The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The story of the hare and the tortoise is a beloved childhood memory that taught us the contrasting approaches of two different animals towards the same end goal. Everyone loves an underdog story of unprecedented triumph, as the persistent tortoise beat the arrogant hare. Moral stories with two polar opposite characters, usually have the underdog come out in a good light. However, when Jesus started telling the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, no one could have imagined the underdog to end up as the one being ‘Justified‘ by God.

There can be no more polar opposites in the Bible than the Pharisee and the tax collector. One was seemingly appointed by God to lead His people, while the other was appointed by the Roman Government to tax his own countrymen. The Pharisees were highly regarded by the Jews while the tax collectors were a despised bunch as they added additional burden on the general public. The Jews were already bound by several temple laws that extracted money from them in the name of tithes and offerings and when a foreign ruler added to their misery, they took out their frustrations on the middlemen. The tax collectors were not innocent themselves, as they were known for cheating the poor and showing favouritism towards the influential members of the society and thus were despised not only for their trade but also for their lack of moral standards.

Jesus teaching the crowds

The audience for the parables of Jesus usually comprised of His followers who were sinners (tax collectors and prostitutes) and the Jewish leaders (Pharisees and the teachers of the Law) sent to gather evidence against Jesus. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law deemed themselves to be righteous as to them righteousness depended on their knowledge and adherence to the Jewish laws. They followed all the laws to the letter but did not understand the heart of God behind the very same laws. They even taught others to depend on the laws in order to be deemed righteous. They had categorically rejected the possibility of the tax collectors and prostitutes to ever enter heaven but were confident in their own path to ‘eternal dwellings’. To them, Jesus narrated this Parable so that they may be enlightened to know the heart of God.

The Contrasting Approaches

A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to offer prayers in their local temple. Now the Pharisee, who was a regular visitor to the temple, came up to the altar and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get”. The Pharisees strictly followed all the laws and added a few of their own for good measure. They made sure that they offered their prayers in crowded places for all to hear and even disfigured their faces to show others that they were fasting (Matthew 6). They did not leave even the tiniest source of income from being considered for one’s quota of offerings as they extended the practice of tithing to even herbs that they had grown in their back garden. Perhaps this is why we see this Pharisee openly boasting about his righteousness.

Contrastingly, the tax collector who was perhaps not allowed to come inside the temple, stood at a distance and simply prayed to God beating his breast, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. The tax collector could have offered tithes and offerings that would have surpassed anything given by the Pharisee, but he simply offered his prayers that day. After narrating the Parable, Jesus told His listeners that the prayer of the tax collector and not the Pharisee (who taught others to pray) was right in the sight of God as those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Even the prophet Ezekiel warned against confidence in one’s own righteousness as it leads to them being complacent and returning to their evil ways. Throughout the generations, the Israelites were always confident of their righteousness as an outcome of their careful adherence to the laws and the traditions of their ancestors. But God kept breaking their self-confidence and gave them ways to replace it with his grace. Our self-confidence is used by satan to build us up only to be later brought down by the storms of life. The Bible teaches us to place our confidence in Christ for our salvation. But like the Pharisee, we end up misplacing our trust in ourselves and become confident of our own righteousness.

Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant —not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

2 Corinthians 3:5-6 (NIV)

Righteousness, a Barrier for Others

The Pharisee was praying openly for all to hear as he boasted about his righteous acts. He kept on going about listing all the laws and traditions that he followed and how he was worthy of righteousness in God’s sight. He even compared himself to the tax collector who was standing at an earshot offering up his own prayers. The Pharisee was desensitised to the routine of daily prayers, while someone like the tax collector who was coming after a long time could really appreciate the privilege that he had in approaching the temple of God. However, seeing the outward acts of righteousness displayed by the Pharisee, the tax collector did not come close to the altar but rather stood at a distance as he knew that could not measure up to the ‘righteous’ acts of the Pharisee.

In another similar parable, a father asks his two sons to work in the vineyard. One of them agreed while the other truthfully told his father that he will not obey his command. But the one who had answered in the affirmative did not follow through with his commitment. Because of his commitment, the other son also would not have bothered to go to the vineyard assuming that his brother would have already completed the work that their father had asked them to do. While we may think that our commitment to God is our prerogative, we must understand that it affects people around us and their respective walks with God too.

When the pastor asks for volunteers to help out in their local soup kitchen, people raise their hands during the service for all to see but later back out of their commitments sighting umpteen excuses. But because of their commitment the person who had initially thought that it will not be possible for them to join but later their schedule got freed up, they too will not join on account of these disguised volunteers as they would feel that too many cooks would spoil the broth, literally in this case. This happens in our fellowships as well, as the hollow commitments that we make, act as a deterrent for others who want to come close to Christ. Either they are intimidated by the show we put for them and are afraid to come closer to God or they see through the facade and want no part of our hypocritic man-made religion.

We always want to compare ourselves with others as it gives us the freedom to choose our own measuring scale. Even during our school days, we did not report the grades of the toppers to our parents but only told them the marks of the weak students thinking that it will help us look good in their eyes. Even in our Christian circles, we choose to compare ourselves with the people who will make us look good. The Pharisee who had access to the scriptures and an ultra-religious upbringing had no business comparing himself to someone like the tax collector. To those who are given more, more is expected (Luke 12:48). If we have been given the opportunity on this earth to know more about our creator and waste it on superficial pursuits of self-glorification, then we have a tougher path to heaven than others, one that might even lead to a dead end.

Jesus said that He did not come for the righteous but for the sinner as the sick are the ones who need a doctor (Mark 2:17). The Pharisee did not want to admit his shortcomings and kept on going about singing his own praise. But the tax collector admitted that he was a sinner and depended on God to have mercy on him. God does not delight in our meaningless rituals and festivals or on our countless offerings but He is interested only in the prayer of our honest hearts.

The son who had committed to his father but did not deliver is like the Pharisee who has seemingly dedicated his life to God’s work but did not know the Father’s heart. Are we like the Pharisee putting on a show for others and continue living a lie or are we like the tax collector, humbly admitting our faults and in return have been justified before God. We should trust Him to make the best decisions for our lives rather than following some hollow ancestral practices that have no meaning. There are no guarantees about our eternal dwelling but we have the assurance of our Father’s grace which alone can make us righteous.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)

Questions Discussed

  • Should we not be confident of our own righteousness?
  • Can our righteousness act as a barrier for others?
  • Are Christians today similar to the Pharisees thinking they have the exclusive path to heaven?
  • The tax collector is a sinner and he admits to it also, then how is he justified before God?
  • What is Jesus teaching us through these parables?

One Comment Add yours

  1. In time, God will take care of all sins! Don’t get all worked up, folks,, There is no one good enough for God on our own merits.
    If Jesus is our savior? Why don’t you honor him in your TITHES and OFFERINGS. CHEERS !



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