Understanding the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector - Bible Study

Parables Bible Study # 11 – The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

Pastor Duke Taber

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Introduction

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, found in the Gospel of Luke, is a powerful story that Jesus tells to illustrate the nature of true righteousness and the danger of self-righteousness. This parable comes as part of a series of teachings that Jesus gives on prayer, faith, and humility.

Through this parable, Jesus contrasts the attitudes of two men who go up to the temple to pray: a Pharisee who is confident in his own righteousness and a tax collector who is deeply aware of his sin. In doing so, Jesus challenges our assumptions about what it means to be justified before God and the posture of heart that God desires.

As we study this parable, may we be reminded of our own need for God’s mercy and grace. May we be challenged to examine our own hearts for any hint of pride or selfrighteousness, and may we be inspired to approach God with the humility and contrition of the tax collector. And may we find comfort and hope in the truth that God justifies the humble and contrite heart.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What comes to mind when you think of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector?
  2. Have you ever found yourself comparing your own righteousness to others? What was that experience like?
Parables Bible Study # 11 - The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

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The Context

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector appears in a section of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus is teaching about various aspects of discipleship, including prayer, faith, humility, and the coming of the Kingdom of God. This section, sometimes called the “Travel Narrative” (Luke 9:51-19:27), describes Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, where He will face His crucifixion.

Immediately preceding the parable, Jesus tells the story of the persistent widow who seeks justice from an unrighteous judge (Luke 18:1-8). This parable teaches the importance of persistent prayer and faith, assuring the disciples that God will certainly bring about justice for His elect.

After the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus welcomes little children, teaching that the Kingdom of God belongs to those who receive it like a child (Luke 18:15-17). He then encounters a rich ruler who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, leading to a discussion about the difficulty of the rich entering the Kingdom of God (Luke 18:18-30).

Throughout this section, Jesus is preparing His disciples for His upcoming death and the challenges they will face as His followers. He is teaching them about the attitudes and practices that should characterize those who belong to the Kingdom of God.

It is in this context that Jesus tells the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). The parable is thus a direct challenge to self-righteousness and a call to humility before God.

The parable also reflects the religious and social context of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were a religious group known for their strict observance of the law and their separation from anything they considered unclean. They were highly respected in Jewish society for their religious devotion and knowledge.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were despised by the Jews. They were seen as collaborators with the Roman occupation and were often guilty of extorting money from their own people. They were considered traitors and sinners, unworthy of respect or inclusion in religious life.

By contrasting a Pharisee and a tax collector, Jesus is challenging the religious and social assumptions of His hearers. He is suggesting that true righteousness is not a matter of outward religious performance or social status but of inward humility and dependence on God.

As we study this parable, it’s important to keep in mind this broader context of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship and the Kingdom of God, as well as the religious and social dynamics of His day. The parable is not just a lesson about prayer but a challenge to the very foundations of our religious and moral assumptions.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Why do you think Jesus told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt”?
  2. How does the religious and social context of Jesus’ day shed light on the meaning of the parable?

The Story

The parable begins with two men going up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee and the other is a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prays: “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” (Luke 18:11-12).

In contrast, 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!” (Luke 18:13).

Jesus then delivers the punchline of the parable: “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 18:14).

The parable is striking in its simplicity and its reversal of expectations. The Pharisee, who would have been regarded as a model of religious devotion, is revealed to be proud and self-righteous. His prayer is not really directed to God at all but is a selfcongratulatory recitation of his own merits.

The tax collector, on the other hand, who would have been despised as a sinner, is revealed to be the one who is truly justified before God. His prayer is a humble cry for mercy, acknowledging his own sin and need for God’s grace.

The physical posture of the two men is also significant. The Pharisee stands by himself, possibly in a prominent place, confident in his own righteousness. The tax collector stands far off, perhaps in the back of the temple court, not even daring to lift his eyes to heaven. His posture reflects his inward contrition and sense of unworthiness before God.

The parable concludes with a general principle: those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted. This principle, which is repeated throughout Jesus’ teachings (e.g., Luke 14:11; Matthew 23:12), underscores the importance of humility before God and the danger of spiritual pride.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What details in the parable stand out to you, and why?
  2. How does the physical posture of the Pharisee and the tax collector reflect their inward attitudes?

The Characters

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector features two main characters who represent contrasting approaches to God and righteousness. By examining these characters, we can gain insight into the spiritual attitudes that Jesus is commending and condemning.

The Pharisee

The Pharisee in the parable is a representative of a religious group that was known for their strict observance of the law and their separation from anything they considered unclean. Pharisees were highly respected in Jewish society for their religious devotion and knowledge.

In the parable, the Pharisee goes up to the temple to pray, which would have been seen as a commendable act of piety. However, his prayer reveals a heart that is full of pride and self-righteousness.

The Pharisee begins his prayer by thanking God that he is not like other men, whom he characterizes as extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like the tax collector. This immediately sets up a contrast between himself and others, suggesting that he sees himself as superior in righteousness.

He then proceeds to recount his own religious merits: he fasts twice a week and gives tithes of all that he gets. These were indeed commendable practices that went beyond what the law required. Fasting was typically done only on the Day of Atonement, and tithing was required only on certain agricultural products.

However, the Pharisee’s recitation of his merits reveals that his confidence is in his own works rather than in God’s mercy. He is trusting in himself and his own righteousness, rather than in God’s grace.

Moreover, his prayer reveals a lack of love and compassion for others. He looks down on the tax collector and lumps him together with the worst of sinners. There is no sense of solidarity with his fellow worshiper, no recognition that he too is a sinner in need of grace.

The Pharisee’s self-righteousness blinds him to his own need for mercy and prevents him from truly connecting with God. His prayer is more a self-congratulatory speech than a humble communion with his Creator.

In many ways, the Pharisee represents a spiritual danger that is common to religious people: the temptation to trust in our own righteousness and to look down on others. It is a subtle but deadly trap, one that can lead us away from true dependence on God and genuine love for others.

The Tax Collector

The tax collector in the parable represents a class of people who were despised in Jewish society. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman occupiers, collecting taxes from their own people. They were often guilty of extortion and were seen as collaborators with the enemy.

In the parable, the tax collector is a stark contrast to the Pharisee. While the Pharisee stands by himself, seemingly confident in his own righteousness, the tax collector stands far off, not even daring to lift his eyes to heaven. His physical posture reflects his deep sense of unworthiness and contrition.

The tax collector’s prayer is simple but profound: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). He does not seek to justify himself or recount his own merits. He does not compare himself favorably to others. Instead, he acknowledges his own sin and appeals to God’s mercy.

The word used for “be merciful” in the original Greek is related to the word for “propitiation” or “atonement.” The tax collector is not just asking for a general sense of mercy but for the specific mercy of atonement, the covering of his sins through sacrifice. He recognizes that his only hope is in God’s provision of forgiveness.

This is a remarkable insight for a first-century Jew, as the concept of atonement was typically associated with the temple sacrifices. The tax collector seems to understand that the real atonement must come from God Himself and that it is available even to the worst of sinners.

The tax collector’s prayer is a model of humility, contrition, and faith. He does not trust in himself but throws himself on the mercy of God. He does not minimize his sin but acknowledges it openly. He does not presume on God’s forgiveness but pleads for it.

And remarkably, Jesus declares that it is this man, rather than the Pharisee, who goes home justified before God. The tax collector’s humble cry for mercy is heard and answered, while the Pharisee’s self-righteous prayer is rejected.

The tax collector represents the kind of heart that God desires and responds to: a heart that is broken over sin, that acknowledges its need for grace, and that trusts in God’s mercy rather than its own merits. It is a heart that is exalted by God because it humbles itself before Him.

Reflection Questions:

  1. In what ways can you identify with the Pharisee in the parable? In what ways can you identify with the tax collector?
  2. What do you think it means to be “justified” before God, and why is the tax collector justified rather than the Pharisee?

The Nature of True Righteousness

At its core, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is a teaching about the nature of true righteousness and the way to be justified before God. It challenges our assumptions about what makes a person righteous and reveals the posture of heart that God desires.

The Pharisee in the parable represents a righteousness that is based on outward conformity to the law and comparison to others. He trusts in his own religious practices and moral superiority, believing that these make him acceptable to God.

However, Jesus reveals that this kind of righteousness is insufficient and even offensive to God. The Pharisee’s self-exaltation and contempt for others betray a heart that is far from true righteousness, which is characterized by humility, contrition, and love.

The tax collector, on the other hand, represents a righteousness that is based on God’s mercy and grace. He does not claim any merit of his own but appeals to God’s compassion. He acknowledges his sin and unworthiness and trusts in God’s provision of atonement.

This, Jesus declares, is the kind of righteousness that justifies a person before God. It is not a righteousness that we achieve by our own efforts but one that we receive by faith in God’s mercy.

This teaching would have been shocking to Jesus’ original hearers, who were used to thinking of righteousness in terms of outward conformity to the law. It would have been especially challenging to the Pharisees, who prided themselves on their moral and religious superiority.

But Jesus is revealing a righteousness that goes beyond external behavior to the posture of the heart. He is showing that true righteousness is not about impressing others or even ourselves but about being honest before God.

This righteousness is a gift that we receive, not a status that we achieve. It is based on God’s mercy, not our merits. It leads to humility, not pride; to gratitude, not selfcongratulation; to love for others, not contempt.

The parable thus invites us to examine our own understanding of righteousness and the basis of our relationship with God. It challenges us to let go of any pride or selfreliance and to throw ourselves on the mercy of God.

It also encourages us in the knowledge that God’s mercy is available to all who humbly seek it. No matter how far we may feel from God, no matter how much we have sinned, we can always turn to Him in repentance and faith, trusting in His provision of atonement through Christ.

At the same time, the parable warns us of the danger of self-righteousness and spiritual pride. It reminds us that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). It calls us to continual self-examination and repentance, recognizing that we are always in need of God’s mercy.

As we seek to live out the righteousness that comes by faith, we are called to do so with humility, gratitude, and love. We are to avoid comparing ourselves to others or looking down on those we consider less righteous. Instead, we are to recognize our common need for grace and to treat others with the mercy that we ourselves have received.

Reflection Questions:

  1. How does this parable challenge your own understanding of righteousness and your relationship with God?
  2. What practical steps can you take to cultivate the kind of humility and contrition that the tax collector demonstrates?

Conclusion

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is a powerful and provocative story that challenges our deepest assumptions about righteousness, faith, and our relationship with God. It reveals the insufficiency of a righteousness based on outward performance and self-comparison and points us to the true righteousness that comes by humbly trusting in God’s mercy.

As we reflect on this parable, we are confronted with the sobering reality of our own tendency towards self-righteousness and spiritual pride. Like the Pharisee, we can easily fall into the trap of comparing ourselves favorably to others, trusting in our own moral and religious merits, and looking down on those we consider less righteous.

But the parable reminds us that this posture is offensive to God and far from true righteousness. It calls us to humble ourselves before God, acknowledging our own sin and need for mercy. It invites us to place our trust not in ourselves but in God’s provision of atonement through Christ.

At the same time, the parable offers us tremendous hope and encouragement. It assures us that God’s mercy is available to all who humbly seek it, no matter how far they may feel from Him. It reminds us that our righteousness is not based on our performance but on God’s grace, freely given to us in Christ.

This truth liberates us from the exhausting and ultimately futile task of trying to prove ourselves righteous. It frees us to live in gratitude and joy, secure in the knowledge of God’s love and acceptance. It enables us to extend to others the same mercy and grace that we ourselves have received.

As we go forth from this study, may we be inspired to cultivate the posture of the tax collector – a posture of humility, contrition, and utter dependence on God’s mercy. May we reject the way of self-righteousness and pride, and instead embrace the righteousness that comes by faith.

May we also be encouraged to share this good news with others, testifying to the mercy and grace that we have found in Christ. In a world that often measures worth by outward performance and success, may our lives point to a different standard – the standard of a righteousness that is based on God’s love and freely available to all.

And may we look forward with hope to that day when we will stand before God, not in our own merits, but clothed in the righteousness of Christ. On that day, may we hear the words that the tax collector longed for and that all who trust in God’s mercy will hear: “You are justified, accepted, and loved, not by your own works, but by my grace. Enter into the joy of your Master.”

Reflection Questions:

  1. What is one key takeaway or insight you have gained from studying the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector?
  2. How can you apply the truths of this parable to your own life and relationships this week?
  3. Take a moment to pray, thanking God for His mercy and grace, and asking Him to help you live in the humility and faith of the tax collector.

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