The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Luke 18:9-14

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
March 2009

In Luke 18 Jesus tells a very famous parable. This parable is only found in the Gospel of Luke. The KJV calls this the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. I call it the Parable of the Pharisee and the Republican. I say that jokingly because just about all Jews today in America are Democrats and the Jews descended from the Pharisees historically.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is a story about two people. They represent two different types of people. We have two men here and two religions – one based on mercy and one based on merit. There are only two kinds of people (and only two world religions) – people who believe in salvation by grace and people who believe in salvation by works and this parable illustrates these two groups. Here you have two people. Both were men. Both were Jews. Both go to church (on their way to Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem). Both pray.

Both pray to God. In fact, both pray to the same God. They both go to a prayer meeting. Both prayed in the same posture (standing) and in the same place (Temple). They were at the same place at the same time doing the same thing but when they left, one went home changed and one went home condemned. One of these men went to Heaven and one went to Hell. Not everyone who worships God is saved. Not everyone who goes to church, even our church is necessarily saved.

The question for us is, Which individual describes us? All of us are either Pharisees or Publicans. Are we more like the Pharisee or more like the tax collector? The irony is that the one who went to Hell looked pretty good and the one who went to heaven looked pretty bad. The Pharisee had a good reputation and the tax collector had a bad reputation.

Pharisees today don’t have that great of a reputation but in the first century they were very well respected. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were unpopular then and they still are today. Many preachers have titled this section, “A Good Man Lost and A Bad Man Saved”. The man who looks good on the outside and feels good about himself went to Hell. The man who looked bad on the outside and felt terrible about himself went to Heaven.

Characteristics of the Pharisee

1. He was very religious.

He always goes to church and even to prayer meeting. There are people who are very religious but are lost. There are many Muslims who pray five times a day. They are very religious and very devout, just like this Pharisee. The lesson here is that religion does not save anyone. When Paul visited the idol worshipers in Athens, Greece, he said that they were very religious (Acts 17:16, 22) but their religion did not save them. Later on, he told the same group of people that the day of judgment was coming and they needed to repent (Acts 17:30-31).

2. He was very moral.

The Pharisee was not a murderer. He was not a bank robber. He did not cheat on his taxes. He didn’t run around on his wife. He kept his marriage vows. He was a law-abiding citizen and was well-respected in the community. He was very moral outwardly (Matthew 23:25-28). The lesson here is that good works do not save anyone (Galatians 2:16).

3. He was zealous.

Notice, this Pharisee did not just pray, he fasted. More Christians pray than fast. This Pharisee prayed and fasted and not only did he fast, he fasted two days a week (Monday and Thursday). The Mosaic Law only required him to fast one day a year on the Day of Atonement. That wasn’t enough for him. He went beyond what was required and fasted over a hundred more days a year.

In fact, he did not just fast, he tithed. Not all Christians do that and he tithed more than was required. The Law only required you to tithe corn, wine, oil and cattle (Deuteronomy 14:22-23). The Pharisees didn’t just tithe food, they tithed herbs and spices (cf. Luke 11:42; Matthew 23:23).

You can tithe in church and still be lost. This Pharisee tithed himself straight to Hell. The lesson, once again, is that good works do not save, even if you do a lot of them (Romans 10:1-3; Galatians 1:14).

4. He was arrogant.

Even though this Pharisee was religious, moral and zealous, he was still unsaved. Why? There is one reason – Pride. The Pharisee was not rejected because he was religious or moral or zealous but because he was proud. He was self-righteous. What does it mean to be self-righteous? How do we know if we are self-righteous? There are three characteristics of a person who is self-righteous. We see this in Luke 18:9.

Am I Self-Righteous Like the Pharisee?

a) If you are self-righteous, you are confident of your own righteousness.

You have an inflated view of yourself. You think very highly of yourself. You do not find any fault in yourself. The Pharisee did not think he was a sinner (cf. Proverbs 30:12). If you think you can be saved by anything you can do, you are just like this Pharisee.

b) If you are self-righteous, you love to boast and exalt yourself.

This Pharisee went to the Temple to pray but he never really does. He is really boasting, not praying. As William Barclay, said, “The Pharisee did not really go to pray; he went to inform God how good he was”. Notice how many times you see the pronoun “I” in Luke 18:11-12. He says it four times or five times (depending on which translation you have) in two short verses. If you like to boast about yourself, you are just like this Pharisee (cf. Jeremiah 9:23).

c) If you are self-righteous, you look down on others.

You think you are superior (superiority complex). You not only do not find any fault in yourself, you find numerous faults in others (Isaiah 65:2-5). That’s what the Pharisee did in Luke 18:11-12. If you think you are better than anyone else, you are just like this Pharisee. If you despise others, you are like the Pharisees.

Who are some of the people we tend to look down on today? Punk rockers, teenagers with body piercings and Gothic clothing, pregnant teenagers, divorced men and women, homosexuals, prostitutes, gamblers and junkies, immigrants and illegal aliens, those who are of a different religion, people with disabilities, poor, smelly homeless people who don’t exactly belong in our churches.

There are many modern versions of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector on the Internet. The first one I found many years ago but do not remember the source.

Modern Versions of This Parable

Evangelical Republican – “I thank you that I am not a homosexual, a pro-choicer, an evolutionist, or even like this welfare mom, an irresponsible drain on society. I voted for your servant, George W. Bush. I send my children to a private Christian school and I’m thinking about homeschooling next year. I give money to the American Family Association and Focus on the Family so that values will not disappear in the United States.”

Liberal Christian – “I thank you that I am not like this Fundamentalist: intolerant, judgmental, a bible-literalist, you know, an all-around jerk. I employ the latest in the critical apparatuses and scientific methodologies. I read the Jesus Seminar. I make sure people understand that you will not judge them but are there to help them actualize their reality, whatever reality they choose.

Pentecostals– “I thank you that I am not like any other person on the entire planet. I don’t watch TV, go to movies or listen to secular music. I don’t go to restaurants that serve alcohol. I certainly do not drink. In fact, I have purged my life of all fun. I believe in holiness.”

Praise and Worship Leader – “I thank you, Lord” (eight times) that I am not singing hymns.” (three times)

Timothy Reynolds gives another modern retelling of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.[1]


An elder arrived early for the service and sat down on the other side of the chapel from the young lad he’d never seen before. He looked like one of the gangsters that hung around outside the swimming pool and were nuisance with their skate boards. The elder bowed his head to pray as he always did and said, “Thank you, Lord, that by your grace I have been kept from that sort of life and was a member of the church and had a good job by the time I was this guy’s age.” The young lad didn’t even bow his head or close his eyes, but just said, “God, I don’t even know why I’m here, but I know I need you. Please forgive me for ignoring you.”

Clay Gentry gives several other modern versions of this parable[2].  He applies it to “The Dressed-Down Christian and the Dressed-Up Christian”.

Two Christian men go to church and sat on same pew, one a younger, dressed-downed Christian, the other an older, dressed-up Christian.

As the two men sat on the same pew, the younger, dressed-down Christian prayed, “God I thank you that I’m not other Christ followers, ritualistic, traditionalist, or even like this guy sitting on the other end. I’m authentic; I’m sold out for You; and I don’t put on a facade by dressing-up to worship You.”

But the older, dressed-up Christian quietly prayed to himself, “God, I’m not perfect. I have failed Thee often. In Your steadfastness, have mercy on me a sinner.”

I tell you, this man left the church service justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

He also applies the parable to “The Home-School Mom and the Public-School Mom”.

Two moms take their children to the park to play, one a home-schooling mom, the other, a public-school mom.

As the two women watched their children play together, the home-schooling mom prayed, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other women, selfish, unfit mothers, poor homemakers or even like this woman who ships her kids off to public school. I raise my own kids; I protect them from worldly influences; and I ensure that my kids have a godly, Bible-based education.”

But the public-school mom, humbly prayed, “God thank you for my children. Please help me be a godly mother.”

I tell you, this mom went home justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts herself will be humbled, but the one who humbles herself will be exalted.

He applied the parable to “The Fit, Athletic Woman and the Slightly, Overweight Woman”

Two women go the grocery store to do their weekly shopping, one the fit, athletic type with a normal body mass index and the other who was slightly overweight.

As the two women waited in line to check-out, the fit, athletic woman prayed, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other women, lazy, unhealthy, poor homemakers, or even like this fat woman in front of me. I work out three times a week; I take care of Your temple by carefully watching what I eat; and I only feed my family good healthy foods.”

But the woman who was slightly overweight, humbly prayed, “God, thank You for all that You provide for me and my family. We don’t deserve it.”

I tell you this woman went to her house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts herself will be humbled, but the one who humbles herself  will be exalted.

Characteristics of the Tax Collector

The tax collector was saved after this prayer. If you want to be saved, you have to do the four things the tax collector did.

1. He acknowledged that he was a sinner.

What he does not do is boast about his good deeds, like the Pharisee did. He knew he was a sinner. He does not deny it. In the first century, tax collectors were seen as synonymous with sinners, just as today we identify drug dealers and prostitutes today. Tax collectors in the first century worked for Rome. Rome occupied Israel and the taxes went to Rome.

Jews hated to pay taxes to the Romans because they were an occupying power. Jewish tax collectors were considered traitors to their own people. In addition to that, they were extremely wealthy and they had a reputation for being dishonest and corrupt. They would sometimes assess more taxes than was legal. If a farmer or businessman wouldn’t pay, they would turn him over to the soldiers.

In fact, he does not just say, God have mercy to me a sinner”. He says, “God have mercy to me THE sinner”. Paul also said that he was “the chief of sinners” (I Timothy 1:15). The worst sinners are actually the best candidates for salvation. They know they need to be saved. That is why Jesus said what he did in Matthew 21:31.

There are two extremes. Some people are so wicked that they think that they are too bad to be saved. Other people are so moral that they think that they are too good to be saved. If you do not think you are a sinner, you can’t be saved, because you won’t see your need (cf. Mark 2:17).

2. He felt remorse for his sin.

He does not try and excuse himself. He does not try to justify himself and say that, while he is a bad person, he is not as bad as some other people in the world or that while he is a bad person, he cannot help being bad. He takes full responsibility for his sin. We know he knew he was a sinner from his body language: he beat his chest as an act of contrition, prays from a distance and doesn’t even look up to heaven, because he feels so guilty

3. He confesses his sin to God.

The tax collector says the sinner’s prayer and is saved (Romans 10:13). You have to call on the name of the Lord to be saved. He is the only one who can save you. You have to ask Him to save you. The Bible says that “salvation is of the Lord”. This prayer was short, simple and sincere. The words are not magical. You can say the words and not mean them.

4. He prays for mercy.

He does not ask to get what he deserves but what he does not deserve. If God gave us what we all deserve, we would all be in Hell.

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