What Is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector About?

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When it comes to prayer, the posture of our heart matters. Our attitude in approaching God has a significant impact on how those prayers are received. To illustrate this point, Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector.

The Pharisee’s prayer

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get’” (Luke 18:10-12).

Interestingly, Jesus tells us how the Pharisee stood by himself. What would be significant about the Pharisee standing alone to pray? It’s an image of the self-sufficiency found in his prayer.

Like many of us, his prayer begins with thanksgiving. Except his gratitude is based on his esteem for himself. He isn’t as bad as the riff-raff out there. After all, he isn’t an evildoer or a tax collector. He fasts and gives regularly. Honestly, God’s lucky to have the Pharisee on His side.

This prayer is a little over the top. But Jesus wants us to understand this man’s attitude. He believes he’s special. He’s one of the good guys. He does good things, and he deserves good things. It’s really a picture of the temptation that comes with obedience.

The hazard of walking with God is that we believe we’re in God’s good graces based on our performance-and not His mercy. This is a dangerous place to be.

The tax collector’s prayer

Next, Jesus turns His attention to the tax collector:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).

Notice the difference in this man’s posture? He is standing by himself. He won’t even lift his eyes toward heaven. He stands off at a distance and beats his breast, which is a pretty universal image of shame and sorrow.

He doesn’t bother trying to recommend himself to God like the Pharisee. As far as he’s concerned, his only hope is for God to show him mercy. And in the end, Jesus tells us that the tax collector is the only one that receives mercy.

Allowing God to exalt us

From our vantage point, it’s relatively easy to make judgments about who’s good and who’s bad. But from God’s perspective, there isn’t a lot of difference. And the only distinction that genuinely matters is based on who have humbled themselves before Him. In the end, we aren’t welcomed into the kingdom because of our works. Instead, it is God’s gracious gift of the cross that allows us to enjoy His favor.

And when we humble ourselves before Him, He lifts us up.

Sometimes we all struggle with unloving generalizations that allow us to elevate ourselves above others.