Updated: Feb 3, 2021
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This passage from Luke is known generally as The Pharisee and the Publican. The Publican is also known as a “tax collector.” It is a story that everyone should know.
It seems to be hard to get the meaning of Jesus pointing this out “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I can’t tell you how many times a sermon is laser pointed towards the poor old tax collector and how “this man went home justified rather than the other.” The stress that is put on this parable falls on the humility angle.
Well, that misses the point of Jesus telling this to a select group. Guess what group that would be? It would be a group of Pharisees, or Sadducees, or even the priests of the Temple.
That is why the Pharisee is standing there saying how glad he is like he is and not like losers, like that tax collector over there. He is just like those in the group Jesus is telling a parable to.
The tax collector is no saint. He is filthy with sin and he knows it. He beats his chest with anguish over his inability to stop sinning. He is just like you and me, as long as you feel guilty for not always being the best you can be. We have a prayer in the book for us to read aloud each week, which says, “Forgive me God for I have sinned yet again. Still can’t get through a week without doing something wrong. Sorry.”
Sure, we who go to church and get on our knees and beg for forgiveness. Then we can go home justified, because we have humbled ourselves. BUT … to be justified and then go sin again is inexcusable. You cannot get to Heaven with sin all over you. So, we repeat the cycle, with nothing new ever happening.
Adam fell from grace for less sin than we do in a week’s time. What makes anyone think they can get to Heaven when they are not justified? Jesus did not come saying, “Look guys, try your best to do what I do, but if you makes some errors, no big whoop. It’s okay.” Jesus said you do not go to the Father’s house with the dirt of sin on you.
So, guess why the Pharisees are the focus of this parable? Give up?
The Pharisees are the ones that have the responsibility of placing the people like the Publican on the road to righteousness. Rather than stand around thanking God for their comfy lives, they should be teaching the sinners how not to sin, if only by being examples of Apostles and Saints, as Jesus models.
The Pharisee in the Temple, as far as any parable about a Pharisee goes, is symbolic of a rabbi or priest. He is in this parable because he represents a leader. He is the shepherd. The tax collector represents the flock.
Symbols are the meaning, not the reality of one Pharisee and one tax collector. Two represents the duality of a church. One is the head, one is the body. Can you see that depicted in the picture above?
Literally, one thinks Jesus is telling how a Pharisee was being loud so everyone can overhear him saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” No! He is speaking so everyone can hear. The hear him because he is the leader speaking to them, their preacher, their trusted teacher.
Instead of being the good shepherd, he is calling out sinners as if he is not one, giving the impression that he is righteous. Simply by wearing a fancy robe or a shiny new suit and power tie, the one standing up before a congregation and talking out loud is assumed to be honest, pure, offering a helping hand.
Jesus is making this point because the whole problem the Israelites had, the reason why they lost the land God gave them, the reason they were under Roman domination in Jerusalem was the spiritual leaders of the Jews were not teaching the people HOW to WANT to live by the Law. Sure, they taught the Law, but they used that knowledge to throw it in the faces of the sheep that had no clue how to save themselves.
Jesus was in town to change things. He called the Pharisees out time and time again. He ate dinner with a tax collector, but that was not condoning sin, it was challenging the Pharisees. Jesus was not sent by God to justify sin. He was sent to teach people how to receive the spirit of the Law, and how to open their hearts to welcome the Holy Spirit. That wasn’t happening, so the people were always sinning, and always feeling guilty. Some took advantage of the guilty.
The reason this parable is so powerful and why it must be understood properly today is Christianity has become the dead vine that the Temple of Jerusalem was. Once upon a time in the land of Christianity the Apostles taught new Apostles. Saints bred new Saints. Then everything ground to a halt and it magically turned back into the Pharisee and the Publican in the church building.
Humility is good. However, humility is impossible to maintain by will power. A mantra like, “I will be Christian. I will be Christian. I will be Christian.” will not cut it. You have to receive the spirit of the Law. You have to be able to see the true meaning of the lessons. You have to teach others this and let others teach you more. Then, you have to let the Holy Spirit overwhelm you and take control over your actions.
R. T. Tippett.