Luke 18 verses 11 & 12. “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get”.
At this point in our reflections it would be helpful to remember that Luke is writing this gospel for the sake of his friend, Theophilus (Luke 1 verses 1-4). Luke has taken great care to be accurate in everything he recorded, for he wants Theophilus to be sure that the Christian faith rests on sure foundations.
Having then recorded that Christ will one day return to execute judgement on all evil and unrighteous people, the obvious question then is: who are the unrighteous and who are the just? Who are unacceptable and unworthy and who are those God deems worthy of the coming Kingdom? This is the question raised in this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
We need great humility as we consider this question because it is all too easy for people – especially those who have suffered in some way, to regard themselves as the innocent and the good, and to take it for granted that it is always “other people” who are wicked. We therefore all need to be careful of the attitudes we adopt, even when we are praying. Sometimes our prayers can portray what we think, not of God, but of ourselves. And we could be disastrously wrong. The Pharisee in this parable is a case in point.
He was a very religious man, and he might have been very sincere in his practises. You yourself know how easy it is for irreligious people to mock those who wear outward garb as part of their religious practice. So it is quite possible this Pharisee might have been the butt of gibes and jokes from those lesser members of somebody like the tax collector or even the wicked woman. Remember this is only a parable but the pictures Jesus used would have resonated with the experiences of his hearers. And for them the Pharisee would be the good guy.
The Pharisee is pictured as taking his stand before God. On what basis does he come before God? Why, it is on the basis of his own good deeds, for he proceeds to describe to God how much better he was than those loose-living men around him. He even singles out the tax collector over the way in another part of the temple. We may shake our heads as we read this story, because of the obvious self-righteousness Jesus is able to portray in this character. But are we not all like that in some way?
It is, of course, quite true that some people live better lives than others, and when we hear the word “sinner” used, we may be tempted to think of the flagrantly wicked as an example of what it means to be a sinner. Many people today seldom think of themselves as sinners.
The problem is that God does not judge us by each other’s standards. He does not say, “Look at John or Bill, or Mary. You did not live a good life like them”. No! God judges by His own absolute standard of justice, and by that standard, although we may not have been as bad as others, we are nevertheless all sinners who fall short of His glory.
The Pharisee was sadly mistaken. And the tax collector?
Ah yes, the tax collector! What about him?
We will find out tomorrow.