The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

stained glass depicting the pharisee and publican

Luke 18:9 – 13:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Self Righteousness and Contempt

Luke gives us the meaning of this parable upfront. This is a message for us when we become too proud in our righteousness and look down on others. In the Pharisee’s prayer, notice how much he talks about himself. “I am not like other men.” “I fast.” “I give tithes.” He obviously feels that his works justify him.

The other issue we see is that he holds others in contempt. “I thank you that I am not like other men … or even like this tax collector.” He can’t help but scorn the tax collector, even though he’s standing right there. This parable exaggerates self-righteousness, but how many of us fall into the same sins as the Pharisee every day?

Righteousness in God Rather Than Self

We don’t often read through this and say, “I am exactly like this Pharisee.” However, we might still be trusting in ourselves and holding others in contempt. This Pharisee is focused purely inward. He clearly falls under the doctrine that God helps those who help themselves. His focus avoids thankfulness for or trust in God. Instead, it’s all about what he has done, how sinless and righteous he perceives himself to be. It’s almost as if God should be impressed to have such a servant.

Contrast this with Gideon in Judges, where Gideon has a great force to overcome. God, though, keeps whittling down the numbers on Gideon’s side so that these soldiers cannot boast in their own accomplishment. In the end, Gideon’s army pares down to three hundred, and there was no way they could deny God’s power in their victory. The same is for us today. We need God, and we should be testifying of the power and grace of God in our lives.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be doing good works. That would be contrary to much of what Jesus and His apostles teach us. But we have to be aware of our place as good and faithful servants working in the field of our Lord. We have to put these things in perspective of all God has done, and we should find our righteousness in Him rather than ourselves.

Comparative Morality

In this passage, we see the Pharisee proclaiming his righteousness in comparison to other men. Contrast this with II Corinthians 10:12 – 13 where Paul says he wouldn’t dare compare himself to others. God doesn’t care what we look like in comparison to others. His concern is how we measure up to His standard.

We read things like, “Be holy as He is holy;” “Imitate me as I imitate Christ;” “You shall be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” We have a clear standard of righteousness, and that standard should humble all of us. It doesn’t matter how many people we can compare ourselves to. All that matters is how we measure up in God’s eyes.

Symptoms of Pride

When I focus on self and I’m comparing myself favorably against others, it makes it easy to feel self-righteous. It gives me pride. What’s harder is measuring ourselves against a perfect standard — a standard we may never reach in this life. That results in humility. This humility then results in us finding our comfort and our peace in Him.

Pride is a challenging thing to discover in ourselves, but we can see its symptoms in things like fault-finding in others. It makes me miss the personal application of a lesson and instead apply it to what others are doing wrong. It can also manifest itself in superficiality. We become more concerned with how others see us rather than how we really are. Our outward appearance does not match our inward struggles, and we become concerned whether or not others know just how hard we’re working for God.

This superficiality can then lead to a craving for attention. We want others to acknowledge our apparent spiritual strength. But, in all of these things, pride then leads us to neglect. We want to bee seen associating with certain types of individuals but distance ourselves from those we view as unsavory. And how do we measure who’s worthy and worthless? By our own standards.

A Standard of Humility

How then can we be more like the tax collector, who Jesus says went home justified in his humble attitude? We begin by spending more time studying about Jesus. The more we learn about Him, the more we have to look beyond ourselves and trust less in ourselves. It is only in Him that I can approach the throne of grace. It is only through Him I can be saved.

When we become more like Jesus, we will do more to lift others. It’s not about thinking less of ourselves, but rather it’s about thinking of ourselves less. We should be spending less time focusing on self and more time and energy thinking about and serving others.

Philippians 2: 3 – 8:

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus in not only our standard of righteousness; He is our perfect example of humility. He did not come to this word to die for Himself. He did it for us — for all of us. He did not come to lift Himself up, but to lift us up. When we spend time studying about Christ and then serving others, then we will grow humility in our lives and live more like our Savior, the perfect servant who humbled Himself for our sakes.