looking down on a sinner constitute a sin? Does forgiveness from this sin require humbling? What kind of humbling is appropriate? If Jesus were in the confessional speaking to you about this, what penance should he prescribe for your sin?


References

Common Abbreviations www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm

  1. BDAG 791-792.
  2. BDAG 246-247.
  3. BDAG 352.
  4. BDAG 873-875.
  5. BDAG 134.
  6. Marshall, p. 221; J. Behm, TDNT 4:924-935.
  7. Gustav Stählin, "pupto," TDNT 8:260-269, especially 262 n. 18 and 264.
  8. Josephus, Antiquities 7,10,5.
  9. BDAG 51-52.
  10. BDAG 473-474.
  11. BDAG 315.
  12. BDAG 249.
  13. Notice that Jesus did not absolve them of their responsibility to repay those they had cheated. Zacchaeus did so willingly in 19:8. But Jesus point here wasn't repayment but a humble heart.
  14. BDAG 1045-1046
  15. BDAG 990.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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