From Pharisee to Tax-Collector

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18: 9-14) is familiar to us. When we read it today we should try to put ourselves in the place of Jesus’ first-century hearers. We hear Pharisee and we immediately think “hypocrite”. That certainly was Jesus’ view, but was that true for most of his audience? I think we should imagine the Pharisee as the good guy, the one following all the rules; going above and beyond. He was the “good Christian” of his day.

On the other hand, we might how despised the tax collector would be. As much as we may not like the IRS, they have nothing on a 1st-century tax collector.  In the parable we are about to hear, the tax collector is working for the Roman government, an enemy occupier of Israel.  Not only is he a collaborator, but he is also likely ripping people off to line his own pockets.  Tax collectors often collected whatever they could, above and beyond what was required by Rome, keeping the surplus for themselves.

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 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!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)

The Pharisee is doing everything right. He is toeing the line. We are given no reason to believe the Pharisee is lying or exaggerating.  We should take him at his word.  As far as we know, he is the perfect model of piety and piousness.  He is following all the rules and even going beyond them.  I think we can safely say that the Pharisee honestly believes himself to be following all of the law.  He must believe that loves the Lord with all his heart, soul, strength and mind and loves his neighbor as himself.

Yet he is not the one justified before God. What is the Pharisee’s flaw?  Luke is very helpful here and telegraphs the answer at the beginning of the passage: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”

The Pharisee believes he is righteous, but he does not know his own heart.  He believes he is following the entirety of God’s commands, but he is judging himself the same way he judges the tax-collector:  by outward appearances.  That is not God’s standard.

 It is that state of our souls, not our words or actions that justify us before God.  That is the contrast in the parable: the Pharisee, ignorant of his own heart, or at least ignoring it, and the tax collector who is tortured by his knowledge of who he is. The Pharisee could adopt the actions and pray the same words as the tax collector, but that would not change the result. The key is who we are, not what we do. The repentant sinner is justified, not the self-satisfied Pharisee. The Pharisee’s central problem is that he does not know his own heart.

How can we make sure we are not similarly deluded? How can we be sure we have an accurate assessment of our own hearts?  John Calvin, the 16th-century theologian and reformer, began his masterwork, “Institutes of the Christian Religion” with these famous words:

Nearly all the wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.

Calvin’s profound insight is that we cannot know God without knowing ourselves and that we cannot know ourselves without knowing God.  Further, they are intertwined: the more we know God, the more we know ourselves and the more we know ourselves, the more we know God.  For Calvin this meant that when we know God and his righteousness the more we see how we fall very short.  And, the more we realize how much we are in need of forgiveness, the more we know how good God is for loving and accepting us in spite of ourselves. To know ourselves we must know God and to know God we must know ourselves.  But where do we begin?  How do we start?

One way to begin to know God and ourselves is in community.  If we can participate where is it safe to truly be honest about what we are doing and feeling and where we can accept candid feedback and probing questions, that community can help us see ourselves more clearly.

For many years in my Christian journey, I worked hard avoiding community. Now I seek it out. What happened to me?  Through a lot of good teaching and prayer I began to understand the Father’s heart.  I began to see that hiding my self-imposed cocoon of isolation was also keeping me from knowing the Father better.  I need others to know him and myself.

As I began to engage in my local church community, I began to get a picture of myself that I didn’t like at all.  I began to realize how little love and compassion there really was in me.  I began to see just how full of myself, how self-righteous, I really was.

Outside of community I can go along believing all sorts of nonsense about myself.  In community my delusions are quickly stripped away. Let me give you a concrete example of this, not in the context of church, but from my work life.  The principle remains the same.  It is when we move from the abstract to the concrete that we have any chance to understand ourselves.  David Benner puts it this way:

Love is cultivated only in close soul relationships. We can probably learn something about love in interactions with strangers, but the transforming work of becoming the great lovers that Christ desires us to be demands the grist of more intimate relationships. It is in soul friendships that we encounter the greatest possibilities for progress in the school of love. Journeying together brings opportunities for discovering the magnitude of our narcissism and developing a heart of genuine love.

Benner, David G.. Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction . InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

As long as we are by ourselves we can sell ourselves all kinds of ideas about what we are like.  I can convince myself that I am humble, charitable, patient, forgiving, and the possessor of any other virtue you can name – as long as I don’t have to put it to the test in community.  It is in community that we see how thin and tenuous our facade of patience, acceptance, and selflessness is; we find out just how good we really are at loving real people, not idealized portraits we have of them.

For many years I avoided Christian community. Not coincidentally, I was very much the self-righteous Pharisee.  Over time, as I have learned to embrace relationship and community, I have moved away from the stance of the Pharisee and more toward the tax collector.  I am learning my shortcomings and those show me my need for God.  I am no longer holding on to false, if comforting, ideas about the state of my heart.  Learning about myself and about God as opened me to healing and renovation.  I still have a heavy deposit of Pharisee, but I am less likely to persist in self-righteousness. 

How about you?  Pharisee or tax collector?  Self-righteous or self-aware?  Are you moving in the right direction? Are you entering into community, the one place you can reveal the depth of your self-knowledge, where we can develop hearts of genuine love? If not, is it something the Lord may be calling you to?

[This post is taken from a sermon I preached at Wonderful Mercy Church. You can hear the entire message here: From Pharisee to Tax Collector]

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