Summary: Eighth in this series. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector reveals that I either come to church to impress God or to be impressed by God.
Note: Since this message was presented in the form of a table that summarized the two reasons for coming to church some formatting may not look right.
Let me begin with a question this morning. I don’t want to embarrass anyone, so I’m not going to ask you for a show of hands or ask you to answer out loud. But this is a question I want to encourage you to think about honestly:
Why did you come to church this morning?
The parable that we’re going to look at this morning deals with exactly that question. So let’s get right to it. Turn in your Bibles to Luke chapter 18 and follow along as I read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector beginning in verse 9:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
(Luke 18:9-14, ESV)
Before we begin to see what we can learn from this parable, I need to take a moment to clear up a common misconception that threatens to get us off track.
Because of how Jesus often addressed the Pharisees and their motives, we tend to have a pretty negative view of them. But in the first century in Palestine, they were actually among the most respected and admired people in that culture. If you had taken a poll of the most respected occupations in that society, the Pharisees certainly would have been at or at least near the top of the list. And tax collectors would have no doubt been at the very bottom.
IRS agents certainly aren’t among the most loved people in our culture, but even those who have abused their powers to target certain individuals and groups in our country are not nearly as despised as the tax collectors of Jesus’ day.
The tax collection system of that time was a whole lot different than today’s. There was no tax withholding from your paycheck. You didn’t just send in a form once a year and pay any additional taxes you owed. When you went to the market, the merchant didn’t just add sales tax to the amount of your purchase and later remit it to the government. And nobody had an escrow account from which their property taxes got paid.
Instead, the Roman government, which was particularly despised by the Jews, would basically sell “franchises” to Jews who were willing to work as tax collectors. The Roman government would establish the amount of taxes that the tax collector needed to collect from the area for which he was responsible and the tax collector got paid, so to speak, by keeping whatever taxes he could collect on top of what he had to give to the Romans. So most of these tax collectors operated by deceit, extortion, threats of physical violence and whatever other means they had at their disposal to collect the maximum amount they could from their fellow countrymen.
Not surprisingly these men were despised by their fellow Jews for two reasons. First, they were helping out the Roman government that the Jews loathed. And secondly, they were exploiting their Jewish brothers and sisters for their own personal gain.
So, in order to illustrate His point in this parable, Jesus chooses two people from the opposite extremes of the social ladder – the respected Pharisee and the reviled tax collector. Although these two came from completely different places, they both have something in common – they are both Jews and they both “go to church”. But as the parable reveals, they go for completely different reasons and they leave with completely different results.
A few minutes ago I asked you to think about why you came to church today. And although there are probably quite a few different responses among us to that question, I would suggest that all those answers really boil down to one of two reasons:
The two reasons people come to church:
1. To impress God
2. To be impressed by God
It’s not too hard to figure out which of the two came for each of those reasons. Obviously the Pharisee came to impress God. The underlying Greek in verse 11 is a little ambiguous, so we can’t tell for sure if it means, as the ESV translates it, that the Pharisee was standing by himself and praying to God, or if, as the NASB and KJV translate it, he was standing and praying to himself.