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The Pharisee and the tax collector (Summer Encounter 2011)

These are my notes from the talks at Summer Encounter, the annual conference of CMS in South Australia.

Dr David Williams is the head of development and training in CMS. His talks covered the three parables in Luke 18:1-30.

2. The Pharisee and the tax collector

It’s easy for us to think that this parable (Luke 18:9-14) is simply about who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong. As with the previous parable, this is a shocking tale of status reversal. It’s about who has the position of honour and who has the position of shame.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone 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 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.’ 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 all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The context of the story is the Jerusalem temple, a place of prayer. The temple is the religious centre of Judaism, where sin is dealt with. Yet it’s also the cultural centre of Jewish society, clearly expressed in the temple boundaries: Jews are allowed inside, Gentiles are kept outside, males are up the front, females are up the back. It’s like the way a mosque reveals both Islamic religion and Islamic culture.

And in both the cultural dimension and the religious dimension, the Pharisee clearly feels at home, while the tax collector feels alienated. The tax collector is on dangerous ground: he’s a corrupt extorter of Jews, a collaborator under the authority of the Roman occupiers, working against his own countrymen. The Pharisee is out the front praying confidently and visibly, while the tax collector is far off praying in desperation and in hiding.

It’s easy for us to think of the Pharisee as a legalist, someone trying to earn his way to God via good works. Not so. He’s someone who believes that he’s a child of the covenant by birthright, one of God’s children. This is the sense in which he is ‘confident in his own righteousness’ — not his own works, but his status as a child of the covenant. This is why he thinks that he belongs here. In contrast, the tax collector is a man with downcast eyes beating his breast. He’s not trying to gain attention, but is genuinely distressed, feeling abandoned. He does not belong here. His prayer is literally ‘Be propitious to me / make propitiation for me’ — he throws himself on God’s mercy as a bankrupt sinner, seeking rescue.

The whole point of the temple is sacrifice, dealing with the sin of God’s people. The people’s sin must be dealt with in order that God’s wrath won’t destroy them. This idea of ritual cleanness and uncleanness is central to coming before God.

For us, dirt is about hygiene and bacteria; something can look clean but be dirty. But in other cultures, this is simply not the case. Mary Douglas, anthropologist: ‘Dirt is matter out of place.’ Something can be clean in one place (shoes are not dirty in and of themselves) but dirty in another (shoes on the dining table are dirty). Food on my plate is clean, but food on my shirt is dirty. My bedroom and my son’s bedroom both contain clothes, but one is messy (clothes on floor) and the other is not (clothes packed away). Cultures all have taboos and understandings about dirt as matter out of place.

In the Old Testament purity laws, uncleanness (menstruation, ejaculation, etc) is all about matter out of place. The purity rituals are to enable the unclean to become clean again — and all of this is intended to be symbolic of our need for cleanness before God. So the temple stands at the heart of coming before God.

The Pharisee is confident that he is clean — he is in the heart of the temple believing that he is not out of place. But the tax collector knows that he is dirty, and that he is dirt — he has no place here, he is matter out of place.

This is why verse 14 is so stunning: ‘It is this man, the tax collector, who went down to his house justified. Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled; everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Imagine a British royal function in which a grubby street child is seated first, in prime place, while the royals are left outside in the yard — that’s what this is like! In the world’s eyes, the tax collector is a disgrace who shouldn’t even have made it as far as he did in the temple, but in God’s eyes, he’s honoured.

How is this reversal possible? Well, the Pharisee has forgotten the ancient truth: it is only by atoning sacrifice that we can come before God. This truth is embodied in the very temple structure itself — the whole point of the temple is for filthy people to be washed clean! For the Pharisee to come as he does is actually undermining the whole point of the temple. The Pharisee’s attitude is like going into a hospital ER and boasting that you don’t have a broken leg! Of course, that’s not the point of an ER. Yet the tax collector has stumbled on truth: he has come seeking propitiation in the place that it’s actually available.

The question: which of the two hearts do we have?

6 key lessons on heart health

1. We must see ourselves as God sees us. The tax collector comes acknowledging that he is dirt, yet he is honoured! So too us: we are dirt before God, and yet we’ve been clothed with righteousness in Christ. We can only acknowledge God’s grace and righteousness if we’re aware of our sin.

2. We must not see ourselves as the world sees us: as good people. For those of us who are leaders in our Christian communities, others typically perceive us as powerful and attractive, and we are easily deceived. Our righteous deeds are like filthy rags. It is only the grace of God, the propitious work of Christ on the cross, that brings us into relationship with God.

3. Don’t treat Jesus like the Pharisee treated the temple. For all the Pharisee’s assurance, he forgot the whole point of the temple. Meanwhile, the tax collector has miraculously stumbled on the true meaning of the temple, which is the meaning of Jesus for us: he came to give his life as a ransom for many. It’s easy for us to talk incessantly about Jesus yet make Jesus a source of boastful pride. Where is my trust and confidence? Well, how do I know I’m a Christian? It’s easy for me to answer that with a list of all the things I’ve done: ‘I’m David Williams, I became a Christian in 1983, I was a missionary in Kenya for 9 years, and now I train missionaries.’ No — those righteous deeds are like filthy rags. That’s a Pharisee heart. The only basis of confidence is the cross of Christ.

4. Don’t allow God’s means of grace to become a source of pride. One of the stunning things about this Pharisee is that he boasts in God’s gifts as if they’re his own achievements. Yet these gifts — prayer, reading, fasting, tithing — are all given by God with the intent of creating in his people a dependence on God. They’re meant to turn us to God.

5. Confess your sin. A generation before David Williams, new Christian disciples were taught to kneel by their beds at the end of each day, think over the day’s sins, and commit them to God. We’ve lost that discipline. Do you regularly, honestly, wholeheartedly bring your sins to God? Do you have an accountability partner? And why not? We’re afraid of what people might think — and that’s a Pharisee heart. Consider the ways that we introduce confession in our local churches: ‘Think back over the last week and what you’ve done wrong, we’ll take a moment, and then we’ll confess to God.’ This betrays an awfully light view of sin when everything about me is matter out of place, in need of propitiation. We need the righteousness of Christ.

6. Have no contempt. This is a diagnostic question: if you treat others with contempt, you are inherently trusting in your own righteousness. Where do you show contempt? In social status? In Christian maturity? In theological purity? Some diagnostic questions: Would you prepare your sermon more thoroughly if you knew that John Piper would be listening? Would you put more effort into an adult Bible study than into a children’s Sunday School class when know one else what you’re saying? If so, you’re treating others with contempt — a Pharisee heart. Yet the tax collector throws himself on the mercy of God — and we’re not to give honour to the honourable but to the repentant. The riches of the gospel is that though we are matter out of place, God clothes us with grace.

Categories: Written by Arthur

Tagged as:

Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

1 reply

  1. Good stuff. Thanks for putting it up.

    (Btw, you have a typo in the last paragraph
    “school class when know one knows else”

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