The Pharisee and the Tax Collector


Scripture: Luke 18:1-17
Guest Speaker: Robert Kingdon


Earlier we read from the Scriptures two parables of Jesus and one incident from which Jesus teaches. What a superb communicator Jesus is! The characters and story lines in his parables are true to life. They are easy for all to understand, and yet so profound! In the parable of the Unjust Judge, we have a powerful judge abusing his authority. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector we have a celebrity Pharisee abusing his position. And in the situation of the children coming to Jesus, we have his disciples, too, abusing their authority.

Would that the powerless could get justice easily! Would that children were given more honour and respect! Would that going to the house of God became easier for outsiders! “Fat chance of any of that happening!’, you might think! Where man is in charge – maybe. But in the Kingdom of God, where Jesus is in charge, it’s the new normal.

I would like us to consider the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector this morning. This familiar parable may sit easily with us, but consider how offensive it would have been to those who heard it originally. The Tax Collector was a renegade Jew who had sold his soul to the hated Roman Occupation for money. Perhaps his past was such that he could not earn an honest living: maybe he was up his neck in debt: maybe he just had a chip on his shoulder. Well might he come up to the temple – to get his come-uppance! But to come out of the story as the good guy, while the celebrity is castigated, would have been shocking to the listeners.

So both characters come up to the temple, both pray and both go down again. There the similarities end.

1. The Pharisee’s Prayer

Was not his a very strange prayer? He prays about himself, or to himself.
(a) The prayer is all about me, me, look at me!

(b) He has the highest views of himself, but low views of God. Almost, it seems, God is an equal.

(c) He says, “I thank you”, but it’s really a pretext for saying, “look at my unblemished character! No other man can better it”.

He lists his virtues.
(d) “I am not an adulterer”. Maybe not, but I wonder. Jesus talked about his era being a “wicked, an evil, and a sinful, adulterous generation.” (Matthew 12:39, 16:4, Mark 8:38) Jesus took a hard line on divorce. The Pharisees, for whom Moses’ law, they thought, made it easy, confronted Jesus on this point. (Matthew 19:7, Mark 10:4) Really their easy divorce system was just legalised adultery.

(e) “I am not a robber”. Again, maybe not. But Jesus tells us that Pharisees robbed even their own parents, giving what was due to them to the temple instead (Mark 7:5-13) and that (Mark 12:40) “they devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”

(f) “I am not an evildoer.” I am confident of my own righteousness (verse 9). I can safely despise and look down on everybody else (verse 9).

(g) And I am not “even like this tax collector”, who was certainly within sight, even if not close by. It seems that he considered the tax collector to be worse than a robber, an evildoer and an adulterer. Would God listen to his prayers? Fat chance!

(h) He proves his character by his works. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth / tithe of all I get.”

I suspect that he had not read Isaiah 58 in his morning quiet time, where God says:
‘Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter
when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?’
(Isaiah 58:5-7)

In the same vein, Jesus says, concerning tithing, “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42)

So much for the Pharisee.

2. The Tax Collector’s prayer

How different is the Tax Collector! His prayer certainly wasn’t pretty.
But let’s look at the other contrasts:

(a) The Pharisee prays to himself, the tax collector prays to God.

(b) The Pharisee stands up and stands near, the Tax Collector stands at a distance.

(c) The Pharisee preens his breast, the Tax Collector beats his breast.

(d) The Pharisee give thanks, the Tax Collector pleads for mercy.

(e) The Pharisee compares himself to others, the Tax Collector says, “I am a sinner”.

(f) The Pharisee lists his virtues, the Tax Collector claims no virtues.

(g) The Pharisee looks down on the Tax Collector, the Tax Collector does not even look up.

(h) The Pharisee asks for nothing, the Tax Collector asks only for mercy.

(i) The Pharisee is self-sufficient, the Tax Collector is utterly deficient.

(j) The Pharisee needs no mercy, the Tax Collector needs nothing but mercy.

(k) The Pharisee thinks he is not a sinner, the Tax Collector thinks he is a total sinner.

(l) The Pharisee is full of himself, the Tax collector is utterly empty.

Why does the Tax Collector pray as he does? His body language tells us much. Let’s not forget that this drama takes place in God’s house, the house of prayer for all nations. (Isaiah 56:7)

Why has the Tax Collector come at all? Is it because he knows he is not right with God, and yet he wants to be? So why does he stand at a distance? Is it because he feels his separation from God?

And why does he not look up? Is it because he feels guilty and ashamed? Why does he beat his breast? On the other occasions when Scripture records people beating their breasts, three Old Testament passages refer to impending disaster and destruction (Isaiah 32:12, Ezekiel 21:12, Nahum 2:7), and one to shame and repentance (Jeremiah 31:19).

The New Testament reference to the beating of breasts is probably more familiar. After Jesus died on the cross, the hostile crowd that witnessed it “beat their breasts and went away.” (Luke 23:48) Those, who hours earlier had “cried out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” (Luke 23:18) and “kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21), had experienced the “darkness [that] came over the whole land from the sixth hour until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining.” (Luke 23:44-45). They had seen Jesus die, felt the earthquake and were terrified. (Matthew 27:51, 54).

Things had not worked out as they expected and my guess is that they felt guilty and in imminent danger of God’s anger. Maybe some of them were at Pentecost, a few weeks later, who “were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts2:37).

If the Tax Collector’s body language expresses guilt, shame, terror, impending disaster, God’s imminent anger about to break upon him, and repentance, then it follows that his prayer language would be the seven simple words, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Luke 18:13)

As I understand, a more accurate translation would be; “God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” He is not standing as part of a group, but alone, and wholly responsible for his sin before an angry God. He is in the dock, guilty, before God the judge. He is expecting the sentence of death to be pronounced.

But listen to Jesus: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified [that is, declared righteous] before God.”

This man, the very one upon whom the Pharisee had looked down on as this Tax collector. How can this be!


As we consider the application of this parable to ourselves, I think we need to address an elephantine error of our generation. We minimise the ugliness, the awfulness, the destructive power and the stench of sin. When we sang earlier, “Foul, I to the fountain fly”, the Praise! Hymn Book had revised it to, “Stained by sin, to you I fly”. It’s not as if “foul” is old-fashioned English and needs updating. I fear it’s more a case of, “we’re modern middle-class British Christians. We’re not foul and we never have been!”. Or whatever. “Stained by sin” – that’s nothing that some Dettol or Swarfega couldn’t sort out. Even my hands, as you all know, are stained by soil. But even my wife doesn’t think they are foul.

Consider that first sin of Adam and Eve. It caused universal chaos and dislocation. They were thrown out of paradise and started on that hard, cursed, existence that we all experience today. Sin passed to all men and all sinned. (Romans 5:12. It became so toxic that God had to send the flood make a new start.

Sin’s devastation is all around us today. Only massive doses of God’s common grace keeping the lid on it make life on earth possible today. As far as I can see, the only reason I’m not another Hitler or mass murderer or such, is circumstances and the lack of opportunity: and God’s gracious restraint. I have it within me to become another Chernobyl.

And then consider that the only remedy for sin could only be found by the death of God’s son. Is sin really something we dare minimise and trivialise? Or do we allow the world to squeeze us into its mould? (Romans 12:2) Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

Young people: the longer you linger in the path of sin, the more you will be hardened by its deceitfulness. Choose now whom you will serve: sin which leads to death, or Christ, the author of life. Come to Christ, the Rock of Ages, now, while you are young.

The tax collector was not minimising or trivialising his sin. He knew he was not just “stained by sin” – he was foul in God’s sight. He answers to the Lord’s description of the work of the Holy Spirit, who, “When he comes, [he] will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment:” (John 16:8)

He knows his sin: he pleads guilty. As for righteousness, he has none. He is terrified of the imminent judgement. “God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” The fire of God’s word has caused the wooden block to burn. The hammer of God’s word has broken the rock in pieces. (Jeremiah 23:29)

So “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” (v14) His sin: the record is wiped clean. His lack of righteousness: he is declared by the judge to be righteous – justified. His terror of judgement: gone – he has past from death to life. (I John 3:14) This man went home! And so must each of us do, if we are to be made right with God.

We have just sung from Psalm 28:1-3
To you I call, O LORD my Rock; Do not be deaf to my loud cry.
I’ll be like those gone down to death, if you are silent in reply.
Receive my plea for mercy, LORD, as now I call to you for grace,
As I lift up my hands in prayer and look to your Most Holy Place.

Earlier we sang from the hymn: Rock of Ages
Nothing in my hand I bring, 
simply to your cross I cling;
naked, come to you for dress, 
helpless, look to you for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly:
‘Wash me, Saviour, or I die!’

That’s how we must come if we would be right with God – made righteous.
Then, as we will sing shortly from the end of Psalm 28:6-7:
Praise to the LORD, for he has heard the plea for mercy which I made.
He is my strength, he is my shield; I trust in him who sends me aid.
My heart uplifted leaps for joy; My thanks to him I gladly sing.

There are three similar characters did just as the Tax Collector. And they, too, were all outcasts of their day.
1. The man we call Legion, so wild that none could tame him, from whom Jesus cast out many demons. He became the first evangelist – “go home and tell your friends”.
2. The repenting thief on the cross, punished for his crimes justly. “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43). Arguably the first person to trust in Jesus and get to heaven.
3. Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus had driven seven demons: the first witness to the risen Jesus. (Mark 16:9)

Lasts who became firsts! Losers who became winners! What a Saviour we have: not willing that any should perish!

Now we come to the hard part: what about the Pharisee? If, like me, you have been going to church regularly for decades, in my case 60 years, we should examine ourselves to see that we have not gradually become like the Pharisee. Let’s remember that Jesus, who tells the parable, is not only the Wonderful Saviour of today, but also the judge on the coming Day of Judgement. The punch-line of the parable – “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – is much more than wise, moral advice.

It is clear that it is the Tax Collector has humbled himself, throwing himself on the mercy of Jesus the judge, and has been exalted – declared righteous, justified. And that the Pharisee has exalted himself. But when, and how, will he be humbled? In this life? Possibly. Many are the bright stars and celebrities of yesterday who are today’s nobodies. Surely Jesus has in mind the great Day of Judgement when the books will be opened and the secrets of every heart will be revealed: ‘when I soar through realms unknown,
bow before your judgement throne.’

Jesus tells us what the Pharisees are really like: “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them `Rabbi.’ (Mark 23:5-7)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. They are lovers of money.” (Luke 16:14)

We sang of their fate at the Day of judgement earlier in Psalm 28:3-5;
O drag me not away with those who practise wickedness and sin,
Who kindly to their neighbours speak but harbour malice deep within.
Repay them for their evil deeds and for their acts of wickedness;
Bring back on them what they deserve and punish their unrighteousness.
Because the LORD’s works they despise and treat his actions with disdain,
In justice he will tear them down and never build them up again.

Let us heed these awful words: Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’
Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
(Matthew 7:21-24)

Let us build on, and shelter in, that Rock of Ages.