Comments on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-gatherer
This parable is well known, but it is always good to take a fresh look at such passages.
Firstly, one would mention that the AV uses the term publican instead of tax-gatherer, but the more modern translations that one has looked at use either the term tax-gatherer or tax collector. Publican suggests a person who keeps a public house (or inn) whereas the real meaning of the word translated tax-gatherer is one who collected taxes for Rome. The tax-gatherers were disliked because they had the reputation of taking more than was due to enrich themselves (see Luke 3:12/13; 19:8) and also no doubt because they worked for Rome, the occupying power. In this connection it may be mentioned that one of Christ’s disciples had been a tax-gatherer, that is, Matthew (otherwise known as Levi) and one that had been a zealot, that is, Simon (Matthew 10:3; Luke 5:27; 6:15). This shows that Christ had amongst his disciples one who had been a collaborator with Rome and also one who would have opposed the payment of tribute to Rome. Naturally speaking they would have been at loggerheads, but being with Christ made them companions. For more detail on this matter see a Bible Dictionary.
It is noticeable that the first one to speak was the Pharisee. This was also true of the thieves on their crosses. It was the one that recognised Christ that spoke second (Luke 23:39-43). It is quite usual in Scripture for the wrong person or their line to be dealt with first. Consider Cain in Genesis 4, Ishmael in Genesis 25 and Esau in Genesis 36. In a wider context one would mention that the history of the Adam that failed is given to us first and then that of the second Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45-50). We should be careful about speaking first. There is a proverb that reads: “He that is first in his own cause [seemeth] just; but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him.” (Proverbs 18:17).
Now as to the specific statements of Christ in verse 9 it is to be noticed that He was speaking to some; he was not saying what He did to everyone. Persons are different. Not everyone is an open and profligate sinner. Scripture speaks of tax-gatherers and sinners (Luke 15:1). Sinners were treated as a certain class of persons, that is, persons who were known to be openly practising sin (Luke 7:37), so that Simon the Pharisee could say of the woman that came into his house: “She is a sinner” (verse 39). Christ later pointed out that she had committed many sins (verse 47). However, we must always remember that there is no man that doeth good and sinneth not (Ecclesiastes 7:20). This was, of course, before Christ came, for He was sinless (1 John 3:5). Some sins are worse than others, though we would have to rely on the Lord’s judgment usually to determine this. I once heard it said that the worst sin was unbelief. Why ? It will keep us out of heaven. The sin of the Jews was worse than that of Pilate because he did what he did under pressure. The Jews wanted to have Christ crucified (John 19:11). Some have committed more sins than others. The longer we have lived the more opportunity we have had to commit sins. No doubt, this is why those who went out of Christ’s presence in John 8:9 began with the older ones. Reverting to Christ’s word some, one would say that the attitude he condemned was no doubt prevalent among the Pharisees (see John 7:49); hence He speaks about a Pharisee. There may be something found with certain persons which does not apply to all. Paul speaks of such in 1 Corinthians 15:12.
Christ speaks to those who (1) trusted in themselves that they were righteous and (2) made nothing of all the rest [of men]. They were trusting in themselves and not in God. This is a serious thing to do. The wise man said: “ He that confideth in his own heart is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26). Again it is said; “ All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes” (Proverbs 16:2). What we need to do is to get God’s view of us as David said: “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23). Having wrong thoughts of ourselves results in wrong thoughts of others. Paul tells us that we should esteem others as more excellent than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). No doubt Paul was speaking here of Christians, but we also have such passages as: “Shew honour to all... honour the king” (1 Peter 2:17) and then we have Paul addressing Festus as “Most excellent Festus” (Acts 26:25). One wonders how many of us have wondered if others thoughts are really as bad as our own. A great man such as Elijah, who was with Christ on the mount of transfiguration, had to come to it that he was not better than his fathers (1 Kings 19:4).
When we come to the actual parable we find that the two men were doing the same thing, that is, going up to the temple to pray. Wasn’t that a good thing to do ? Peter and John did it in Acts 3:1 and they went together. The ones of whom Christ spoke would not have gone together, but they are shown to have been there at the same time, else why did the Pharisee refer to this tax-gatherer (verse 11).
As to the Pharisee’s prayer it did not have any real feeling in it. He simply addressed God as God, whereas the tax gatherer said O God. In the passage quoted above the Psalmist says O God (Psalm 139:23). The Pharisee did not address God as my God or our God. Although outwardly doing something right he was inwardly far from God, as Christ says elsewhere: “This people honour me with the lips, but their heart is far away from me” (Matthew 15:8). The passge in Isaiah to which Christ refers says also “draw near” (Isaiah 29:13). In contrast to the Pharisee the tax-gatherer stood afar off (verse 13). He did not take a prominent place.
Christ said as to the Pharisee that he prayed thus to himself (verse11). Such a prayer would not have reached God. He would not have had respect to it (Consider 1 Kings 8:28/29 and 9:3). Note: this was prayer in the temple that Solomon had built and which he was speaking of. In 2 Chronicles 30:27 we have it said: “Their voice was heard, and their prayer came up to his holy habitation, to the heavens”. The Pharisee had more to say than the tax-gatherer. Christ spoke at another time of those who as a pretext make long prayers (Mark 12:40). Not all prayers are heard. Consider Lamentaions 3:8 and 44; also James 4:3. I was told of a piece that went: “I often say my prayers, but do I ever pray. Does the language of my heart go with the words I say. I might as well kneel down and worship gods of stone as offer to the living God a prayer of words alone“. This sort of prayer would be like the vain repetitions that Christ spoke of (Matthew 6:7).
When we come to what the Pharisee actually said we find that his first few words sound well in that he thanks God, but then he goes on, not to thank God for blessings, God’s care for him or anything of that sort. Rather he thanks God for his character. He thinks he is good and thanks God for that. He then goes into a spiel all about himself and what he is not and what he does. If we were to bring that passage up to date we might say we were not drug adicts or child abusers or even worldlies! He really has himself before him. Eve went wrong in the garden of Eden because she had herself before her and what ministered to pride. The Pharisee compares himself with the tax-gatherer who he appears to despise. He does not compare himself with the glory of God. If he had, he would most likely have realised that he fell far short of that. (see Romans 3:23). Many of us could no doubt feel good if we only compared ourselves with our fellow men. Paul himself could say that as to righteousness which [is] in [the] law (he was) found blameless (Philippians 3:6), but when he looked within he realised that he lusted, that is, coveted what he should not have done (Romans 7:7). Although before his fellows he was acceptable, before God he was the first of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). James tells us that whoever shall keep the whole law and shall offend in one [point], he has come under the guilt of [breaking] all (James 2:10). It is a bit like breaking a teapot. The pot is broken whether there is one break in it or many. It will no longer hold tea.
The Pharisee not only told God what he was not like, but what he did do. God knew all this. What was the point of telling Him ? (see Psalm 139:1-4). He says he fasted twice in the week and tithed everthing he gained. He seems to suggest that he was doing more than what was necessary.
The tax-gathereer’s prayer was shorter, but to the point. There was real feeling in it. He was ashamed of himself so that he would not lift up even his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast (verse 13). He had a right judgement of himself. He knew what he needed - compassion - and we may say, he got it. He went down to his house justified. The mistake that is sometimes (perhaps often) made is to continue repetitively to make the tax-gatherer’s prayer or something like it. There is something wrong with us if we keep needing to say: “God be merciful to us miserable sinners”. The prayers in the New Testament do not include that sort of saying. Think of Paul and Silas in the gaol at Philippi (Acts 16:25). The tax-gatherer had gone down to his house justified. A person who has been justified by a court of law would be expected to leave the court in a happy frame of mind. One would not expect him to go to the same court the next week to be justified again, at any rate not for the same offence !
Finally, Christ speaks of persons who exalt themselves being humbled and those that humble themselves being exalted. The Pharisee should have known this as the thought is in Proverbs 29:23.