Parable of the Tax Collector, Luke 18:9-14
Encouragement for those who feel they’ve failed, and care for those who struggle
Preamble and background
Jesus is specifically speaking to those who were confident in their own achievements and looked down on everybody else. Rather than just saying, “you are completely wrong in your thinking” He shows them what God is like and does so in a parable about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector.
Pharisees, Tax Collectors and the Temple
In Jesus’ day the Pharisees sought to bring about a renewal of genuine faith and practice in Israel. Jesus never criticised the religious movement as a whole, or their desire, yet often challenged their behaviour.
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. "Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the market-places and to have men call them 'Rabbi'. "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi', for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.”
‘Moses seat’ may speak of an actual seat in front of the synagogue where an authoritative teacher sat. The point that Jesus is making is that the Pharisees claimed that they were the ultimate authority when it came to understanding and interpreting the law. Yet they were wrong, and should not be obeyed. In contrast to the heavy burden their teaching put on men.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
Most of the Pharisees, Sadducees and religious teachers that Jesus encountered could not see the amazing work of God because they had, to a large extent, made God in their own image. They could not see the love of God as the disciples and Jesus ate with sinners (Luke 5:30, Luke 15:2) and were not pleased about His miracles (eg. Lazarus: Luke 11:46, Mt 12:10-14)
Tax collectors were regarded as people who had betrayed Israel in working for the Roman Empire. Rome exacted a certain amount of tax and tax collectors were allowed to add an amount to this as a means of earning a living. The problem was that they usually added more than was fair. Apart from this they could do things like stopping a cart that had just entered a city and saying, “I don’t think you have paid enough tax on this item, so I’m going to charge you a little extra that needs to be paid now.” Whilst Rome frowned upon this practice, nothing was really done about it.
Because of the perceived betrayal and exorbitant charges, tax collectors were ostracized in their communities and not allowed into synagogues or temples. If a tax collector came under conviction concerning his chosen lifestyle, it was going to be very difficult for them to find help to change.
The Temple in Jerusalem features highly in the religious, social and political setting of Jesus’ day. To the Jewish mind-set the temple spoke of God’s presence with His people. Josephus the historian states that the façade of the temple was covered in gold with walls of white marble. Apparently when the sun rose the reflection was nearly blinding. Jesus spoke of the temple as being a house of prayer for all nations (Matthew 21:13). Having thrown out moneylenders and those who’d made the temple no more than a den of robbers, Jesus showed us what the temple was really all about: the heartbeat of God in the midst of His people….
“The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.”
Sacrifices were offered twice daily (morning and evening) and people would go up to the temple at these times to worship. Prayers were added to the service and people would pray during the time of incense. Incense was used as a symbol of prayer going up to the Lord, and the good smell of incense also spoke of the goodness in Israel.
“May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.”
“And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”
Both the Pharisee and the Tax collector would have gone to the Temple at the time of the evening sacrifice when many people went to pray. In looking at the sacrifice everyone should have been aware that only God can provide forgiveness of sin, and that no one deserves the blessing he receives. It is purely an act of grace and mercy on God’s part; our part is to receive. Both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector should have been aware of this.
The Pharisee in the Parable
This man was full of self-confidence, and on a success scale of 1 to 10 probably rated himself eleventh. He was meticulous in all that he did and made sure he tithed all he got, probably referring to items bought from merchants who may or may not have fulfilled their own duty to tithe. In reality the man was proud of his achievements and so his heart was empty whilst his hands were full of self. Yet what does God desire…
“This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” Isaiah 30:15
The scriptures are all about God, yet the Pharisee was immersed in his own interpretation of his life, and the lives of those around him.
"… the stories are about God and the ways of God with the people of God; they show us how God characteristically relates to people like us. They encourage and challenge us not by giving us a clearer picture of what we should or should not be but by giving us a clearer picture of who God is. The stories in Genesis, for instance, focus more on the way God deals with Abraham and Sarah than on the way Abraham and Sarah relate to God. Their emphasis is on God’s purpose, God’s promise, God’s initiative, God’s blessing, and God’s covenant undertaking. They offer mirrors for identity more than models for morality.”
Prof J. Goldingay, in Models For Interpretation of Scripture, page 58
The Pharisee was caught up in his own idea of religion. Whilst his moral life was undoubtedly different in many ways from those around him, it did not give him the right to look down on the tax collector next to him.
God is holy in every way and desires justice in all areas of life. Yet many so easily forget that God’s justice means that He hears the cry of the weak, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan. He cares for them and takes action on their behalf in order to put things right. Even a tax collector could find forgiveness if he approached the God who was already standing at the door and waiting to be asked for help.
“Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!” Isaiah 30:18
In scripture we see God confronting wrong-doing on many occasions. For example, through Nathan God confronts David on behalf of Uriah, and through Elijah he confronts Ahab on behalf of Naboth. God’s prophets knew what was right and just and sought to bring blessing to bear on the community in the power of God’s Spirit. The Pharisee, who should have been immersed in the heart of the law, did not.
The Tax Collector
This man stood at a distance probably because, according to the law of the day, he should not have been in the temple as an unclean person. In seeing the afternoon sacrifice he would be all the more aware of what God had done for him, and that he deserved nothing. Yet in the sacrifice he would also have seen grace, and he bows his head and says, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” His emotional state and heart involvement with his words would be seen in that he beat his chest.
It has been said that mercy is the chief of passions because it speaks of showing grace, and loving- kindness to the wrong-doer, instead of giving out what he or she really deserves. In mercy I do not receive what I deserve, and in grace I receive what I do not deserve.
“The believing man hopes at the very point where there is, in the earthly sense, nothing more to hope for"
W. Kaseman in The Faith Of Abraham, p92
Mercy speaks of bowing the head to look at the plight of another, such as an enemy. It speaks of lifting up those who deserve nothing, and bringing them into a place of reconciliation, freedom and protection. We are recipients of this mercy because of Jesus. We need to thank God that we have a future that is based on God’s love and not our own achievements. We have a God who is awesomely holy and who will not tolerate sin. Yet this same God is generous in grace and mercy towards those who yield their lives to Him.
“The Bible is a dispute about the identity and character of the true God. Israel’s life is initiated and sustained by Yahweh, the giver of life. But Israel is always tempted and seduced by alternative gods and loyalties (Hos 2:8). The polemical question is always “to whom will you compare me? Who is like Yahweh?” (Ex 15:11; Is 40:18) The answer of course is that there is no God like Yahweh who is the God who intervenes powerfully on behalf of the poor and the marginal in the face of oppressive power….this God is not known in any speculative or theoretical way but always through acts of social intervention and inversion that create possibilities of human life in contexts where the human spirit has been crushed (see Is 57:15)."
Prof W. Brueggemann, A Social Reading of the OT p 54
To his astonished listeners Jesus says that it was the tax collector who went home justified before God, whilst there is no mention of the Pharisee.
God’s justice is also about God being in the business of putting right broken relationships. He alone understands what relationships are really all about. He alone really knows what is right and just in a given situation. In scripture we see that God’s justice is also about restoring and repairing communities, protecting and instructing, teaching and encouraging. God’s justice is about a Father’s love being brought to bear on a crippled and rebellious world. Church should reflect the Father’s heart in all these areas.
“The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.”
The source of justification is the love and grace of God alone. Justification originates in the heart of God and not man and is offered, without compromise to the holiness of God, through the blood of Christ.
“The doctrine of justification invites us to acknowledge our imperfection and sin – while rejoicing in the purpose and power of God to transform the poverty of our nature into the likeness of Jesus Christ.”
Prof A. McGrath in Self-Esteem, p 100.
Justification is more than pardon since it declares that the demands of the law are satisfied, not waived. To pardon someone can speak of exercising a prerogative to waive the execution of the law that has been broken (for example Barabbas was released Mat 27:26). Yet a criminal who has been released in this way still remains a criminal.
Believers are justified without the deeds of the law (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16) despite the fundamental idea of justification being that of perfect conformity to the requirements of the moral law. This is only possible through the life, death and resurrection of Christ who perfectly fulfilled the law in every thought, word and deed, no matter the situation or circumstances He found Himself in. He alone has satisfied all the demands of the law.
“There are not two alternative ways of being accepted by God, but there are two figures by which acceptance is expressed: the verdict of the judge and the blessing of the priest. Both are found in the New Testament. In Romans, the language of the law-court is used to describe our justification; in Hebrews the language of the sanctuary includes the same truth. Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice makes forever before those who are thereby sanctified Heb 10:14 Hebrews clearly locates this perfecting in the past with respect to its accomplishment in the present with respect to its enjoyment.”
‘Right with God. Justification in the Bible and the World’ p 29. Ed Dr D.A. Carson.
“…But this idea of ‘being right with God’ is relational rather than moral. It is primarily about the way in which we relate to God, not about any moral or ethical qualities we may possess.”
Prof A.McGrath in Self-Esteem p 96.
Jesus says that it was the tax collector who went home justified before God. This does not mean that the tax collector was made righteous in the sense that he would never do anything wrong again. To justify speaks of being pronounced as righteous (biblically speaking, being made right with God).
God the Holy One has declared that believers in Christ’s saving work are justified. This is all about His righteousness (Rom 3:24, Phil 3:9) being imputed to us. Imputation is the charging or crediting to one’s accounts, the work of another.