Summary: A look at Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
It was the best of prayers, it was the worst of prayers, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of grace, it was the epoch of law, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had accomplished nothing, we had accomplished everything, we were going direct to Heaven, we deserved to go direct to Hell--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that the story could have been told of us today.
What is it about these two prayers that still speaks so directly to our hearts today – 2000 years after the parable was first spoken? With my apologies to Charles Dickens, let’s take a closer look at this familiar parable of Jesus, this tale of two prayers, to see just what it has for us after so many years.
This parable follows another parable – the persistent widow – where Jesus teaches us to be persistent in our prayers. This parable gives us more on what those persistent prayers should look like.
The audience for this tale of two prayers is described in the first sentence: some whose confidence was in their own righteousness and who looked down on others. You know the type – the ones who are perfectly comfortable singing that country song:
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
Cuz I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me
I must be one really great man
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
But I’m doin’ the best that I can
The first to enter our stage for this tale of two prayers is the Pharisee. Who were the Pharisees? Today, we have a prejudice against the Pharisees. We’ve heard so many stories about them that we immediately cast them as the bad guy. But that’s not the way they were seen when Jesus spoke about them.
Pharisees were well respected and honored members of their community. They were lay people, not priests. They were dedicated to studying and diligently following the law. And that was no small law.
A Pharisee knew the law as the Torah, the Mishna, and the Talmud. The Torah is roughly the first five books of the Bible. The Mishna contains the detailed instructions necessary for following the rules that were written in the Torah. The Mishna can have several chapters dedicated to a single verse in the Torah. Then there is the commentary on the Mishna, called the Talmud. The Talmud has entire books to explain a single chapter in the Mishna. And to make things even more interesting, the Mishna and Talmud were mostly oral traditions. They had to be committed to memory, not written down.
Our Pharisee knew and followed all of this law very carefully. He wanted to make sure God knew of his righteousness. Of course, he didn’t sin like others did – robbers, evildoers, adulterers. He was so righteous that he even went beyond the requirements of the law. The law only required one fast a year. He fasted twice a week. The law only required a tithe on certain parts of one’s income. He tithed on all he received. He was the best of the best. Certainly a credit to God and deserving of a place in the kingdom. Or at least in his own eyes.
Our other player in this tale is the tax collector. There was no doubt in the minds of those listening to Jesus that this was the bad guy in the story. A tax collector worked for Rome – the empire that had taken control of the promised land. Yet most were Jews themselves. So others saw them as traitors. A tax collector was assigned a certain amount that he was to raise from the territory assigned to him. He was free to collect whatever he could. If he could get more than the amount required by Rome, he could keep the excess. So he would also be seen as an extortioner.
So what are the prayers spoken by our two characters? First, the assumed hero of our tale, the Pharisee.
The Pharisee stands while praying. This was a typical posture for prayer. Standing, with head looking up to heaven and arms outstretched. Then Jesus says he prays about himself or, in some translations, to himself. That’s the first indication of trouble. Prayers are offered to one greater than yourself. But this Pharisee thought so highly of himself that he could pray to himself.
He addresses God, but is speaking to himself, building himself up by putting others down. Thank you that I am not like others – robbers and evildoers and adulterers – and especially that I am not like that tax collector standing over there. I fast more than everyone else and I give you more money than everyone else. I’m a great guy – look at me.