This one must have gone over big with the local Pharisee group when Jesus told it:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 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!’ 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)
Before we can comment on the story, we have to know a little bit about the Pharisees and what they believed and who they were. When I was twelve my favorite TV show was The Wild, Wild West. Throughout its run there was this one bad guy who came back about every other episode. He was a dwarf named Dr. Miguelito Loveless. How simple TV was back then. His name was synonymous with evil. Even a casual reader of the Gospels has the Pharisees cast in the role of villain in just the same way in nearly every story. But who, exactly, were the Pharisees, and how did they become so evil?
I’m not sure the word “evil” fits. As is true of most movements, they had their protagonists, mainly another group called the Sadducees. The Pharisees emerged as a force in Jewish life around 140 BC. Conflicts between the Pharisees and the Sadducees had to do with class (between the wealthy and the poor, as the Sadducees included mainly the priestly and aristocratic families), culture (between those who favored hellenization and those who resisted it), temple vs. tradition (the Pharisees accepted Mosaic tradition while the Saducees were strict adherents to the form of Temple worship laid out in the Bible), and religious philosophy (how to apply the Torah to Jewish life). The Pharisees accepted the idea of resurrection (the Saducees didn’t), and became the forerunners of all modern Judaism through the rabbinic tradition beginning after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD.
It is important to understand that this group was dedicated to reform and was actually a positive force within jewish life and culture and that the whole period of their existence as an identifiable group lasts no more than about 200 years.
Because the were also a religious group, to paint the United Methodists, or the United Church of Christ, or even the Southern Baptists with a broad brush and say “this is what they stand for” would be really difficult, especially if you are an historian writing in the year 4010, because so much of the really creative discussion never got written down. So to brand the whole movement as evil because they ended up backing themselves into a corner where Jesus was concerned is really pretty unfair.
Okay, enough with the history lesson. Now let’s see what all this knowledge does to our understanding of the passage:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt
I think there’s something being said here that refers to all that stuff that was said “off line” twenty centuries ago. There was something embedded in a Pharisees’ thought process that makes Luke’s accusation here valid (remember, this sentence is Luke setting up a story Jesus told). Paul helps us understand this in Philippians when he gives us his own political pedigree and says, “as to the law (I was) a Pharisee… as to righteousness under the law (I was) blameless.”
There was a certain “looking down” on the part of those who considered themselves to be Pharisees. They were kind of like Christians today getting to the place where they think they’ve arrived. “Hey, I’m a mature believer. I’ve known Christ for something like thirty years, and I can quote you chapter and verse. I live an impeccable life, morally speaking, and I have few vices. You ought to listen to me.” You know, that kind of thing.
I love the way the KJV puts it when it talks about the Pharisee praying. It says, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.” Awesome. It makes it sound like no one else was listening. He had gotten to the point where he didn’t care that anyone else was. He was merely reinforcing in his own mind what he believed was true about him. It also sounds like not even God was listening because this man’s prayer had become such a caricature.
Jesus also picks up on the social context of the tax collectors. These were turn-coat Jews who were working for Rome while lining their own pockets through extortion. If the Pharisee was standing “alone”, he had probably positioned himself up front by the main altar. The tax collector is probably way in the back by the exit. It is unlikely he’d have been welcomed any further in.
So, in the end, this isn’t a question of good vs. evil. This isn’t the vile Dr. Loveless vs. the noble James West. Things are rarely that simple. These guys are both sinners, and they’re both a mess. It is just that one of them doesn’t recognize it and the other does.
Are you a mature Christian? Do you read your Bible every day? Do you tithe? Have you led a moral life? Great. I mean that sincerely. But have you written off certain other people because they’re “not doing so well” with discipleship or because they struggle with sin or because they have perhaps rejected Jesus outright? Not so great. As Jesus said, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” Life isn’t 60s TV simple.
Justification is knowing you’re sinner and a mess and letting God heal the mess that you are. It is also loving mercy and justice and walking humbly enough with God not to point out publicly those who haven’t had that realization yet. A lot of justification is in knowing when to keep your big trap shut.
Our focus must always be on The Cross, and what Jesus did there. What justifies the tax collector before God is not only that he cries out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (recognizing his need of God’s help), it is just as much that he does not raise his eyes while doing it, because he has become unaware that the Pharisee is even in the room.