A parable is a story that illustrates a Biblical truth. So, it is not describing an historical event. It is a story that Jesus made up to help us understand a point that he was making.
We don’t know exactly where or when this story was told but it is likely to be in the last days of his public ministry.
Pharisees were a group of Jews that believed in obeying religious laws very carefully and they kept themselves apart from other Jews and ordinary people.
A man would have been easily identified as a Pharisee. He would have worn a distinctive blue fringe and prayers written on scrolls on his shoulder and his brow.
The Pharisee believed he had a right to salvation simply because he was born a Jew and because he spent his life working hard to obey all the rules and laws that are written in Scripture. They had even devised some rules that were an extreme version of the rules that God had given to Moses all those generations ago.
Because of the passionate way they stuck to the rules the Pharisees felt superior to everyone else who weren’t as ‘good’ as they were. They actually considered everyone else ‘as nothing.’
The tax collector on the other hand, would have been in general working clothes with nothing to identify him as a man of God. We know that tax collectors were not popular people because they worked for the hated Romans who occupied the country and they would charge more than they needed to in order to keep the surplus for themselves. This made tax collectors very wealthy people.
In this parable both men went up to the Temple to pray and meet with God.
Both stood to pray as was the custom and they probably prayed out loud.
The Pharisee stood by himself to pray. He wanted to be separated from everyone else in the Temple. I suspect he didn’t want to have contact with someone who was a sinner in case it contaminated him. But also, he could be seen better if he was not in a crowd.
And the Hebrew words used indicate that he almost prayed to himself, congratulating himself on a life well lived and he did this for a long time.
It is right to thank God but the Pharisee slips into pride. He thanks God that he is not like the rest of mankind. Perhaps he looks around the Temple and fixes his eyes on those around him as he says, I’m not like him who is an extortioner, or him who is an adulterer or him who is the worst, a tax collector.
Look at exactly how good and superior I am. I fast twice a week - in the law of Moses people were only required to fast 1 day a year. And, he says, I give away 10% of everything I gain. His boasting indicated that he was not a generous man. He didn’t give away any more than the minimum that was required of him.
The tax collector stood out of the way and begged for mercy, demonstrating how ashamed he was. He would not even look up. He beat his chest as if beating his heart.
And in absolute contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector thought everyone else was better than he was. His prayer is desperate “God have mercy upon me, a sinner”
Of the two men, Jesus tells us, it is the tax collector who leaves the Temple completely right with God.
On the outside the Pharisee looked like the person that God would show favour to but God doesn’t look at what we do, he looks beyond that. It is what is going on inside our heart that is important to God.
God gives hope and mercy to even the worst sinner, the lowest in society, the most despised. No one is too bad to be saved. All it takes is a sincere, repentant and humble heart.
But humility is a difficult thing to achieve. As soon as you congratulate yourself on being humble or doing something humbly you are actually being prideful.
I don’t know about you but when I read this parable I found myself thinking about the Pharisee in the same way that the Pharisee thought about the tax collector. For a moment I thought, well, thankfully I am not like that Pharisee! I had to check myself and confess my pride.
l’m reminded of the prayer that David prayed in Psalm 139 “Search me, God and know my heart;” tonight I’m going to ask God to search my heart and reveal to me and deal with any pride that is harbouring there.
Tomorrow we move on to the final days of Jesus ministry and think about the the prayers Jesus prayed after the Passover meal, while he waited in the garden for his arrest.