The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
- Remember that we as sinners all need God's forgiveness.
- Include in our prayers a humble request for forgiveness.
- Explain which man was forgiven by God and why.
Jesus told this parable to a group of people "who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else." Could that also be a problem for you and the children your group? The truth is, of course, that this is an insidious disease among Christians of all ages.
The two people in this parable seem more like cardboard characters than real people. It's as though Jesus takes two extreme kinds of attitudes in order to make the contrast more stark. But they may be more realistic than they seem.
The Pharisee stands by himself, observing some of the people who are gathered for prayer, and his eyes especially light upon the tax collector lurking in the corner. "Thank you, God, thank you that by your grace and strength I'm not like these other people. Look at them---robbers, evildoers, adulterers, and even that tax collector over there. No, I seek to do your will, fasting and tithing regularly."
Actually, his prayer is not all that different from the prescribed words of prayer required of every Jewish male in Jesus' day: "Blessed art thou, O Lord God, who has not made me a Gentile. Blessed art thou . . . who has not made me a slave. Blessed art thou . . . who has not made me a woman." His life of privilege is a blessing from God.
The tax collector in his far-off corner has no memorized prayer and offers no thank yous. Overwhelmed with guilt, eyes to the ground, beating his breast, he manages to blurt out, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
This is one of the few parables that Jesus himself interpreted. Only one of these two men "went home justified before God," Jesus said. Only one man was accepted by God and welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. Only one man was saved---the tax collector.
It's not that the tax collector somehow earned his salvation. Being justified before God was, and always is, God's gift. This gift is given only to those who admit their helplessness and sin. Morally, the Pharisee was probably the better person. The tax collector undoubtedly harmed many people by his actions. But admiring our own goodness, as the Pharisee did, can be a trap separating us from God and from our neighbor.
The Pharisee really has two problems: self-righteousness and pride. In his self-righteousness he trusted in his own goodness rather than in God's grace. In his pride he saw himself as superior to other people, failing to see them with the eyes of love. So just as love of God and love of neighbor go together, so in this story two kinds of pride go together---pride before God and pride before our neighbor.
Jesus' succinct conclusion to the parable is worth memorizing: "For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."