What is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector? 

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus said, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’

And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14). 

Righteousness by Faith Versus Righteousness by Works 

In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Luke addressed those who have faith “in themselves” rather than in God (Luke 18:8, 9). Theirs was a false faith, in contrast with the true faith God would have them grow. The self-righteous Pharisees, according to their own standards of righteousness, scrupulously lived up to, or at least professed to live up to their ideals. Their standard of righteousness consisted in strict observance of the laws of Moses and of rabbinical traditions. Their religion was, technically, righteousness by works.  

The legalistic concept of righteousness suggested that salvation was to be earned by observing a certain pattern of conduct, and gave little or no attention to the necessary love to God and the change of a man’s life. It emphasized the letter of the law, ignoring the spirit of it.

The Pharisees taught that external obedience to God’s commands was all that God asked, regardless of the internal motive that stirred obedience. But Jesus had warned His followers against this formalistic approach to salvation (Matthew 5:20; 16:6; Luke 12:1). And He stressed that salvation is based on a personal loving relationship with God the Father. 

The Pharisee and the Publican

The Pharisee considered himself a righteous man, and “went up” for the purpose of commending himself to God and man. He was thankful for his own goodness rather than for God’s righteousness and mercy. And he was grateful that he had, by hard work, kept strictly the letter of the law.

The Pharisee seemed completely indifferent to the spirit that must accompany true obedience in order to make it acceptable to God. So, he enumerated his virtues which he was counting on to buy his salvation. And according to his theology, a sufficient credit of supposedly meritorious deeds would cancel out a debit of evil deeds.  

On the other hand, the Publican represented the lowest level in the Jewish social scale. He looked upon himself as a sinner, and he “went up” to confess his sin before God, to ask for His mercy, and to receive His forgiveness.  He considered himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Also, he had a consciousness that without God’s mercy, he would be utterly lost.  And he had a spirit of true humility before God and men which is one of the evidences of a new birth (Micah 6:8). 

God’s Response to Publican and the Pharisee

The Publican was accepted by God and declared righteous for he knew himself to be a sinner (Luke 18: 13), and this knowledge opened the way for God to declare him sinless—a sinner justified by divine mercy. The Pharisee thought himself righteous (Luke 19:9) but God did not accept him. He disqualified himself from receiving divine mercy and grace. Self-satisfaction closed the door of his heart to God’s love.

The problem of pride versus humility is at the very heart of the conflict between good and evil. And thus, it was the attitudes of the two men toward themselves and toward God that made the difference. Therefore, we need to heed the prophet’s words, “But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6).

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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