The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is the most theological of all Jesus’ parables. It is the most theological because it deals with the subject that is of most importance to the life of the Christian—namely, how a man or woman, boy or girl is accepted before God.
The irony of this parable is that both of these men were going to the Temple to pray. On face value they seem to both be praying to the same God. Both men have come to the same place of worship. Both were members of the same covenant community. Both are men of the working class. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Jesus loved to draw contrasts in order to drive home Kingdom principles and truths. When he sets out these two men, he does so by appeal to their ethical, social and religious standing. The Pharisee was a respected, religious member of the covenant community. The tax collector was a despised and questionable figure in Jewish society. Throughout the Gospel records, tax collectors are identified with “sinners”—a term usually reserved in Jewish society for those known for their sexual immorality.
In his sermon “Going Up, Going Down: The Story of Two Men at Church,” Sinclair Ferguson set out a series of reasons why we would have to conclude that the tax collector was not on his way to heaven, but the Pharisee was. By all human standards, the tax collector was disqualified from salvation on account of the following sinful characteristics:
- The tax collector had been an unmerciful, money extorting man.
- The tax collector is unjust to the poor and the weak.
- The tax collector probably was an adulterer.
- The tax collector doesn’t pray in what was the acceptable manner and form.
- The tax collector probably hadn’t been to the Temple in years.
Whereas, here are some of the apparent moral virtues of the Pharisee:
- The Pharisee is a man of discipline and prayer. The Pharisee had given a tenth of all that he had. Sinclair Ferguson explained, “If a church were made up entirely of Pharisees, its church budget would double, if not triple, if not actually quadruple.”
- The Pharisee is thankful for all things in his life.
- The Pharisee is different from other people.
- The Pharisee lives a far better life in society than the tax collector does.
- The Pharisee is more like me or like you than the tax collector is.
But, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who went to heaven, because the Pharisee had a religion that has no place for mercy, whereas the tax collector saw his need for mercy. Ferguson notes,
“Most of them as they listened to this story were guessing, ‘It’s obvious which one gets saved. It’s bound to be the Pharisee. He’s the only one with the qualifications. The other one is utterly disqualified. However, there is one thing missing. He has a religion that has no place for mercy, whereas the tax collector saw his need for mercy. He has no place for those psalms that speak about need, that speak about despair, that speak about wretchedness.”
In reality, the Pharisee was so consumed with his own accomplishments that he self-righteously looked down at the tax collector; whereas, the tax collector was so consumed with acknowledging his own sin and his need for God’s mercy that he didn’t have time to evaluate the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee “prayed with himself;” the tax collector cried out to God. The Pharisee outlined his accomplishments; the tax collector summed up all of his actions when he confessed to God that he was “the sinner!” One was a prayer of self-congratulation and one was a prayer of self-abasement.
The end result. The Pharisee went home still in his sins and the tax collector went home as justified before God because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to him by faith alone. Eric Alexander explains, “The way of merit and of good works may take a man into the Temple, but it will not take him into Heaven.”
There are, however, several dangers to avoid when reading this parable. When we look at the picture of these two men, we might align ourselves with the tax collector and fall into the error of concluding that God is commending a sinful life rather than a life of devotion. Alexander again observes,
“What Jesus condemns in the Pharisee is not his righteousness, but his self-righteousness; and, what Jesus commends in the tax collector is not that he is a sinner, but that he is a repentant sinner who is crying out to God for mercy. The parable is setting out two ways of salvation, the way of merit and the way of mercy, the way of salvation by works and the way of salvation by free grace.”
The other danger is to fall into the same error of the Pharisee from the side of the tax collector. We can easily start to despise the Pharisee in a similar self-righteousness manner as the Pharisee despises the tax collector. J. Gresham Machen explained,
“No doubt we think we can avoid the Pharisee’s error. God was not for him, we say, because he was contemptuous toward the publican; we will be tender to the publican, as Jesus taught us to be, and then God will be for us. It is no doubt a good idea; it is well that we are tender toward the publican. But what is our attitude toward the Pharisee? Alas, we despise him in a truly Pharisaical manner. We go up into the temple to pray; we stand and pray thus with ourselves: “God I thank thee that I am not as other men are, proud of my own righteousness, uncharitable toward publicans, or even as this—Pharisee.”
What we need to realize after hearing this parable is that the thing that makes the difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is the One telling the parable. When the tax collector beat his breast and cried out to God for mercy, he was really asking God to give him an atoning sacrifice for his sin. The Savior of the parable was heading to the cross to lay down his life for the filthy, morally bankrupt, religiously void tax collector so that he might justify him by faith alone. This is what distinguishes between one who is saved and one who perishes.
This article originally appeared here.