Last year we spent several days over why the Pharisees and Jesus butted heads so often, so we won’t go too much into that right now. I think, however, that it would be helpful for us to remember how Jesus’ original audience would have reacted to this story. People today don’t tend to have a lot of respect for religious leaders (with some justification), especially for those forty years old or younger. But the Pharisees were highly respected by the common people of that time, even if it was nigh impossible for the common man to keep up with the fastidious nitpicky rules which made up the traditions of the elders. The Pharisees were esteemed for their holiness and zeal for God’s law.
On the other hand, our Savior couldn’t have made a better pick to provide a more stark contrast with the Pharisee. Just a quick reminder: Tax collectors were hated, despised, and often assassinated. Each one was considered a traitor to his own people by collaborating with the hated Romans. On top of that, they commonly stole from people by taxing more than Rome actually required and pocketing the remainder.
Knowing this, I can just imagine how someone in Jesus’ first audience would've anticipated how this story ended: “And the Lord smiled on the Pharisee for being righteous, and in response to the tax collector’s prayer, God said ‘Yeah, I agree. You really are scum. Mercy? Forget it!’”
Think about this—The tax collector is the hero of the story. Why? What did he do right that resulted in God’s forgiveness and a frown on the religious man?
Before we do that, let’s take a quick examination of the Pharisee’s “prayer.” I put that in quotes for a reason. This is because the man’s prayer is nothing but patting himself on the back. He’s got nothing but good things to say about himself. He’s following God’s law, and thus he thinks he’s worthy of the Lord’s smile. Notice that he loves to compare himself to other people: robbers, evildoers, adulterers, and of course the tax collector sitting in another spot in the congregation (probably by himself). That’s the essence of our misunderstanding, isn’t it? Ultimately God’s standard is not some other person. His standard is perfection.
That’s my “Jerry Springer” theory. The reason those reality shows are so popular is because you can watch them and think pretty well of yourself: “Well, I’ve never cheated on my wife with my sister-in-law.” As long as we compare ourselves with another sinful person, we’ll always find someone worse off than ourselves.
And then we get to the tax collector, the hero in this tale. He’s screwed up, and he knows it. He knows that if he ever gets what he deserves, he’s toast (literally). He’s under no illusions that he’s in a right relationship with the Almighty Judge. There’s no pleading of extenuating circumstances, no bringing up of any excuses, like a bad childhood. He throws himself completely on the mercy of God’s “court.”
Here’s the punchline: It worked. God forgives him. His slate is wiped clean. The term Jesus uses is “justified,” and it’s a word he didn’t use often. Paul did a lot, though. It’s used several times in Romans to describe what happens to us when we receive Christ as our Lord and Savior. It was a legal term, roughly equivalent to being declared “not guilty” in a trial.
We’re really guilty. All of us have broken God’s law and God’s heart. We don’t do the things we’re supposed to do, and we do things we know we shouldn’t. And when we come to Christ and plead nothing but his mercy, we’re forgiven.
Of course if you’re reading this and haven’t received Christ, then you know what to do. If not, I’ve written about this elsewhere.
If you’re reading this and are saved, do you think you’re off the hook here? Um, no. If you’ve known the Savior for a while, I know what danger you’re in, because I’m in it too. It’s so easy to tap into the spirit of the Pharisee, especially as we see society degrading itself further and further. If you compare yourself with Hollywood actors or Wall-Street crooks, you look pretty good, don’t you? Drop the act, won’t you? You know you need God’s mercy and grace as much now as you ever have. Take this story as a dire warning, which it is.
Lord Jesus, I’m so sorry for channeling the spirit of the Pharisees sometimes. There’s only one Judge here, and it’s not me. Please remind me of that, as often as I need it.