Pharisees were the fundamentalists of Jesus’ day. They were very concerned with strict adherence to the Old Testament Law. And they tried to maintain separation from pretty much anyone they considered sinners. I am sure you have met modern-day Pharisees. You can find them in many of our churches today. Christians who consider themselves to be a bit closer to God’s throne than many others.
Tax collectors are not popular today. In Jesus’ day, they were despised, collaborators with an occupying force (Rome), and a general waste of oxygen. At least that’s what the Pharisees of the day considered them as being. While the Pharisees were considered to be holy, the tax collectors were thought of as low-life scum, folks that a good Pharisee would go out of his way to avoid.
With that in mind, Jesus tells an interesting parable whose two main characters are a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both men went up to pray. But their prayers were vastly different. As was God’s response to them.
Two Men Went Up to Pray
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 18:9-14 NIV
Only One Was Exalted
You can see the Pharisee patting himself on the back. Telling God how lucky he was to have such a wonderful person on his team. He compared himself to the tax collector and was confident that he was superior in every way; quite the catch for God.
But the tax collector knew his value, at least to the world around him. And he made no assumptions concerning his standing with God. Instead, with mourning and humility, he pled with God for mercy, something that he knew he did not deserve.
I wonder if this Pharisee had any idea that God didn’t even recognize his presence. But instead, had all of his attention focused on the repentant tax collector? The Pharisee felt good about himself and enjoyed the acclaim of others who looked up to him. But he failed to realize that God didn’t care about what he thought of himself. Instead, he was looking for those who would humble themselves before him.
Approach God with Humility, not Pride
Somehow I don’t think things have changed today. We modern-day Pharisees are generally not so blatant about our self-righteousness. But we are too often guilty of comparing ourselves to the ‘sinners’ around us. And then feeling good about ourselves, secretly knowing that God is proud of us.
But how much better to approach the God of all creation with humility, beating our chest and realizing that we are totally unworthy of him? Thankful that he has made us, redeemed us, and brought us into his family. We should never forget that it is not because of what I am, but because of who he is.
Two men went up to pray . . . which one are you? God, have mercy on me, a sinner. So glad that he did … and still does!