Luke 18:9–14: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Another fairly short section, so no sense doing the usual “Passage” and “Thoughts” demarcation—this is all “Thoughts.” The passage itself can be read quickly on its own.
The very first line of this section, before it even gets into the parable, is pretty biting commentary:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt (verse 9)
As usual, it’s very easy to read this and think highly of ourselves in comparison to the Pharisees and other religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but we shouldn’t fall into that trap, on either of these points:
- We ourselves often trust in ourselves instead of in God. It doesn’t matter that we have passages exactly like this one in front of us, as warnings about how we should (and shouldn’t) think, we still do it anyway.
- We ourselves treat others with contempt any chance we get. Most of us don’t have the same kind of power that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had, so we don’t get to do this as often as our sinful hearts would like, but woe to anyone who comes across our paths when we do have the opportunity to treat them with contempt!
It’s not wrong to see these words as being aimed at a group of people—the passage specifically says that Jesus is talking to “some” who are like this—but if we don’t also extend it as a warning to ourselves we’re not getting the full fruit out of Jesus’ words.
What’s interesting to me about the Pharisee’s prayer is how close it is to being true, righteous, God-honouring prayer:
“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.’” (verses 11–12, Jesus speaking)
I can easily see myself praying something very similar to what he prayed. (I don’t fast, though. Perhaps I should?) In fact, we have a very common saying in North America in the 21st Century: “There but for the Grace of God go I” (often shortened to just “There but for the Grace of God”), which can be meant in a very literal and God-oriented way, but can also be meant (and is often received) in a very demeaning, boastful manner. I don’t think the problem is so much what the Pharisee prayed, as it is why he prayed it and how he felt about himself as he did so, just like it’s not necessarily a problem to say “there but for the Grace of God go I,” but it often is.
The key to understanding this passage is the way it was introduced: Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Taken very literally, if I’m not “like other men,” if I’m not an extortioner, if I’m just, if I’m not an adulterer, if I fast properly… in other words, if I obey and follow God as I should, it would be wholly appropriate to thank God for making me that way. It would be wholly appropriate to recognize that, if these things are true about me, it’s because of His Grace, not because of anything in me, and it would be appropriate to thank Him for that. Just like it would be appropriate, when someone is in a bad situation, or living a bad life, to say, “there but for the Grace of God go I,” if I’m meaning this in a very literal sense: if it wasn’t for God’s Grace, I’d be just like that person. It would be appropriate for me to thank God for that (which, if I’m really doing it out of pure motivations, would also lead me to have a desire to help). It would be appropriate for the Pharisee to utter his prayer of thanks if he was actually doing it in thanks to God.
But again, Jesus is telling this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” The Pharisee is not giving thanks to God with this prayer, even though he claims to be. What he’s really doing is bragging to God (and, since he’s saying it out loud, to anyone else who’s listening in, too). What he’s really saying is, “I’m pretty good, eh God? Not like that guy, amiright?” Just like many of us in the 21st Century, when we say “there but for the Grace of God,” are really saying, “at least I’m doin’ better than that guy, amiright? I’m not like him!”
It makes sense to end with the tax collector’s words, which Jesus holds up as an example to us:
“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!’” (verse 13, Jesus speaking)
Again, if the Pharisee’s heart had matched his literal words, his prayer probably would have been acceptable to God; it is appropriate to thank God for our gifts, including the ways in which He has made us naturally inclined to obey Him. Those are gifts, and it’s good for us to recognize that. But the reality is that anyone praying along the lines of the Pharisee’s prayer—or most people saying “there but for the Grace of God go I” in the modern context—is probably not praying it literally, they’re probably praying it as a form of bragging to God. The one who prays like the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” is much more likely to be praying from a right heart.