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!
A man bought a cottage in Scotland on the side of a glen, in the middle of nowhere. The cottage was painted white. Where ever he was in the glen the owner could always see the white walls of the cottage gleaming in the sunlight. Even on dull days the cottage stood out against the dark greens of the hillside. He was very proud of his cottage. Then winter came and the snow fell transforming the glen into pure white undulating slopes. When the man looked back at his cottage he realised how dingy it was against the brightness of the snow.
White Cottage Interpretation
The snow was whiter than white. The colour of the snow represents Gods standard. By that standard none of us are white enough. None of us are able to blend in with God.
All of us have our own colourful personalities. These colours make us anything but pure white, anything but holy. Rather we like to do our own thing, and run our own universe.
Planet Pete – The lie
On Planet Pete things would be very different, I can tell you. There are so many things I wouldn't put up with. My justice would be so much swifter, and the punishments would fit the crime. So we wouldn't have to put up with all these drug addicts and thieves. I would be in charge and I would be GOOD!
That's essentially the same lie that Eve swallowed and Adam accepted willingly. I can be like God – I can do a better job.
That's where the Pharisee was. He was so taken up with his own goodness that he had forgotten what goodness really is. Instead of loving God and his people he was boasting to God of all the good things he does for his religion, and then just to be sure God got the point, comparing himself to the tax collector. In the process of the comparison the tax collector was rubbished.
It's so easy for us to become like the Pharisee.
Pharisaical Traits Check list
Here's a brief check list to see if you're on the slippery slope.
Prayer Life – How will you know Jesus if you don't speak to him regularly. If your prayer life is intermittent you could be in danger of becoming like the Pharisee.
Tiredness – If you're too busy and always tired, ask who you are doing it all for. It probably isn't God.
Anger – If you loose you temper with people you could be trying to take over how they run their lives, something that even God wouldn't do.
Criticism – Are you critical of others? Does that make you look better?
Defensiveness – How do you react to criticism, are you defensive or dismissive. If you can't laugh at you mistakes and failings with someone else. You could be in danger of becoming like the Pharisee.
Success – Is the success you have all yours, or is it attributed to the God who gave you your abilities and supports your life?
Impatience – at having to listen to, or wait for others because your time is too important to waste.
Exclusivity – Unwillingness to associate with people you consider lower than you.
Any of these thing could indicate that you are on your way to becoming like the Pharisee.
What went right with the tax collector
The tax collector on the other hand would not even look at God. He hung his head in shame at the way his life was lived. He beat his chest, as if to punish himself, and begged for mercy.
The tax collector knew that he was not whiter than white, that he was not even white at all. He knew that the only approach to God was to admit his failings and ask for mercy.
It is a very biblical approach:
Pr 20:9 Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?
Ps 51:17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Jer 9:24 but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD.
These the tax collector would have known, these have been written for our benefit since:
1 Jn 1:8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
1Jn 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
1Jn 1:10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
Jas 4:6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
The tax collector knew God and had the right sense of perspective, as it says in
Isa 57:15 For this is what the high and lofty One says — he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.
Now we come back to the theme of justice. The right attitude to have before God is to recognise that you are guilty and your only hope is that the judge will be merciful.
If you plead for mercy and nothing happens then you've wasted your time, but it was still worth the effort. It isn't like that with God. Those who are repentant – truly sorry for their failings and determined to do better will be the beneficiaries of God's mercy. Those who plead with God will be forgiven.
Like the tax collector they will leave the court vindicated and fitted for eternal life.
Turn with me to Psalm 51, and lets say the first six verses together.
Page ____ in the Red Bibles
Page ____ in the Black Bibles
Before we say these verses think back to any of the check list that caught you ear and determine with God to put them right. [pause] Then you too can go home justified before God. Vindicated in your plea for righteousness.
Lets say together:
Ps 51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Ps 51:2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
Ps 51:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Ps 51:4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
Ps 51:5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Ps 51:6 Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.