He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not with other men, extortionist, 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!’ (Lk 18:9-13)
The above text presents the stark contrast between a so-called ‘pious man’ and a sinner. The former is a beholder of the Law and the latter, a religious outcast. Jesus, in the preamble of the parable, exposes the hidden ugliness of a pharisaic prayer, in which the Pharisee trusts only in himself – whose prayer reveals his indifferent attitude. He justifies himself in the sight of man (cf Lk 16:15) – so much so that self-justification becomes part of his prayer (or part of our work). He fails to realise that what is honourable in human eyes may be utterly detestable in God’s.
Jesus explicitly demarcates righteousness from self-righteousness. A righteous person would not look at others with contempt. On the contrary, he desires to see sinners turn over a new leaf and pursue after the righteousness of God. Very often, we may feel a sense of being better than others in our head, which clouds our understanding that when we are put under the spotlight of scrutiny, we can be guilty of a more serious offence when our hearts are exposed in God’s light. Examples include cursing others, being arrogant and making false allegations… The list goes on.
When Jesus talks about the parable proper, He begins by describing the common tendency of the two parties, the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer – both had a noticeable urge to worship and to pray to God – they both went up to the temple. Sadly, such a good opportunity to draw closer to God turns into a session of condemning others more than anything else. When we condemn a brother in a given situation, we need to realise at the same time, in another set of circumstances, maybe, we are found more guilty than the one we condemn (Mt 7:1-3).
Since God searches the heart of man (Lk 16:15; Jer 17:10), Jesus, being God Himself, first disclosed that the Pharisee was praying to himself. He neither addressed his prayer to, nor gave thanks to God for His providential care, not to mention ascribing any glory to Him, neither did he confess his sins nor make any effort to repent. His prayer was so self-centred that he even condemned another person to magnify his own ‘religious piety’. His religious fanaticism led him to think that he was good before God; he thought he had been fulfilling the requirements of the Law. In fact, he had neglected the weightier provision of the Law, though he may have claimed otherwise (cf Lk 11:42).
He offered a prayer which totally cast the spirit of the ‘Lord’s Prayer” aside and was contrary to it. He tossed the ‘shema’ (Deut 6:4), the spirit of the Law, out of his mind. A violation that was against the tenets of ‘God is the Lord’ and loving Him totally. A prayer that attempts to gain righteousness by religious deeds is an abomination in God’s eyes. This is a clear failure to view himself correctly before man and God.
In contrast, the guilt-stricken tax-gatherer stood at some distance, feeling unworthy to approach the Lord. He was clearly aware of his own sins. But with a contrite heart, demonstrated in the beating of his breast, he genuinely sought for forgiveness from God with repentance. He knew he could not face God, but at the same time he knew that only He could give him a chance of reconciling with Him. Shamefully, with his head bowed down, he cried out to the Lord to heal the breach. His prayer was heard.
Jesus’ conclusion of this parable was simple: “I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Humility calls for the understanding that we are not perfect yet. In this parable both were morally corrupt. Perhaps the tax-gatherer was publicly known for his corruption (he exacted Roman taxes with throat-cutting profit). The Pharisee may have been upright in the light of his own religiousness, but still sinned against God in many ways. His very self-righteous prayer was an example. Have we ourselves not been sinning against God too?
Unlike the Pharisee who used his own charity as the standard of righteousness, the tax-gatherer’s humility was demonstrated in his using of God’s righteousness to measure himself. He knew he fell miserably short of God’s standard, and thus prayed truthfully for forgiveness. Without humility, we may even condemn a sinner more than the sin itself. This is no way suggesting that we should tolerate sin or allow a sinner to go unpunished. For God is just, and will make us accountable for what we have done (Eccl 11: 9-10).
The lack of humility in prayer made the Pharisee self-righteous. The same may happen to us as we go about our Christian duties, and if we are not careful, it may even give rise to conflict – dissension, slander and hatred – to the detriment of Christ’s body, (cf Gen 4:4ff). He who always justifies himself will always think that he is righteous. However, there is none who is righteous, not even one, according to the OT scriptures (Ps 14:1-3; cf Rm 3:10-18). For righteousness, in a scriptural sense, entails the practice of God’s law and being considered right with God. Though we cannot sweepingly claim that none is righteous in the NT (cf Rev 3:4), we must not say that we have already attained to the righteousness required by God (cf Phil 3:12ff).
It is the attitude of the tax collector toward God that we are to adopt.