The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (also called the publican) is a surprising story full of plot twists and rich spiritual truths. The meaning of Luke 18:9-14 is one that we shouldn’t ignore.
The problem is we often miss the shocking nature of this parable because it’s become so commonplace. We tend to immediately associate the Pharisees with self-righteous hypocrites and tax collectors as the model of righteous.
But in Jesus’ day it was reversed. It was the Pharisees who were the models of righteous and the tax collectors who epitomized sinners. When Jesus told this parable it was a shock to his audience and surely made a lasting impact.
Let’s take a fresh look at the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and see how the Luke 18:9-14 meaning applies to our life today.
The Parable Of The Pharisee And The Tax Collector
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a parable of two contrasting prayers from two very different people.
Luke tells us up front: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.” This parable is about pride and humility.
Now, the audience is likely expecting the Pharisee to be the prime example of what we would look like. After all, no one expected the low-life tax collector who betrayed his own people for money to be the prime example to follow.
But Jesus is about to shock his audience.
The Pharisee’s Prayer
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Luke 18:10-12
Look at this prayer that the Pharisee prayed, who’s he praying to? He’s not praying to God, he’s praying to himself.
The Pharisees considered themselves worthy of God’s grace based off their religious performance. They thought they earned the right to demean others and make demands. And this prayer shows this self-righteous attitude.
In Luke 18:11 he’s demeaning others so that he can elevate himself. Even going so far to point out a particular person around him, the tax collector. He thinks he’s better than them.
In the next verse he reports all the wonderful things he does. He fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets. He’s showing off, bragging.
The Old Testament Law only required a fast once a year. But the Pharisees fasted twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. But really this is just a ploy to attract attention to themselves. These were the days the market convened and many people came to town. They were just showing off. And the Pharisee in this parable is proud of his religious piousness.
His entire prayer centers around how great he is and how terrible everyone else is, especially the tax collector.
If you count it up he uses the pronoun “I” five times in this prayer. His prayer is all about himself.
The Tax Collector’s Prayer
Nobody in Jesus’ day would expect a tax collector to be the example for anything good. They were considered the lowest of the low.
When the Romans invaded they set up a tax collecting system that leveraged Jews to collect taxes on their own people. The deal was you sent Rome their tax and then you were allowed to keep an additional amount you chose to collect. This lead to tax collectors getting rich by effectively stealing from their own people. To say they were hated is too mild.
But Jesus flips the script. Look at the tax collectors prayer: “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.” Luke 18:13
His prayer is a stark contrast from the Pharisee’s prayer. He stands at a distance and refuses to assume the normal posture of prayer of looking to heaven, as the Pharisee did. The tax collector recognizes his unworthiness and is like a child who knows he’s in trouble and refuses to look his parents in the eyes.
While the Pharisee used his prayer to beat down others, the tax collector beats his own chest, further showing that he understands his own sinfulness.
And when the tax collector prays he doesn’t pray to himself, he prays to God. It’s a simple prayer in which he recognizes his only hope is for God to save him.
The Pharisee used his prayer to elevate himself as the righteous. The tax collector used his prayer to elevate himself as the sinner.
Tom Constable sums up the two prayers this way: “He did not boast of his own righteousness but pled with God for mercy acknowledging his sin. He used God as the standard of righteousness and confessed that he fell short. He knew that his only hope was God’s mercy. The Pharisee felt no need and voiced no petition, whereas the publican felt nothing but need and voiced only petition.”
The Meaning Of Luke 18:9-14
Now that we’ve looked at the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, let’s look at what the meaning of Luke 18:9-14 is for us today.
In the last verse of this parable Jesus tells us what the application is: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:14
Ironically both men got what they prayed for. The tax collector humbly asked for mercy, and he received it. The Pharisee asked for nothing because he thought that he already had it all, and he received nothing.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector shows us whose prayers God respects. It’s not those who appear righteous and exalt themselves, but rather those who humble themselves because they see how sinful they really are.
The reversal of this story doesn’t seem shocking to us today as it would have for Jesus’ audience. But it should, at least a little bit.
We like to point the finger at the Pharisee, but the reality is we probably have a little of his attitude in our hearts as well. And this parable should cause us to pause and reflect, who are we more like?
Who Do You Relate To?
We have a tendency to think higher of ourselves than we ought to. We see ourselves through rose-colored glasses. But the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector forces us to take off those glasses and see who we really are.
So, who are you more like? The Pharisee and his pride or the tax collector and his humility?
The Pharisee’s Pride
The Pharisee’s prayer is all about himself. His pride oozes out of his prayer. It’s plain to see that the only one he cares about is himself.
And he gets exactly what he asks for. NOTHING.
Look at your prayers. Who are they about? Who are they to? Maybe they aren’t as obviously prideful as the Pharisee’s obnoxious prayer, but what are they centered around?
I find in my life that my prayers drift towards myself if I’m not careful. I naturally head towards pride if I don’t set the course for humility.
How about for you? Is there pride seeping into your prayers?
The Tax Collector’s Humility
The tax collector in contrast understood his sinfulness and unworthiness. He understood that on his own he had no hope.
The irony of the story is the Pharisee was in the same boat. While he might look good on the outside he was just as sinful on the inside (Matthew 23:25). He needed mercy too. But he couldn’t get past his pride to see his need.
We all need God’s mercy and grace. But unless we humble ourselves we will never see it OR receive it.
Rather than justifying our sin and comparing ourselves to others we need to come to God with humility. And when we do that God will not just forgive us he will exalt us.
So, one final time. Who do you relate to? The meaning of Luke 18:9-14 asks us this questions. Spend some time thinking about how you can take the tax collector’s posture and rid yourself of the Pharisee’s pride.
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