Who were the Pharisees? They are a group of about 6000 men in the time of King Herod. They expounded the Old Testament law, but added many instructions and prohibitions, so that Jesus said they abandoned the commandments of God and held to human tradition (Mark 7:8). A Sunday school teacher once asked her class who the Pharisees were. One child answered “They were horses, because Jesus was always saying “Woe to them!”
In the parable in today’s gospel, Jesus spoke about a tax collector as well as a Pharisee. The tax collectors we unpopular because they worked for the Roman authorities and often taxed people too much, keeping the extra for themselves (cf Zaccheus in Luke 19:8). However, both these men came to the Temple to pray. (The Church should always be open to people of all backgrounds). But what happened when they prayed?
The Pharisees offered thanksgiving, but no adoration, confession, petition or intercession and he clearly looked down on others, including the tax collector (Luke 18:11). One Rabbi said that each man should give thanks daily that God had not made him a Gentile, an unlearned man or a woman! Sadly, the Pharisee’s prayer was very self-centered and self-righteous. He talked about the way he fasted and gave away a tithe or tenth of his income. He did these good things, but with the wrong motives. Self-glorification was his problem. He clearly thought that all this would earn him ‘Brownie points’ with God! It has been said that pride is like a beard. It just keeps growing and needs shaving each day!
But the tax collector would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). We are not meant to wallow introspection, but we do need to confess our sins, be willing with God’s help to turn from them, and then trust in His forgiveness. Someone once said, “God has buried my sins in the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19) and on the seashore he has put a notice saying, “No fishing!”. It is at the Cross where Jesus died for our sins that we can receive God’s forgiveness as we confess them, as our Communion service makes so clear.
So what was the outcome of all this? The Pharisee returned home. He had done his duty, he might have thought, but his life was unchanged. But with the tax collector it was different. Jesus said that he went home justified before God rather than the Pharisee. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:14)
Revd. Christopher Blizzard-Barnes
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 18:9–14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.