Summary: The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector as it high lights our position before God.
What do you think this passage is about?
Prayer? Well, yes Jesus uses the way people pray in his parable, so there are some important lessons about prayer.
Arrogance? Pride? Humility? There is certainly a lot in the parable about arrogance or pride and humility.
Final judgement? The previous parable is certainly about justice, and notice how this one ends – The tax collector 'went home justified before God'. His sins had been forgiven.
The Pharisees had grown up as a response to Helenism – the spread of the Greek empire. They were Jews who were keen to make the point that they were different and hold to the ancient traditions. They were responsible for the traditions that were later written down as the Mishnah, which is a commentary on the Talmud.. They separated themselves from the rest of Judaism and dedicated themselves to living life as they believed the Torah said it should be lived. There is nothing wrong with their aims. In Jesus' time they were generally looked up to by the rest of the Jewish people. “I'd love to have a faith like theirs”. The description of the Pharisee in the parable is fairly typical of Pharisees. They gave a tenth of everything they received, not just everything they earned. It was said of them that “they even tithe their herbs”. The Torah calls for fasting only on special festivals, but the Pharisees fasted twice a week – on Monday's and Thursday's. They have been described as the keen church goers of their day, the equivalent of attending every Sunday, Monday Prayers, a home group every week, never missing any of the courses, always helping with Alpha and giving 12% from gross (before deductions) income.
At the other end of the religious scale were tax collectors. They made their money by collecting as much as they could in taxes from the people. Each had an area and a target amount to be returned to the Roman Revenue service. They also had to live, and any extra they collected they kept as their pay. No-one likes paying tax, but paying it to a foreign government that is occupying your country is even worse. They were the Muslim Jehadists of their day. Don't associate with them, or even go near them, unless you absolutely have to. They have no respect for you. You are just one of their targets.
What went wrong with Pharisees
These are the stereo-typical views that would have been in people's minds as the parable was told. We know that stereo-typical views are not always realistic views. People do not conform. They don't behave the way you expect and believe that they will. Many Pharisees had become proud that they lived their lives to the difficult rules that their religion demanded of them. As a result they considered themselves better than other people who they thought didn't even try to follow God or keep to His law.
What goes wrong with Church people
It can happen to us too. We go to church regularly. We follow the law of the land. We pay our taxes. We follow the rules of the Church. It's easy to see that we're better than all those skiving benefit fraudsters who we're subsidising, isn't it!