The Difference Between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Jesus loved to draw contrasts in order to drive home kingdom principles and truths.

The irony of this parable is that both of these men were going to the Temple to pray. On face value both of them seemed to be praying to the same God. Both men came to the same place of worship. Both were members of the same covenant community. Both were men of the working class. But that’s where the similarity ends.

 

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) is the most theological of all Jesus’ parables. It is the most theological because it deals with the subject that is of most importance to the life of the Christian–namely, how a man or woman, boy or girl is accepted before God.

The irony of this parable is that both of these men were going to the Temple to pray. On face value both of them seemed to be praying to the same God. Both men came to the same place of worship. Both were members of the same covenant community. Both were men of the working class. But that’s where the similarity ends.

Jesus loved to draw contrasts in order to drive home kingdom principles and truths. When he sets out these two men, he does so by appeal to their ethical, social and religious standing. The Pharisee was a respected, religious member of the covenant community. The tax collector was a despised and questionable figure in Jewish society. Throughout the gospel records, tax collectors are identified with “sinners”—a term usually reserved in Jewish society for those known for their sexual immorality.

By human standards the tax collector was not on his way to heaven, but the Pharisee was.

In his sermon, “Going Up, Going Down: The Story of Two Men at Church,” Sinclair Ferguson set out a series of reasons why we would have to conclude that the tax collector was not on his way to heaven, but the Pharisee was. By all human standards, the tax collector was disqualified from salvation on account of the following sinful characteristics:

  • The tax collector had been an unmerciful, money-extorting man.

  • The tax collector was unjust to the poor and the weak.

  • The tax collector probably was an adulterer.

  • The tax collector didn’t pray in what was the acceptable manner and form.

  • The tax collector probably hadn’t been to the Temple in years.

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