Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 seems straightforward and easy to interpret. Luke choreographs where the parable is going by adding an editorial aside at the beginning of the story, “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” There should be no confusion in interpretation. The parable is against self-righteousness. The parable is a reminder that those who are “religious” are in danger at times of trusting their own ability “to get faith right” that they start to view themselves as more important than others. Or, the danger is to classify some sins as worse than others, thus leaving “sinners” out of the kingdom. It is the humble and penitent that find forgiveness.
The Pharisee is clearly the dis-satisfactory character in the story. This is clear from not only the parable, but from Luke’s entire gospel. The Pharisees are the dreadful characters in the entire narrative. It is the Pharisees who question whether Jesus can heal on the Sabbath or not. It is the Pharisees who openly wonder whether Jesus even follows the law of Moses. It is the Pharisees who often draw Jesus’s sharpest rebukes. The Pharisees deserve no sympathy in Luke’s gospel.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, are often honored in Luke’s gospel. It is the tax collectors who are shown mercy. It is the tax collectors who are invited to share meals with Jesus. The tax collectors are given positions of honor and respect by Jesus. The most famous tax collector, Zacchaeus, is only one chapter away when Jesus tells this parable. Readers will immediately recognize: tax collectors are good, Pharisees are bad.
Therefore, as we read the parable, it becomes very easy to quickly choose sides against the Pharisee because he is in the wrong. The Pharisee is self-righteous. The Pharisee is prideful. The Pharisee has gotten correct religious practice confused with discipleship. The Pharisee has forgotten that everyone is saved by grace; and the same grace bestowed on him is also bestowed on the tax collector. Jesus, and Luke, have set up the story in a way that readers will most naturally have animosity toward the Pharisee because of his attitude, and possibly even declare, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee in the story.”
When we utter those words, however, we become the very thing we despise.
Jesus draws such starch contrasts between the two characters in the parable on purpose; he is setting the reader up to be surprised and shocked by the narrative. This doesn’t happen in real life because characters are complex, a mix of good and bad, self-righteousness and humility, wrapped up together. But in stories, characters can be painted in stark terms in order to influence the hearers response. As we hear the story we want to hate the Pharisee. We want to ridicule him and declare, “I’m glad that’s not me.”
I’m glad I’m not the self-righteous person who thinks I have it all together. I’m glad I’m not the immature Christian who has to have everything their way. I’m glad I’m not the rich, ungenerous business owner who never helps others. I’m glad I’m not the legalistic church goer who thinks everything has to fit a particular pattern in order to ensure salvation. I’m not the one with the out of date political beliefs who has finally found the true Christian political party. I’m glad I haven’t committed one of the really bad sins that destroy families, careers, and life. I’m glad I’m not like them. They’re messed up. They’re immature. They’re naive. They’re wrong. They’re sinners.
Thank God I’m not like the Pharisees.
If I’m not careful, my judgemental self-righteous spirit gets the best of me and I begin to look with contempt on others who for some reason or another just don’t get faith and Christianity. I start to think if everyone could just be like me, we would be better off. I start to wonder when others will correct their sin problems, find peace with God, and straighten out their lives. When I start to thank God I’m not like the Pharisee, I become the Pharisee in the story who trusted in himself that he was righteous.
And then the parable has done exactly what the parable is supposed to do, surprise us with a response we weren’t expecting to help us see the truth of our own lives.
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.
Lord Jesus, have mercy on us all.