A Pharisee and a Tax Collector
Reflections on Luke 18:9-14 by Michael Barrett

It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repent Luke 5:32

Jesus came to heal us and mend our broken relationships with our Father and among ourselves. One of the ways he did this was through parables. Some parables resonate and reverberate. Some slash and clash. Today’s parable is one of the latter.

To some who were confident of their righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable. (v. 9)

Jesus makes it quite clear about whom and whose behaviors he is speaking.  There are those that are already denigrating him for his association with tax collectors and sinners. Now he proceeds to teach that the worst of the sinners may be in a better relationship with God than is one of the golden boys from the Temple. The issue of prayer, so important to Jesus, just last Sunday, front and center. Today Jesus extends the need for persistence, with a parable about prayer’s manner and content. While some command prescribed ritual, Jesus teaches us that the manner or way of praying and the content or the matters prayed for are more important to God. He uses a “twofer” story.

The Bible has several of these “twofer” stories – two young sons go about building altars to offer sacrifice, two men decide to build new homes, two siblings are asked to go out and work the vineyard for their father, and two robbers are crucified next to Jesus. To God there is a better way and a worse way to do something.

Prayer is critical to Jesus, because it means, as important as these are, more than offering a petition, praise or thanksgiving. To Jesus, prayer hallmarks our relationship with the Father. Prayer signals our commitments and informs our attitudes and behavior. Prayer always reveals what we think of ourselves.

Today two men go off to pray. The two men are metaphors for prayer attitude and content.  Jesus is not proposing that every church leader has an inherent streak of arrogance or that all those that work for the IRS are secret saints.

How were the two alike? What made the Pharisee so good in people’s eyes? What made the tax collector so synonymous with evil? How did the manner and content of one man’s prayer make him righteous in the eyes of God while the other man’s prayer fails so completely?

A Pharisee and A Tax Collector

The Pharisee and the tax collector share several characteristics. They are both Jews. They both believe in God. They both go to Temple. They are both, powerful men because of their ability to enforce — one in applying the strictures (of) the Law, the other in levying and collecting taxes. They both stand apart.

The Good Pharisee

He appears to be the epitome of good. He chooses to be a ‘Pharisee’ one of the separate ones. He studies the Scriptures diligently and tries to live the Law every day in its written totality. He strives to force other Jews to do the same. He is a leading ‘verse and chapter’ religious authority.

He is obedient. He is careful not just about conforming to the dictates of the Torah, he also studies and follows both the Mishnah, which explains how to follow the Torah, and consults the Talmud, which is a commentary on the Mishnah.

He is devout and focuses on spiritual things. He is decent and follows the rules. He strives not to break the commandments and will let us know that he does not steal, commit adultery, and do other such evil things. He tithes not just on his income, but on all he gets (in other words, he tithes on all that he buys just in case those shady merchants have not]. He even fasts twice a week. Understand please, that Jewish Law requires fasting only on the Day of Atonement, so he’s fasting 104 times a year over what the Law requires.

He is likely a hardworking synagogue member. Loyal and honest to a fault. Out there in the community Serving Yahweh on the front lines. He, like so many other Jews, is also a victim of the Romans and their co-opted tax collectors. He’s the most religious guy around. He’s the ultimate good guy!!!

Isaiah 58:6-7 Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen; to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and provide the wanderer with shelter? When you see the naked, to clothe him and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Luke 11:42 Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue, and other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without letting the former go undone. Joel 2:12 Even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments.

The Evil Tax Collector

He appears to be the epitome of evil. He is a traitor to his people – the taxes he collects support the Roman conquerors and all their instruments of oppression and torture. He is a Roman agent. He is a Roman spy. He is a Roman lackey. He is made unclean by contact with gentiles.

He is corrupt. He not only collects taxes; he decides the value of the taxable item and without recourse may adjust that value higher.  Whatever amount he collects in surplus of that tax specified by Rome, belongs to him. His is a career of unjust extortion, acceptance of bribes, and outright theft. Due to his ill-gotten gains, he lives in a better house, eats higher quality food, wears finer attire, and rides around on a higher horse.

He is a designated pariah. Tax collectors cannot hold public office nor testify in court. Socially he is ostracized. There’s no extravagant welcome waiting for him at the Temple. Ever. Note the language used by the Pharisees tax collectors and sinners, tax collectors and sinners. No sinners are mentioned by name: not the sexually immoral, blasphemers, ungrateful children, liars, or even murderers.

He is the lowest form of sinner. He is the ultimate Bad Guy!!!

The Prayer of a Pharisee and the Prayer of a Tax collector

What goes right and what goes wrong? After a life of doing things the right way, how does one do the right thing at the right time in the wrong way? After a life of doing things the wrong way, how does one do the right thing at the right time in the right way?  They pray.

The Prayer of the Pharisee

He stands apart. He likely stands at the front of the Court of Israel where he can be seen. He stands erect but apparently does not gaze upward – he admits to watching the others around the Court. His manner reflects self-satisfaction.

He begins his prayer with thanksgiving, but then immediately prays about himself. His thanksgiving is disingenuous. He thanks God only in terms of himself. He uses four “I’s” in two sentences. His prayer recites what he is doing. He trusts in himself and what he can do. No mention of need for God’s action is lifted.

No expression or sense of remorse for past sin or the need for God’s forgiveness is expressed. Is his self-perception of his state of grace delusional? He talks for the most part in terms of ‘negative good’ – that is the things he does not do – rob, steal, commit adultery, food not eaten, and evil deeds not done. What does he do for God? Even his tithing carries notation of mistrust. He confuses the Creator with the creation and the Giver with the gift.

He is mean-spirited. He disparages his neighbor in front of the very God in whose sanctuary he worships. He seems to think he has earned God’s acceptance by this playlist of his selected good works while others incur God’s displeasure because they lack this Pharisees’ portfolio. Perhaps he thinks he is owed that acceptance.

Matthew 6:5-6  And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.  Mark 11:25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgiver him so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.

This is not to say, my sisters and brothers that stealing, or adultery, and evil-doing are somehow of less concern to God. Yes, it may be good spiritual practice to fast, as well as to give beyond the required tithe.

The problem with the Pharisee’s behavior is that he makes these actions their own end and stops there. They are ticks off a self-generated checklist.

To God it is about more than how often we read the Bible or pray our devotions or about how many services we attend or the number of sermons we hear (or write) or how many CE classes we attend (or teach) or how many church offices we hold or UCC Conference committees we sit on.  What do we do with all of that? How do we use any of that to deepen our relationship with God? After experiencing those, do we honor, grow-in, or serve Christ better? Are we more caring, compassionate, and loving to our neighbor? Are we changed for the better? Are we changed for good?

The Pharisee deliberately tries very hard to impress God, yet God is singularly unimpressed. It was once said that God sends away empty, only those people who are full of themselves. God is not impressed by pride.

The Prayer of the Tax Collector

He too stands apart – at a distance – far away from the Holy of Holies, from the other worshippers, and from the Pharisee. He’s probably on the edge of the Court of Gentiles, very near the Temple exit. He’s there so as not be seen by others. He’s there to be alone with God.

He doesn’t look up – his posture reflects deep shame and the beating on his breast extreme contrition. He does not begin with a prescribed word of insincere thanksgiving.  His words immediately mirror his heartbreak – God, have mercy on me, a (the) sinner. Solely a confession, a plea for God’s mercy and forgiveness. No excuses. No blame game. In many translations the ‘a’ is translated ‘the.” The sinner. He comes to Temple to ask for God’s forgiveness and that is the only reason he comes – not to be seen and not to socialize. The sanctuary is first a place to seek forgiveness. He needs God’s action. He trusts in God and what God can do.

Jeremiah 31:19 After I strayed, I repented after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth. 1 Timothy 1:15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.

His prayer is not a long list of failings– it is a short, only seven words. He prays seeking God’s attention.

Sometimes I hear people remark that they don’t pray well or they don’t know how to pray. Note this prayer — it’s not perfect rhetorically; it’s not beautifully composed. It’s not long. It’s not full of Scripture. It’s not full of exactly the moving phrases or right words. It simply works for God.

Matthew 6:8 [And when you pray, do not keep babbling on like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Finally, he doesn’t compare himself to anyone else. He doesn’t say, as bad as he is, at least he’s not as bad as those prostitute over on Sepulveda, or the drug dealer on Parthenia, or the panhandler outside that 7-11, or the cheating welfare mother, or the addicts, prisoner, or even (gasp) those folks who never cross a church threshold, or even that loud, arrogant Pharisee up in front.

Isaiah 66:2 Those are the ones I look on with favor, those who are humble and contrite in spirit and who tremble at my word.

Ezekiel 21:26, Matthew 23:12, Luke 1:46-55, and Luke 14:11 all reference the exalted being made humble and the humble being exalted.

The tax collector does not try to impress God.

Perhaps God is most impressed when we don’t try to impress him. God is impressed by humility. Of course, the peril here is that as soon as we arrive at a suitable state of humility, up pops the evil one and we are immediately tempted to take pride in our accomplishment.


‘This man, rather than the other, went home justified by God.’  Here it is, right in Luke 18:14 – Jesus uses a term referencing justification. My brothers and sisters, justification theology is not just some deep theoretical argument advocated by Martin Luther or Saint Augustine or even, Saint Paul. It shows up right here in the Gospels, as a teaching of Jesus.  If you want, read Paul on justification. Read Romans 2:1-16 and 3:21-33, and in Galatians 2:16-21.

A shorter version. The tax collector went home “justified” because he realized that he was unable to save himself because of his sins and that he is totally dependent upon God for his salvation.

The tax collector goes home vindicated. And note, his forgiveness comes at God’s initiative. Forgiveness given without stipulation. The tax collector does not receive conditionally God’s forgiveness incumbent on some form of reparations. The blessing of forgiveness may instill within him the determination to undertake such actions. It has for two other tax collectors – Matthew (who abandons that occupation) and Zacchaeus [who makes financial restitution to those from whom he has stolen].

Rightful Praying

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus teaches us many things about praying and living. God welcomes our sincere thanks. Humility is treasured. Honest simplicity or even brevity is appreciated. A conversation that focuses on what we truly need and what God can do is right on track. Trusting in God works. Compassion towards others outweighs condescension. God is more impressed when we don’t try to impress Him. If we have really, really messed up, even for our whole lives, then we are excellent candidates for salvation.

Mainly, we all need to realize that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. We will never outgrow the need of God’s good grace.  God does not see people so much in terms of sinners and non-sinners (thankfully), or in terms of good and bad; but rather in terms of the proud or the humble.

And finally, God looks at our heart. He knows we each have a strong heart for our faith in him. He also asks that our faith have a strong heart for others.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repent.

Please remember, my sisters and brothers, that there is always a doctor in the house. Amen.