Thank God I'm Not Like That Pharisee!

"The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican"
by James I. Tissot
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“[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” is one of the simplest of Jesus’ parables. Two men go to the temple to pray. One brings before the Lord his own good works. The other has nothing to bring but a cry for mercy. Only one goes home justified.
But this parable is perhaps so familiar that its edge is dull and it has lost the shock of God’s grace and the surprise of the Gospel. Our minds think of the characters differently than those to whom Jesus first spoke it. So, I’d like to change it just a little to see if we can’t recover some of its original bite.
Instead of having the two guys go to the temple, let’s have them come to your house to pick up your daughter for a date. Having three beautiful daughters, who were at one time teenagers, this is a scenario quite familiar to me. But since some of them are sitting in the pews, let me add a disclaimer: This illustration is fictional. Any resemblance to actual events or persons is entirely coincidental.
The first guy who knocks at your door is well-dressed. He has a good and stable job, plenty of money, and is well-respected in the community. But even more, he’s that guy you’ve been hoping would come around. He goes to church every week, reads his Bible daily, prays, fasts, and lives by the rules. His answer to the “tell me a little bit about yourself” question is all the things you want to hear. He’s not like the other guys, thank God. He’s a gentleman. You’re not going to have to worry at all about your daughter being in this man’s care. And as your daughter walks out the door, you tell her, “Be nice to this guy,” and as soon as the door shuts, you start calling around to price caterers for the wedding.
The next night the second guy comes knocking. You know this guy. He’s been in a lot of trouble. Runs with the wrong crowd. He’s the guy you’ve been warning your daughter about all of her life. If you had known this guy was coming, you would have made sure you were cleaning your shotgun when he came in through the door. There’s no way you’d let your daughter go out with someone like him. Still, he’s got gumption. He doesn’t leave right away, but starts admitting all the things that he’s done wrong, and he tells you that he is trying to turn a new leaf. As if one little apology could make up for a lifetime of bad decisions!
These are the two guys Jesus is talking about. One looks holy, righteous, good. He comes from a good family, is well-respected in the community, very active in the church. The other is a low-life hoodlum.
And if they were to both die on the way home that night, the golden boy would enter the endless torment of hell and the ne’er-do-well would be carried by the angels to the face of Jesus. Something about that doesn’t seem right, does it?
Kenneth Bailey writes:
The more familiar a parable, the more it cries out to be rescued from the barnacles that have attached themselves to it over the centuries. In the popular mind, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a simple story about prayer. One prays an arrogant prayer and is blamed for his attitudes. The other prays humbly and is praised for so doing. Too often the unconscious response becomes, “Thank God, [I’m] not like that Pharisee!” But such a reaction demonstrates we are indeed like him![i]
So how can this parable best be understood? Is it strictly about styles of prayer? Is it about the difference between a “bad guy” and a “good guy”? No doubt both of these elements are at play here, but Luke tells us right up front that the main focus is righteousness and those who believe they can reach such righteousness by their own efforts. “[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (18:9).
What does it mean to be a righteous person? In the Greek world “righteous” was a general term that applied to a person who was civilized and who observed custom and legal norms. Generally speaking, these meanings have placed their stamp on the popular understanding of a “righteous person” even today. But the New Testament’s roots are in the Old Testament where righteousness is more concerned with relationships than actions. The righteous person is not the one who observes a particular code of ethics but rather a person graciously granted a special relationship of acceptance in the presence of God.
Again and again in His teaching, Jesus presents the theme of the “righteous,” who do not sense their need for God’s grace, and the “sinners” who yearn for that same grace. Sin for Jesus is not primarily a broken law, but a broken relationship. The tax collector yearns to accept the gift of God’s justification, while the Pharisee feels he has already earned it. But God does not grade on a curve or give extra credit. His only accepted standard is perfect righteousness. And ever since the Fall, there’s only been one such person: The God-man who tells this parable.
Now, that you’ve gotten a better sense of how shocking this scenario would have been to its original audience, let’s return to Jesus’ parable.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray.” In English, we commonly use the word pray to refer to private devotion and the word worship to refer to what a community does together. In Semitic speech, “to pray” is used for both. On Sundays, the Christian in the Arab world says to his friend, “I’m going to church to pray,” and the friend knows the speaker is on his way to public worship.
In the parable a place of worship is mentioned specifically, and the two men are on their way to pray at the same time, so it is reasonable to assume it takes place during a time of public worship. Since the Sabbath is not mentioned it is likely that this takes place during the week. The only daily services in the temple area were the atonement offerings that took place at dawn and again at 3:00 p.m.
Each service began outside the sanctuary with the sacrifice for the sins of Israel of a lamb whose blood was sprinkled on the altar. In the middle of the prayers there would be the sound of silver trumpets, the clanging of cymbals, and the reading of a psalm. The officiating priest would then enter the outer part of the sanctuary where he would offer incense and trim the lamps. When he disappeared into the building, the worshipers would offer their private prayers to God.
The Pharisee stands by himself and prays. He stands by himself because he is a Pharisee, a name which comes from the Hebrew word for “separated.” The Pharisees stressed keeping God’s Law and their traditions, and put great emphasis on observing such rituals as washing, tithing, and fasting. They also separated themselves from non-Pharisees because they did not wish to become unclean.
Because he stands by himself he may well be praying aloud. Such a voiced prayer would provide a golden opportunity to offer some unsolicited ethical advice to the “unrighteous” around him who might not have another opportunity to observe a man of his impressive piety! Most of us in our spiritual journeys have, at some time or other, listened to a sermon hidden in a prayer. Regrettably, some of us, present company included, have “preached” that kind of prayer.
The Pharisee’s prayer begins, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men…” But is what follows really a prayer? It’s neither a confession of sin, thanksgiving, or a petition for oneself or others. Rather than comparing himself to God’s expectations, he compares himself to others, enumerating his own accomplishments: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
The Pharisees thought of the Law as a garden of flowers. To protect the garden and the flowers, they opted to build a fence around the Law. That is, they felt obliged to go beyond the requirements of the Law in order to assure that no part of it was violated. Without a fence around the garden someone just might step on one of the flowers.
The written Law only required fasting on the annual Day of Atonement. The Pharisees, however, chose to fast two days before and two days after each of the three major feasts. But this overachiever announces to God that he puts a fence around the fence! He fasts two days every week. The faithful in the Old Testament were only commanded to tithe their grain, oil, and wine. But this Pharisee makes no exceptions, claiming simply, “I give tithes of all that I get.” Surely those listening would be impressed by such a high standard of righteousness.
And the tax collector? Sensing his defiled ceremonial status, the tax collector chooses to stand apart from the other worshipers in order to pray. The accepted posture for prayer in the temple was to look down and keep one’s arms crossed over the chest, like a slave before his master. But the tax collector is so distraught over his sins that he beats his chest where his heart is located. In the Middle East, generally speaking, only women beat their chests; men do not. Occasionally, women at particularly tragic funerals beat their chests.
In the Bible, the only other case of people beating their chests is at the cross when the crowds (presumably both men and women), deeply disturbed at what had taken place, beat their chests just after Jesus died (Luke 23:48). If it requires a scene as distressing as the crucifixion of Jesus to cause both men and women to beat their chests, then clearly the tax collector of this parable is deeply distraught!
And notice what the tax collector says as he engages in this extraordinary act. Most English translations render his prayer with the words: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” But this text does not use the common Greek word for “mercy.” Instead, it uses a theological term that means “to make atonement.” A more literal rendering of his prayer would be, “O God, make atonement for me.”
Not only that: Remember where this takes place—in front of the altar in the temple courtyard. The tax collector listens to the blowing of the trumpets and the clash of cymbals, hears the reading of the psalm, and watches blood splashed on the sides of the altar. He sees the priest disappear inside the temple to offer incense before God. Shortly afterward, the priest reappears announcing that the sacrifice has been accepted and the sins of Israel’s people have been atoned. The trumpets blow again, and the incense wafts to heaven. The great choir sings, and the tax collector, beats his chest and cries out, “O God, make atonement for me, a sinner!”
Jesus declares, “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”
Whenever I hear this parable, my initial reaction is “Thank God, I’m not like that Pharisee!” But such a statement proves that I am just like him. You are, too! There’s a Pharisee inside of each of us. Old Adam, is at the core, proud and self-righteous. By nature, you’re tempted to believe that God loves you because of something about you. If you’re attractive, you’re happy that you’re better looking than others. If you’re smart, you’re happy that you’re smarter. If you’re a hard worker, you’re happy that you’re not a slacker like so many are today.
That is simply how the sinful nature makes you think: you measure yourself by how you’re better than others. You find your worth in what you’ve got that others don’t. It can be a subtle form of contempt, but it is contempt all the same. And if that is how you think, then that is how you present yourself to God: “God, I’m happy that I’m not like those other people.” And there you go, sounding just like the Pharisee. But the truth is this: standing before God is a great leveler. No matter the amount of giftedness, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Your worth, your value before God does not come from who you are, but whose you are. Your worth before God does not come from yourself, but from the truth that you have been bought by the blood of Christ, crucified and raised for you.
And so you can gratefully confess: “Thank God, I’m not like that Pharisee! Oh, I’ve sinned like him, that is sure. I’ve looked down on others and held my self-righteousness before God. But like the tax collector, I confess that I am a poor, miserable sinner who has offended God with my sins and justly deserves His temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ For the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter suffering and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”
Upon this your confession, God’s called and ordained servant announces God’s grace unto you. In Baptism, you were clothed with Christ’s righteousness, adopted as a child of God, and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The bread and wine given to you at this altar are Christ’s very body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.  
You go home justified. Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy on you and has given His only Son to die for you. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, 343 (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008).


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