Summary: Are we the Pharisee or the Tax Collector?
The Pharisee and the Publican
Jesus had just finished His parable of the unjust judge and the persistent woman. But now He turns to address a theme He brings up frequently. Many of the parables in Luke are centered around the contrast between the person of Jesus and the Pharisees in respect to how to deal with sinners. We see Jesus going to a feast of tax collectors while the Pharisees stood without and would later ask the disciples why Jesus actually ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus talks in an open comparison saying that there is more joy in Heaven over a sinner that repenteth. More joy than what? –Anything you can compare it to. Jesus shows compassion to a sinner woman who came to dinner at Simon the Pharisees’ house. The three parables in Luke 15 of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son are spoken in relation to the Pharisees complaint that “Jesus receives sinners and eats with them.” The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican fits in this stream of thought.
The parable presents two people coming to the Temple to pray. The first was a Pharisee, a small but influential group in Judaism. The name of this group comes from a Persian word “to separate.” This is demonstrated in the fact that the publican stood off by himself. He was too good to pray with ordinary people, especially in the presence of this tax-collector who also came to pray. In the eyes of the Pharisees, the tax collectors belonged in the lowest caste with the prostitutes. They were prideful of their own accomplishments. They felt themselves as the true believers and keepers of the Law of Moses. Everyone else was at least suspect.
When we look at the prayer this man made, all of this pride comes out. He gives thanks first for what he is not. He is thankful that he is not a cheat and a swindler. He was not an adulterer. Looking down in contempt at the tax collector who was also praying, he is most thankful that he was not that wretch. This is a typical Pharisaic prayer other than they also included thanks that they were not born a woman.
The other man stood and looked down at himself. It does not say that he noticed the pharisee praying or anyone else. He knew what he truly was. Tax collectors were know to be swindlers and cheats. They were known to shake down extra money from those they had been appointed to collect taxes from. Even discounting the bias that common citizens had toward tax collectors and allowing that many were not as bad as their reputation, they were bad enough. They were known for lavish parties which in some cases included prostitutes. This tax collector, if he participated in this revelry was guilty of adultery also. He was everything that the Pharisee gave thanks that he wasn’t.
The Pharisee then thanked God for his positive attributes. He had these things for his badge of election. He fasted twice a week and tithed everything he made. And here he way praying. He was fulfilling what is known as the “three pillars of Judaism.” A person who practiced these things must be elect was the thought.
The tax collector’s prayer did not have the slightest hint of self-adulation. He had nothing to offer at all. The only think he can confess is that he is a sinner. All he could do is beat his breasts in grief and cry out for mercy. It is interesting that instead of the common word for mercy which is “eleos” in Greek, he uses the technical term “hilasmos” which means “to propitiate.” This is the language of sacrifice, a sacrifice to turn God’s wrath away from him to a sacrificial victim. What he needed was an atonement. But it does not say that he brought a lamb for that offering. We know as Christians that this was only a symbol pointing to the sacrifice of Christ. God in the Old Testament showed some weariness to animal sacrifices because they we not offered with a repentant and faithful heart. This tax collector showed exactly the contrite heart God wished from those who came to worship. This condition of the heart was far more pleasing to God than outward ritual. It was a sweet-smelling offering from the heart and pleasing in His eyes. Jesus directly says that it is the tax-collector and not the Pharisee who returned home justified. “Justified” in the Greek is in the perfect tense which indicates that this was a lasting justification unlike the temporary relief offered by sin offerings at the altar which had to be repeated. It also implies that this man’s life was changed forever. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was not changed at all.