The Difference Between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Die Bibel in Bildern [Picture Bible] von Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld . Leipzig: Georg Wigands, 1860. Hathi Digital Trust Library online version of a copy in the Getty Library, cour tesy of    www.victorianweb.org   .

Die Bibel in Bildern [Picture Bible] von Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Leipzig: Georg Wigands, 1860. Hathi Digital Trust Library online version of a copy in the Getty Library, courtesy of www.victorianweb.org.

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The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) is the most theological of all Jesus’ parables. It is the most theological because it deals with the subject that is of most importance to the life of the Christian–namely, how a man or woman, boy or girl is accepted before God.

The irony of this parable is that both of these men were going to the Temple to pray. On face value both of them seemed to be praying to the same God. Both men came to the same place of worship. Both were members of the same covenant community. Both were men of the working class. But that’s where the similarity ends.

Jesus loved to draw contrasts in order to drive home kingdom principles and truths. When he sets out these two men, he does so by appeal to their ethical, social and religious standing. The Pharisee was a respected, religious member of the covenant community. The tax collector was a despised and questionable figure in Jewish society. Throughout the gospel records, tax collectors are identified with “sinners”—a term usually reserved in Jewish society for those known for their sexual immorality.

By human standards the tax collector was not on his way to heaven, but the Pharisee was.

In his sermon, “Going Up, Going Down: The Story of Two Men at Church,” Sinclair Ferguson set out a series of reasons why we would have to conclude that the tax collector was not on his way to heaven, but the Pharisee was. By all human standards, the tax collector was disqualified from salvation on account of the following sinful characteristics:

  • The tax collector had been an unmerciful, money-extorting man.

  • The tax collector was unjust to the poor and the weak.

  • The tax collector probably was an adulterer.

  • The tax collector didn’t pray in what was the acceptable manner and form.

  • The tax collector probably hadn’t been to the Temple in years.

Whereas, here are some of the apparent moral virtues of the Pharisee:

  • The Pharisee is a man of discipline and prayer. He had given a tenth of all that he had. (Sinclair Ferguson explained, “If a church were made up entirely of Pharisees, its church budget would double, if not triple, if not actually quadruple.”)

  • The Pharisee is thankful for all things in his life.

  • The Pharisee is different from other people.

  • The Pharisee lives a far better life in society than the tax collector does.

  • The Pharisee is more like you or me than the tax collector.

Yet, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who went to heaven, because the Pharisee had a religion that had no place for mercy, whereas the tax collector saw his need for mercy. Ferguson notes,

Most of them as they listened to this story were guessing, ‘It’s obvious which one gets saved. It’s bound to be the Pharisee. He’s the only one with the qualifications. The other one is utterly disqualified. However, there is one thing missing. He has a religion that has no place for mercy, whereas the tax collector saw his need for mercy. He has no place for those psalms that speak about need, that speak about despair, that speak about wretchedness.

One was a prayer of self-congratulation and one was a prayer of self-abasement.

In reality, the Pharisee was so consumed with his own accomplishments that he self-righteously looked down at the tax collector; whereas, the tax collector was so consumed with acknowledging his own sin and his need for God’s mercy that he didn’t have time to evaluate the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee “prayed with himself”; the tax collector cried out to God. The Pharisee outlined his accomplishments; the tax collector summed up all of his actions when he confessed to God that he was “the sinner!” One was a prayer of self-congratulation, and one was a prayer of self-abasement.

The end result: The Pharisee went home still in his sins, and the tax collector went home as justified before God because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to him by faith alone. Eric Alexander observes, “The way of merit and the way of good works may take a man like this [the Pharisee] into the Temple, but it will never take him into Heaven.”

There are several dangers to avoid when reading this parable.

When we look at the picture of these two men, we might align ourselves with the tax collector and fall into the error of concluding that God is commending a sinful life rather than a life of devotion. Alexander again observes,

What Jesus condemns in the Pharisee is not his righteousness but his self-righteousness; and what Jesus commends in the publican, or tax gatherer, is not that he is a sinner but that he is a repentant sinner who is crying to God for mercy. For what this parable is really contrasting is two ways of salvation, the way of merit and the way of mercy, the way of good works and the way of free grace.

The other danger is to fall into the same error of the Pharisee from the side of the tax collector. We can easily start to despise the Pharisee in a similar self-righteous manner as the Pharisee despises the tax collector. J. Gresham Machen explained,

No doubt we think we can avoid the Pharisee’s error. God was not for him, we say, because he was contemptuous toward the publican; we will be tender to the publican, as Jesus taught us to be, and then God will be for us. It is no doubt a good idea; it is well that we are tender toward the publican. But what is our attitude toward the Pharisee? Alas, we despise him in a truly Pharisaical manner. We go up into the temple to pray; we stand and pray thus with ourselves: “God I thank thee that I am not as other men are, proud of my own righteousness, uncharitable toward publicans, or even as this—Pharisee. (Machen, What Is Faith?)

Jesus is the one who makes the difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector.

What we need to realize after hearing this parable is that which makes the difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is Jesus, the one telling the parable. When the tax collector beat his breast and cried out to God for mercy, he was really asking God to give him an atoning sacrifice for his sin. The Savior was heading to the cross to lay down his life for the filthy, morally bankrupt, religiously void tax collector so that he might justify him by faith alone. This is what distinguishes between one who is saved and one who perishes.

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Rev. Nick Batzig is an associate editor for Ligonier Ministries and a pastor at Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA). He formerly served as the organizing pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond Hill, Georgia.

This article is adapted from “Two Went Up to Pray” at feedingonchrist.org.