The Difference Between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

When Jesus 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.

 

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.

Whereas, here are some of the apparent moral virtues of the Pharisee:

  • The Pharisee is a man of discipline and prayer. He had given a tenth of all that he had. (Sinclair Ferguson explained, “If a church were made up entirely of Pharisees, its church budget would double, if not triple, if not actually quadruple.”)
  • The Pharisee is thankful for all things in his life.
  • The Pharisee is different from other people.
  • The Pharisee lives a far better life in society than the tax collector does.
  • The Pharisee is more like you or me than the tax collector.

Yet, it was the tax collector and not the Pharisee who went to heaven, because the Pharisee had a religion that had no place for mercy, whereas the tax collector saw his need for mercy. Ferguson notes,

Most of them as they listened to this story were guessing, ‘It’s obvious which one gets saved. It’s bound to be the Pharisee. He’s the only one with the qualifications. The other one is utterly disqualified. However, there is one thing missing. He has a religion that has no place for mercy, whereas the tax collector saw his need for mercy. He has no place for those psalms that speak about need, that speak about despair, that speak about wretchedness.

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