The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

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In the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus shows us why we should pray—God is not an unjust judge, but the righteous Father who loves his elect and will bring justice. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus shows us how we should pray—not with pride, comparing ourselves to others, but in humility, needy for God’s mercy. Putting the two together, Luke aims to show us that we both ought to pray and never lose heart and that there is a certain heart that knows how to pray, and a heart that doesn’t.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector - Luke 18:9-14

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a Tax Collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 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!’ 14 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.”

Two Different Prayers

The two men in Jesus’s parable are worlds apart. The Pharisee was the model citizen. He was Bible-saturated, law-abiding, tithe-giving, just, true to his wife, and righteous before men. The Pharisees owned the best reputation in Israel. The Jewish historian of the time, Josephus, described them as “a certain sect of the Jews that appear more religious than others, and seem to interpret the laws more accurately.” No one looked at the Pharisee and saw a problem that needed to be corrected. No one, that is, except Jesus.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, was the opposite of the Pharisee. If the Pharisee was the model citizen, the Tax Collector was the criminal avoiding arrest. Commentator Kent Hughes describes the Tax Collector. “In today’s culture, the closest social equivalent would be drug pushers and pimps, those who prey on society, who make money off others’ bodies and make a living of stealing from others.” He didn’t have one shred of righteousness in himself. He couldn’t look to what he was or what he did and thank God for any of it.

When compared, the Pharisee is obviously the better person. We would want him as out neighbor. We would turn to him if we needed help. We wouldn’t mind walking by him on the street. The Tax Collector, on the other hand, is someone we’d avoid. We’d shudder to see him approaching our house. We’d disassociate ourselves with him. We often forget the difference between these two persons. Those of us who have heard so much bad about the Pharisees forget that many of them were the kinds of guys we’d want our kids to look up to. Make no mistake, the Pharisee was the good guy, the Tax Collector the bad guy. 

But we only see the outside of a man. God sees the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). In this parable, Jesus redefines goodness and badness, not based on the outward actions but on the inward relationship to God. He uses these two opposites to reveal what we miss when looking only at the outside.

Jesus told this to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Because of that, I believe he’s talking to all of us, for which of us is sinless in this area? We all trust in ourselves to some degree and treat others with contempt, or we have done so in the past. These words, therefore, are words for us all to heed. 

What was wrong with the Pharisee? Often, it is assumed this Pharisee was a legalist. I’m not sure he is. Legalism is one who tries to earn his salvation by his good deeds. The Pharisee doesn’t do that. He believes his good deeds are given to him by God. He says as much in his prayer, “God, I thank you…” He’s recognizing that God is the one who gave him his righteousness. The problem with the Pharisee is not legalism. It is that he looked to and trusted in that righteousness—his righteousness—for salvation. He didn’t believe he earned it, but he was very proud of his righteousness. And that was his problem before God. He believed God’s gift of his personal righteousness—making him the way he was—was all he needed to be justified before God.

But is that how we are justified? Are we righteous before God because he gave us the ability to do good things? Or are we righteous before God because Jesus is righteous before God and we are in him? It comes down to one question: whose righteousness is it that saves?

The Pharisee believed his righteousness what the key. Notice, aside from addressing God at the beginning of his prayer, he spends the rest of the time talking about himself. He trusted in himself that he was righteous. He wasn’t happy that he was making progress. He thought he’d already arrived. The thing about trusting in oneself for righteousness is that it always leads to treating others with contempt. When we believe our goodness is what makes God smile, we see everyone else’s faults and treat them accordingly. It’s only when we see ourselves as sinners, righteous in Christ alone, that we can be free from the contemptuous outlook of the Pharisee.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, was banking everything on the righteousness of God. He wouldn’t enter the temple. There were societal reasons for this, but Jesus is highlighting his humility. Even if he was welcomed in, he didn’t feel as if he belonged. He stood far off, away from others, not as the Pharisee but with deep sorrow for his sins. His prayer is simple. He does not refer to anyone else. He is not boasting about his righteousness because he has none. He is not explaining his badness. He is pleading for mercy. He calls himself who he truly is, “a sinner.” He would not even lift his eyes toward heaven—significant for his time since prayers were offered standing upright and looking to the skies. He beat his breast in grief. In fact, in the Greek, his plea is for more than forgiveness. Literally, his plea for mercy is a plea to “be propitiated.” He wasn’t asking for anything less than God’s anger to be removed from him. He knows what he deserves, and he pleads for what only God can give.

The Pharisee was condemned. The Tax Collector justified. Be warned, Jesus says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We are not justified because God gives us our own personal righteousness. We are justified because God gives us Christ’s righteousness. It comes down to this: where are you looking? Are you looking away from yourself to Christ? Or are you looking from Christ to yourself? The direction of your gaze makes all the difference.

Our Prayer Life

In Jesus’s day, public prayers were often offered in the temple. But private prayers were offered too, and in this parable, we see two private prayers. Jesus focuses on this because who we are in our private prayers is who we really are. Our prayers can reveal what we believe is the origin of our salvation. Does God grant us his righteousness and save us on that basis or does he grant us our own righteousness and save us on that basis? The Pharisee obviously believed the latter. The Tax Collector was banking on the former. 

The Pharisee was grateful God made him so well. He not only obeyed the law, he super-obeyed it. The law commanded one fast, on the Day of Atonement, but this guy fasted twice a week, the law required tithing ten percent of one’s income, but this guy tithes even his herbs. He thanked God for making him this way, but his righteousness was not the reason for his righteousness. In fact, it made him unrighteous. His goodness clouded his ability to see Jesus’ goodness on his behalf. As William Plummer said, “He glances at God, but contemplates himself.” We can do the same anytime our prayers are made of who we are rather than who God is.

This parable drives us to one big evaluation of our personal prayer life. When we approach God, are we like the Pharisee or the Tax Collector?

The Doctrines of Imputation and Federalism

If we are like the Pharisee, how can we change? 

Right doctrine helps. Is God our divine helper, granting us the ability to become good, or is he our Divine Savior, granting us his goodness? If God gives us our own personal goodness and accepts us based on that, it makes sense for us to look down upon others. But if God gives us righteousness through his Son, and only through his Son, then we have no right to look down upon others. We are all equal. We all need the righteousness of Christ.
The gospel tells us not that God gives us our own personal righteousness but that he gives us Christ’s righteousness. The theological term is imputation. Imputation means to attribute something to one’s account. This is what God does to us with Christ’s righteousness. John Piper clarifies.

"Imputation" is different from "impartation." God does "impart" to us gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, so that we have them and they are in us growing and they are ours. But all of that gracious impartation through the Spirit is built on an even more firm foundation, namely, imputation - the work of God outside of us: God's own righteousness, not imparted to us, but imputed to us. Credited to us, as Romans 4:6 and 11 say. Put to our account. Reckoned to be ours.

The Bible tells us of three imputative events throughout history. First, Adam imputes his sin to all mankind. Second, God imputes the sins of the elect to Christ. Third, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to the elect. 

Paul explains this in Romans 5:12-21.

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We see here imputation at work. Adam imputes sin to mankind, God imputes the sins of the elect to Jesus, God then imputes the righteousness of Jesus to the elect. This helps us see the importance of another theological term, federalism. Federalism means one person acts as a representative for one or more persons. In the biblical view, God has appointed two representative heads: Adam and Jesus. Sin came into the world through Adam. Righteousness came into the world through Jesus.

Some people struggle with the idea of federalism, especially when it comes to accepting Paul’s words in verses 12-14. It’s hard for some to accept that they inherited sin. Some people believe man is basically good, and from time to time does bad things. But that’s not what the Bible says. Because Adam sinned, we are all born in sin. The theological term is Original Sin. Our Original Sin is a birth defect, and no amount of scientific or meritorious effort can change that which with we were born. Sin stained us from the womb because of our federal head, Adam.

But federalism works to our advantage, if we trust in Christ. Sure, it’s a bummer that we’re born into sin because of Adam. It may seem we don’t even get a fair shake at life. But give us enough time, and we would sin our way out of God as well, especially now that we have the law to show us what sin is. We don’t merely miss the mark with our sin; we stomp on top of the law on our way to sin. Whether we are born sinners or not, no one can look at his life now and declare righteousness apart from God. So, to be represented by Adam helps us understand from where we came. Adam was a terrible representative, yes, but he is our representative, and to deny that truth is to put ourselves in more danger, not less. Federalism is to our advantage because if it’s true that in Adam we all sinned, then it can also be true that in Jesus we are all made righteous.

Commentator Douglas Moo says, “The universal consequences of Adam’s sin are the assumption of Paul’s argument; the power of Christ’s act to cancel those consequences is its goal.” Paul has labored to prove the universality of sin. Now he is working to show the universal character of justification for those who believe. If sin condemns all in the church through one man, it makes sense that through one man all are justified. If Adam got us into the war, Jesus got us out. 

Adam, as the first man, represented all humanity to follow. The result of his life is, therefore, universal and inescapable. In Adam, all die. But in Christ, all live. Paul calls the benefits of Christ the “free gift.” He mentions this free gift five times in verses 15-17. The point is exactly what it sounds like: the righteousness of Christ is both free, meaning we don’t have to do anything to earn it, and it is a gift, something we receive. Some gifts are a result of hard work. (Think of a Christmas bonus for employees at a company.) But other gifts are given because of love. (Think of a Christmas gift to a child in a home.) The righteousness of Christ is of the latter kind. God gives the full benefits of Christ’s perfect record to his children because he loves them. All we must do is receive the free gift with the empty hands of faith.

It would be appropriate to compare ourselves in Adam to a poor family that has made ruin of life. We started out well, with plenty of money in the bank, a beautiful house on a hill, abundant resources, and friends abounding. Then, out of sheer defiance, we decided we didn’t need what got us here anymore. We didn’t get there on our own, but we decided we could make it her on out on our own. We left the one who provided it all to blaze our own trail. In doing so, we cut ourselves off. In an instant, we lost the money. Over time, we lost the house. In the end, we found ourselves on the streets, wandering from town to town just trying to survive. As the generations were born, they didn’t realize the plight. They were born into this family. It just seemed to fit. Then one day a generous donor comes and says he understands what has happened to us and he would like to make it right. He aims to restore all that we squandered. He says he came into some money and it was more than he needed. He wants to share it. So, he gets out his pen and checkbook and writes the check to cover all the debts plus enough to meet every need from here on out.

We are in this family that squandered and lost it all. And then Jesus comes and begins to make all things new. He tells us of his righteousness, shows us his holiness, and grants us his forgiveness. In a moment of realization that came from somewhere outside our own heart, we believe him, give up our rags and follow him.

That’s what happened to the Tax Collector. He went home justified because his Federal Head, Jesus, imputed his righteousness to him. And the Pharisee went home unjustified because he thought the gift of God was his own personal righteousness. But he was wrong. We aren’t saved because we are good. We are saved because Jesus is, and in grace, God gives us his goodness.

Be careful, then, how you pray, for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

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