The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Luke 18: 9-14

DIG: How do you feel about the Pharisee? Why do you think he acted this way? How do you feel about the tax collector? Why did he act the way he did? How does this parable complement the one on persistence (see Ih – The Parable of the Persistent Widow)? How do both demonstrate faith? What do both teach about ADONAI?

REFLECT: When have you been like the Pharisee in this story? Like the tax collector? What accounts for the difference? Right now, considering your attitudes toward others, which are you most like? Why?

The one main point to this parable is that all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

How important it is to understand that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8)! This was the fundamental difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus’ parable. The Pharisee believed that his own works would justify him, while the tax collector realized that he was a sinner and that his only hope was in God’s mercy. What a difference these attitudes can make in the way we live!1169

Messiah told this parable to some who were confident of their own righteousness like the Pharisees and looked down on everyone else (Luke 18:9). It is set in a chiastic ABC-D-CBA structure. It’s kind of a poetic parallelism, and a normal device in Near Eastern prose to facilitate storytelling. This parable is deliberately structured with seven stanzas that invert with the climax D.

A. Two Go Up, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector: Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (Luke 18:10). The Pharisee had high social status, while the tax collector was despised. The Pharisee is mentioned first, then the tax collector. They both go up. But when it comes time to go down, the tax collector will be in the lead. In the West the word pray is almost exclusively used of private prayer and the word worship is used for corporate worship. However, in biblical literature, the verb pray can mean either. For this parable we will assume public worship.

Yet one can ask, doesn’t each man in the parable offer a private prayer? Yes, but their “private” prayers are in the context of “public” worship Many Jews would go up to the Temple daily to worship in the court of the women [The Court of the Women] and pray during the burning of the incense at the morning and evening (three o’clock in the afternoon) sacrifice. This was so commonly accepted as the right time for private prayers that people who weren’t even in the Temple were known to offer their own special prayers at that time.1170 The time of incense was especially appropriate as a time of personal prayer because by that time in the service the sacrifice of the lamb had covered the sins of Isra’el, and thus the way to ADONAI was open. The faithful could now approach Him.1171 The incense arose before HaShem’s face and the faithful offered up their separate prayers. This scene combines the idea of private prayers (which the two men in this drama need to offer) in the context of public worship (in that the atonement sacrifice that is mentioned below) in a place of public worship like the Temple.1172

B. His Manner and His Prayer: The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed out loud, to himself and not to God, in spite of his appearing to address ADONAI. He continued, saying: God, I thank you that I am not like other people (Luke 18:11a). He wasn’t in contact with God at all but merely boasted and justified himself. The Pharisee’s reasons for standing by himself are easily understood. He considered himself righteous, and not like other people, as we see from his description of them.

Those who kept the Torah in a strict fashion were known as associates (Hebrew: haberim) and those who did not were called people of the Land (Hebrew: am-haaretz). In our parable, paying the tithe is specifically mentioned. In the eyes of a strict Pharisee the most obvious candidate for the designation of an-haaretz would be a tax collector. Furthermore, there was a particular type of uncleanness that was contracted by sitting, riding, or leaning against something unclean.1173 This uncleanness was called midras-uncleanness. The Mishna specifically states, “For Pharisees the clothes of an am-haaretz count as suffering midras-uncleanness” (Mishna Hagigah 2:7).1174 With this background it is little wonder that the Pharisee wanted to stand by himself, away from the rest of the worshipers. If he accidentally brushed up against the tax collector, or any other am-haaretz, he would sustain midras-uncleanness. His state of cleanliness was too important. It needed to be guarded all the time and not risked for any reason. Physical isolation, from his point of view, would be a statement – and an important one at that. So the Pharisee carefully stood aloof from the others gathered in the court of the women.

The Jewish practice is to pray out loud. This adds high definition to the scene. In essence, the Pharisee is therefore preaching to “the less fortunate unwashed” around him. It’s as if he were thinking to himself, “They have little chance to get a good look at a truly righteous man like myself, so I will graciously offer them a few words of judgment along with some instruction in righteousness.” But his prayer reveals more of himself than he probably intended. Prayer in Jewish piety primarily involves offering praise and thanks to ADONAI for all He has done, and petitions for the worshiper’s needs. This Pharisee does neither. He brags about his own self-righteousness and has no requests. Thus his “prayer” degenerates into mere self-aggrandizement. As he proceeds it goes from bad to worse.1175

C. The Tax Collector (the image): For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector (Luke 18:11b NLT). The Pharisees usually displayed a self-conscious superiority toward virtually everyone else. They were offensively detestable, outspoken, sometimes with almost incredible rudeness, lacking decency and charity, but always with much pious self-assertion. Here, his words were selected because he felt they specifically applied to the tax collector, who is already spotted standing at some distance away from the other worshipers.

D. His Self-Righteousness: I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:12b). There is no evidence that the Pharisees fasted twice a week, although they did fast frequently (Matthew 9:14 CJB). The Talmud speaks of one who “undertakes to fast every Monday and Thursday throughout the year” as not unusual but nevertheless not the norm (Ta’anti 12a). Within the framework of trusting God, fasting was and is a normal part of a believer’s life (Isaiah 58:1-12; Mattityahu 6:16-18, 9:14-17).

Because those who reject the Gospel sometimes accuse believers of acting “holier-than-thou,” it is noteworthy that it was Isaiah who first used that phrase referring to Isra’el in rebellion against God. The rebellious Israelites, as if speaking to ADONAI by their actions, said: Keep Your distance and don’t come near [us], because [we are] holier than you (Isaiah 65:5). Unfortunately, God’s people are susceptible to this most offensive of sins, against which both the TaNaKh and the B’rit Chadashah severely warn, religious pride.1176

There were four great Jewish fasts, which in addition to the Day of Atonement and the Fast of Esther (see my commentary on Esther Bw – The Fast of Esther), are still kept. First, the fast of the fourth month, which took place on the seventeenth of Tammuz, in memory of the pillage of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar and the interruption of the daily sacrifice. The rabbis teach that this was also the anniversary of the making of the golden calf, and of Moses breaking the Ten Commandments (see my commentary on Exodus Gq – The Golden Calf Incident). Second, the fast of the fifth month on the ninth of Av (see Mt - The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple on Tisha B'Av in 70 AD). The rabbis teach that the third great fast, the fast of the seventh month on the second of Tishri, was in memory of the slaughter of Gedaliah and his associates at Mizpah (see my commentary on Jeremiah Gg - Gedaliah Assassinated). Fourth, the fast of the tenth month was on the tenth of Tevet, when the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar started.1177

Private fasts would, of course, depend on individuals, but the strict Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday during the weeks intervening between Passover and Weeks, and again, between Sukkot and Hanukkah. Their reasoning was that Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai on a Thursday and came down on a Monday, when he received for the second time the Ten Commandments.1178 It was to this fast that the Pharisee was referring to when he said: I fast twice a week (Luke 18:12a). The rabbis taught that in order to be a proper fast, it had to continue from one sundown until after the next, when the stars appeared. For about twenty-six hours they were to observe the most rigid abstinence from all food and drink.1179

And I pay tithes on my entire income (Luke 18:12b CJB). The requirements to pay ten percent is based on Leviticus 27:30-33 and Numbers 18:21-26; and it is discussed in tractate Ma’aserot of the Talmud, which sets forth what products must be tithed and states the principle that only tithed produce may be eaten (thus untithed produce is not kosher). The Mishna says, “A person who undertakes to be reliable must tithe what he eats, what he sells and what he buys; and he may not stay as a guest with an am-ha’aretz, or an unlearned man (Demai 2:2). But in general tithing all of one’s income was regarded as beyond the call of duty. I would suppose this Pharisee felt he was doing something special and unique for God, for which God owed him thanks and reward. Such a mentality is, of course, neither peculiar to Pharisees in particular nor unbelievers in general; on the contrary, it is those who consider themselves believers who seem to be especially susceptible to this sort of false pride.1180

C. The Tax Collector (the reality): But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven. The image of the tax collector in the mind of the Pharisee is in sharp contrast to the reality of the broken, humble man standing some distance away from the assembled worshipers. He does not stand aloof, but at a distance because he doesn’t feel worthy to stand in the midst of God’s people.

B. His Manner and His Prayer: But he beat upon his chest. The accepted posture for prayer was, and is, to cross the hands over the chest and keep the eyes cast down.1181 But this man’s crossed arms do not remain immobile. Rather, he beats upon his chest. This dramatic gesture is still used in villages all across the Near East from Iraq to Egypt. The hands are closed into fists that are then struck upon the chest in rapid succession. The gesture is used in times of extreme grief or intense anger. It never occurs in the TaNaKh, and appears only twice in the Gospels, both times in Luke. The remarkable feature of this particular gesture is the fact that it is normally characteristic of women, not men. For men it is a gesture of extreme sorrow and it almost is never used. It is not surprising that in all of biblical literature we find this particular gesture mentioned only here and at the cross. When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their chests and went away (Luke 23:48). The crowd naturally included both men and women. Indeed, it took something of the magnitude of the cross to evoke this gesture from Near Eastern men.

What's more, we are told that he beat on his chest. Why the chest? The reason for this is given in an early Jewish commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:2, where Solomon writes: It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. These are the righteous who set their death over against their heart; and why do they beat upon their heart? As though to say, “All is there” (note . . . the righteous beat upon their heart as the source of evil longing) (Midrash Rabbah, Ecclesiastes VII, 2,5, Soncino, page 177).1181 Therefore, this classic Near Eastern gesture is a profound recognition of the truth that out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander (Mattityahu 15:19). This gives us an illustration of the depth of the tax collector’s remorse. What then was his specific prayer?

And said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Grace is getting what you don’t deserve (forgiveness) and mercy is not getting what you do deserve (punishment). The tax collector is not offering a generalized prayer for God’s mercy. He specifically longs for the benefits of atonement (see my commentary on Exodus Go – The Day of Atonement), or a substitute. Those coming to pray at the time of the evening sacrifice would first see the slaughtering and cutting up of the sacrificial lamb (see my commentary on Exodus Fe – The Burnt Offering). Then they would notice the priest going into the Holy Place to burn incense (see Ak – The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold).

Both of these were acts that the Israelite was not merely an onlooker, for they were performed in the name of the people (of which the priest was a representative) in order to affirm daily Israel’s relationship to ADONAI. After the incense had been burned, the priest announced the blessing with outstretched hands and put the name of YHVH upon the people. It was for the reception of the blessing that the people “bowed themselves” (Ecclesiasticus 1.21) to the ground on hearing the Name. This was followed, in the awareness that God would graciously accept the gift, by the bringing of the sacrificial lamb to the bronze altar.

You can almost smell the pungent incense, hear the sounds of the liturgy, the loud clash of the cymbals, the blast of the shofars, the reading of the Psalms, the singing of the Levitical choir on the steps of the Nicanor Gate [The Nicanor Gate], see the great cloud of dense smoke rising from the burnt offering on the bronze altar, and the final prostration of the people. The tax collector is there. He stood at a distance, anxious not to be seen, sensing his unworthiness to stand with the other worshipers. In brokenness he longs to be a part of it all. He desperately wants to stand with “the righteous.” In deep remorse he beats on his chest and cries out in repentance and hope: Oh God! Let it be for me! Make a substitute for me, a sinner! There in the Temple this humble man, acutely aware of his own sin and unworthiness with no merit of his own, longed that the sacrificial lamb on the bronze altar might apply to him. As a result God forgave him.1182

A. Two Go Down, the Tax Collector and the Pharisee: Jesus concluded: I tell you that this tax collector, rather than the other, went down to his house justified before God. In the beginning of the parable two men went up to the Temple to pray at the same time with the Pharisee in the lead. Now the two come down again at the same time. The service is over. But now the tax collector is mentioned first. He is the one justified in ADONAI’s presence. The Pharisee was merely going through the motions; he was just wasting his time. The self-righteous returned home unjustified. The false pride of the Pharisee served only to intensify his guilty condition and increase his sin. The sacrifice of the lamb for the sins of the people is made - but the broken of heart, who come in unworthiness trusting in HaShem’s atonement, they alone are made right with God.1183

Conclusion: For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:14). The original audience was pressed to reconsider how righteousness was achieved. Yeshua proclaims that righteousness is a gift of ADONAI made possible by means of the atonement sacrifice, which is received by those who, in humility, approach as sinners trusting in God’s grace and not their own righteousness.1184


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