On Friday, August 27, I had the responsibility of delivering a meditation in the youth devotional service at my church. It took me a while before I finally decided to speak on the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14.
The parable begins by telling us who Jesus was speaking to. Though the parable has two characters, the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke tells us that Jesus addressed “this parable to some people” (Luk. 18:9 NASB). Some people may mean a group of Pharisees, or tax collectors, or a group that consisted of many different types of people. I believe that it was addressed to a mixed audience. I based this reasoning upon the fact that usually in the Gospels if Jesus is addressing a specific group–or if the writer of the Gospel wants to indicate who Jesus is speaking about–he names the group. Since this is not the case, I suggest that Jesus was addressing a mixed audience that may or may not have included Pharisees and tax collectors.
That being said, the way is open for a point that I felt was necessary to make. I wanted to dismantle a posture that we take whenever we listen to sermons. Usually when we listen to a sermon we place ourselves in the position of the one who is being hurt, abused, and victimized, but never as the villain. For this parable I asked my audience to don the regalia of the Pharisee and not the tax collector. If we never see ourselves in the place of the one that is doing wrong we will never be challenged to ask the Holy Spirit for the necessary change.
A lot of amens are thrown out during a sermon, some because they are affirming what the preacher is saying as true, but others are saying amen because they want to throw a subliminal punch at somebody that they believe is the villain in the narrative. Whenever we hear a sermon we should try to determine what is it that God is trying to communicate to us about our condition and what are the promises that He has stated concerning His ability to bring the necessary changes.
Jesus motivation for speaking this parable to some people is because of a two-fold problem that they possess. The first is self righteousness and the second is the criminalization of others–by this I mean, placing others in the category of law breakers (in this case, God’s laws). If Jesus thought that this was a serious problem to address then I think it is important that as Christians we do not find ourselves in this condition.
Generally speaking, self righteousness has to do with one believing that they live such a perfect life that they don’t need anything else in order to be viewed as righteous in the eyes of God. Since the individual believes that he/she have made this great achievement, it then becomes easier to look at others as either being on the same level or below. In this parable, they viewed others who are not on the same level, at least according to them, with disgust. In the parable, Jesus addresses these two points and indicate what it really requires to be justified.
Vs. 10 establishes the setting of the parable, the individuals involved, and their reasons for being there. This parable would have been extremely profound to a first century audience because they would have been shocked by the outcome. Today the word Pharisee is viewed as a negative word, in fact this name is given by some to people in the church that they feel place too much emphasis on laws and regulations.
However, in the first century, the Pharisee was highly respected as a spiritual leader and would have been chosen as the good one in the story as soon as Jesus mentioned him. In the context of the Haitian community, the Pharisee would have received the same respect as a lawyer or doctor. The tax collector, who was viewed as a traitor to his people for collecting taxes for the despised Romans, would have been viewed as the wicked one. To go further, many would have been disturbed by the very fact that the tax collector went to the temple to pray. The tax collector is comparable to a Haitian who works in immigration and is involved in the deportation of some Haitians. All these thoughts would have been going on in their heads as soon as those titles were mentioned.
Verses 11 and 12 zooms into the Pharisee’s prayer. It is one that is done in secret, meaning that it wasn’t meant to be heard by others. In the prayer the Pharisee thanks God that he is good. The goodness that he is referring to is one that he understands in comparison with others. So confident is this Pharisee about his state of goodness that he begins to talk bad about others, claiming that he is not an extortioner, unjust, adulterer, or even as this tax collector.
Notice, he places the tax collector in a list of law breakers. He regards that occupation as evil, showing you the amount of hatred that they had for the tax collectors at that time. I doubt that anybody prays and say people’s names or occupation, but I do believe that sometimes we pray with hatred or dislike of people in our hearts and think that God is none the wiser. As if He doesn’t realize that the particular words that we use are really bullets aimed at someone we wish would disappear.
After the Pharisee finishing saying what he is not, the second half of his prayer, in vs. 12, is a presentation of what he is. Let me be quite clear, the prayer is about bragging to God about what he doesn’t do and what he does do. Concerning what he does do, he brags about fasting and tithe.
Vs. 13 begins with Jesus saying, “but.” To the close reader, the appearance of the word “but” after such a declaration by the Pharisee indicate that something negative is about to be said or that a comparison is about to be made. In this case, it is a comparison, one that puts the Pharisee in a negative light. Vs. 13 contains the prayer of the tax collector. The tax collector was a good distance away–perhaps this distance is in reference to the tax collectors position from the front, or to his distance from the Pharisee.
So conscious was the tax collector of his sinfulness that he wasn’t even willing to lift up his eyes to heaven. This is not to say that if you are truly sorrowful about your sins that you will be unwilling to lift your eyes to heaven. If you say that, then you missed the whole point of the parable. When it comes to prayer, some people will bow down very low to the ground, some will have their entire upper torso facing heaven pleading for God’s forgiveness. These are expressions, not laws, if one chooses to do these things, great. If one chooses not, great. The emphasis is a comparison between the tax collector’s humble and lowly manner of addressing God and the Pharisee’s arrogance.
The tax collector, so burdened by his condition, goes on to beat his chest. This second expression adds more emphasis to his humble state. But what ties it all together is what he says. Instead of speaking about how he is not as evil as other people, he beg God for mercy. Perhaps, he was not as bad as all the other people that the Pharisee mentioned, or maybe he was better than the pharisee, in that case he could of bragged and said that he wasn’t like so and so. But that wasn’t what he was interested in, he looked at himself and saw a sinner, one who is not as he ought to be and who knows that he deserves punishment.
Generally speaking, mercy is a word that is used to encourage one who punishes to deter from his punishing act, to let the one who merits punishment go. It is the guilty who usually ask for mercy, the innocent would plead, well, innocent. (Of course, unless you’re in the hands of criminals who are seeking to cause injury whether you did something to them or not.) Fundamental to those who are of the Christian faith is God’s giving of mercy instead of the extermination that we deserve.
Jesus concludes the parable in vs. 14 by stating the answer that the tax collector received from God and a proverb on humility and self exaltation. If the man who prayed the second prayer went home justified, then the first man who prayed didn’t. Remember that the parable was geared towards those who thought they were righteous but in fact weren’t because they trust in themselves. Jesus addresses them directly when he says that the tax collector was justified. He didn’t do nothing to receive justification except for presenting a sincere prayer of repentance to God.
The proverb illustrates that when it comes to exaltation, we shouldn’t do it. Rather we humble ourselves in order for another to take us up. The verse doesn’t show the uplifting being done by our hands, but it’s being done by another. Those who uplift themselves will be brought down by another.
Since we are all Pharisees here, I guess we have a lot of changes to make, not only in how we pray but in how we view others. No one is innocent, everyone is guilty, but today we can all ask for what the tax collector asked for, the mercy of God for sinners like us. Mercy is available for the self righteous but they can’t bring themselves to sincerely ask for it. Today I ask you to cast off your cloak of holiness and ask God for mercy. If you do so, you too can walk away from the prayer Justified.