The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ ”But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
When was the last time you thanked God that you were not like a family member, a neighbor, your boss, your co-worker, the person you sit behind in church, a celebrity or politician, and so forth? Our “thanksgiving” list could go on and on, because we can always find someone we can compare ourselves to and feel much better about ourselves.
The question that should be asked about the Pharisee is, “Why do you think he didn’t compare himself with the patriarchs of the faith—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—rather than a tax collector, a man who was despised by society?” The answer, of course, is that he knew he would come out on top and thus feel better about himself.
So . . . let me ask you: do you ever make a comparison like the Pharisee’s?
- Thank God I’m not like David . . . an adulterous murderer
- Thank God I’m not like Jonah . . . running away from his calling
- Thank God I’m not like Rahab . . . an immoral outcast
- Thank God I’m not like Zacchaeus . . . dishonest and despised by his own people
- Thank God I’m not like Martha . . . not knowing when to exchange work for worship
- Thank God I’m not like Thomas . . . who doubted the resurrection
- Thank God I’m not like Peter . . . he denied Jesus three times!
Shortly after I first trusted in Christ as my Savior, I read the Bible’s account of King David and found myself angry and confused. I talked frankly to a spiritual mentor about what I was feeling. The Bible describes David as “a man after God’s own heart,” yet he committed adultery with Bathsheba and later ordered her husband to be killed! Why on earth, I wondered, was this man regarded so highly by sacred Scripture?
I’ll never forget my mentor’s response: “The problem with you, Tommy, is you don’t see yourself as being as bad as David!” He was right; I didn’t. And why would I? I hadn’t committed adultery or murder. My mentor continued, “Until you see yourself as being like David and every other sinner in the Bible, the truths of the Gospel will never fully free you.” Once again, he was right! It wasn’t until I saw David’s story as my story that the Gospel began to take root and return a harvest of unshakable peace and unspeakable joy.
The truth is that we are all great sinners in need of an even greater Savior. The story of the sinners in the Scriptures is your story and mine. Their stories are simply mirrors into which we are able to see ourselves for what we truly are. At the deepest level of understanding sin, we must confess that we have committed them all. We have all committed adultery and murder. Perhaps you doubt me on this? Let me take a just a moment to convince you, using our Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell . . . You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28)
Man or woman reading this, would you really stand before God and claim that you had never been angry with someone? Really? You’ve never called someone a fool (or perhaps much worse) to their face or behind their back? And if you’ve passed puberty, would you claim before the all-seeing, all-knowing God that you have never—not once—taken a lustful look?
There is only one perfect Man who has walked this earth; the rest of us have long since forfeited any false hope of achieving sinless perfection. And perfection is what God’s law requires! The demands of God’s perfect justice are inflexible:
All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:10)
Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10)
Whether by revelation or by intuition, we know that we are not fit to stand in the presence of holy God. And so we have spent a lifetime running from God, making silly excuses to ourselves like, “Well, at least I’m not as messed up as _______!” And, along the way, we have both betrayed and denied Jesus. You still insist you haven’t committed adultery? Is there a Christian reading this who has not confused the worship of work with the worship of our Lord and Savior at one time or another? Have you really kept God’s command to love Him with all your heart and soul and mind and strength? Or has there been a time when you loved something or someone else more?
Instead of thanking God that we are not like others, we should acknowledge that we are far worse! Like Paul, we should see ourselves as the worst of sinners. Yet in spite of our sinful condition, God in Christ has set His saving grace upon us. With the assurance of the love of Christ we no longer have to compare and contrast ourselves with others. We no longer have to be slaves to self-deceit. We are unconditionally loved and completely forgiven . . . and God did this while we were just like every other person we meet in the Bible (except Jesus): we are sinners in need of a Savior.
And praise be to God! He sent that Savior to redeem you and me.
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!