What we need to realize after hearing this parable is that the thing that makes the difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is the One telling the parable. When the tax collector beat his breast and cried out to God for mercy, he was really asking God to give him an atoning sacrifice for his sin. The Savior of the parable was heading to the cross to lay down his life for the filthy, morally bankrupt, religiously void tax collector so that he might justify him by faith alone.
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector 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 they seem to both be praying to the same God. Both men have come to the same place of worship. Both were members of the same covenant community. Both are 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 members 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 known for their sexual immorality.
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 is unjust to the poor and the weak.
- The tax collector probably was an adulterer.
- The tax collector doesn’t pray in what was the acceptable manner and form.
- The tax collector probably hadn’t been to the Temple in years.