Thrust Statement: This parable challenges God’s people in their relationship to others.

Scripture Reading: Luke 18:9-14


            This Parable is one of the best known of all the parables spoken by Jesus. For two thousand years, this Parable has challenged God’s people. It is a parable that calls forth feelings of anguish as one reflects upon the words of the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” Luke 18:11).[1] Even today, Christians still speak of a pharisaic attitude—a holier than thou outlook. One can identify with the tax collector who would not even lift up his eyes to heaven and proclaimed himself a sinner in need of mercy and forgiveness. This parable disarms the one who is blind to his or her true position before God. The religious man or woman must never trust in his or her own righteousness, but in God’s righteousness (Romans 1:16-17; 4:1-9; 10:1-4; Philippians 3:7-11).

            This parable as well as the preceding parable (Luke 18:1-8—The Parable of the Persistent Widow) does not deal with prayer as such, even though prayer is the means by which Jesus wishes to convey certain attitudes that should and should not be manifested in the lives of His people. In the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus, so it seems, wants His disciples to maintain vigilance and to constantly long and pray for His return (18:8)—don’t give up praying. In the second parable, He calls attention to the true humility of faith, a faith alone that justifies. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector addresses a group of individuals that were confident of their own righteousness and who also looked down on everybody else.

Listen to Luke as he sets the stage for this stabbing parable that pierces into the very soul of men and women as well as a parable that illuminates one’s attitude of self-righteousness toward God: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 18:9).  The King James Version renders this verse: “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves thatb they were righteous, and despised others.” “Trusted in themselves” is literally, in the Greek text, “relying on themselves” (pepoiqovte" ejfjj eJautoi'", pepoiqotes ef Jeautois). Not only were they “relying on themselves,” but Luke also says, “despising the rest” (ejxouqenou'ta" touV" loitouv", exouqenoutas tous loitous). As one approaches this parable, one observes that this parable begins with Luke's comments about the reason for this narrative. The interpretive comments by Luke reveal the purpose of Jesus in telling the story about the Pharisee and the tax collector. With this narrative, Jesus strips one naked of any pretense to self-righteousness as the way to God. This preparatory remark sets the stage for this penetrating parable that uncovers one's life in his or her arrogance before God as well as one's humility, a meekness that God desires.

Just a cursory reading of Luke reveals that this Book is a book about conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. The Pharisees, for example, sprinkle this Book from beginning to end. Prior to this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke give an introductory remark in which he combines the tax collectors and Pharisees before recording Jesus' parable about the lost sheep: “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (15:1-2). Then in chapter 16, Luke gives a revealing statement about the Pharisees’ love of money and Jesus’ comments about the Pharisees: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight” (16:14-15).


The Pharisees are mentioned twenty-five times in Luke.[2] On the other hand, “tax collectors” (plural) are mentioned nineteen times in the Book of Luke[3] and “tax collector” (singular) is mentioned six times.[4] The Gospel of Matthew also enhances one insight into the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders as reported by Luke. The Pharisees are mentioned twenty-nine times in the Gospel of Matthew.[5] Not only is the Book of Luke a book about conflict with the religious leaders, but the Book of Matthew, too, is also a book about conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. The Gospel of Matthew leaves the Pharisees naked. His Gospel exposes the degradation of so many within this particular party. For instance, Matthew, as he reports the ministry of John the Baptist, calls attention to John’s encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath’” (Matthew 3:7)?

        Matthew sets the stage for what is in store for Jesus and His followers by the religious leaders. He starts with John the Baptist scolding of the Pharisees, and then Matthew turns to Jesus’ analysis of the Pharisees’ exposition of the Law.  In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, one also discovers that Jesus analyzes the traditions of the Pharisees with the Word of God itself (5:21-48). Jesus, after setting forth the kind of behavior that God expects of His people, says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:29).

Jesus begins this Sermon with a call for humility: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). This kind of behavior is the very opposite of the religious leaders. Jesus began His ministry with a castigation of the Pharisees and concludes His ministry with seven woes against the religious leaders, which includes the Pharisees (23:1-30). Jesus’ castigation of the religious leaders as hypocrites begins in 23:13. The first twelve verses of this chapter sets the tone for Jesus’ rebuke of the religious leaders:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. 5 “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteriesa wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ 8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.b 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

This background of the Pharisees helps to focus attention on Jesus’ parable about self-righteousness, especially the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. As one reflects upon this parable, one immediately observes two diametrically opposite views of one’s perception in God’s presence—one stood at the pinnacle of holiness while the other stood at the summit of wickedness. As Jesus addresses the self-righteous, He endeavors to paint a picture of what men and women ought to be, not what they really are. In this parable, one is allowed to enter into the souls of two men that were totally opposite of one another. At first glance, one might think that this picture of the Pharisee’s praying is overdrawn, but this portrait of the Pharisees is not overstated.

The Pharisees, as well as other religious leaders, trusted in their outward conformity to ceremonies of the Law and to oral traditions. Christ, toward the end of His ministry, as mentioned above, rebuked the religious leaders as “hypocrites”: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13)! One recalls that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount referred to the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (5:19-20). After an analysis of their oral traditions (5:21-48), He immediately says, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them” (6:1). This verse is dealing with giving to the needy, to prayer, and to fasting. In the next verse (6:2), Jesus strips away the deception on the part of the giver: “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men.”  One can hardly fail to correlate the word Pharisees and the word hypocrites in this now famous Sermon, especially with the conclusion of Jesus ministry as reported by Matthew (chapter 23).

Luke 18:1, no doubt, is a rebuke of the Pharisees for their failure to accept the Gospel of God for the salvation of men and women (7:29-30).  Prior to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew captures the essence of Jesus’ ministry with these words: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good new of the kingdom of God, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23). John, too, began his ministry with a call to repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2). The “kingdom of heaven” concerned the coming of Jesus, the long promised Messiah by the prophets (3:3). Later, when Jesus sent out the twelve, He told them: “As you go, preach this message: The kingdom of heaven is near” (10:7). In other words, God is about to intervene in a new way—forgiveness of sins in and through His Son Jesus.

The kingdom of heaven is about the direct rule of God through His Son. The signs of this approaching kingdom is present—forgiveness of sins, casting out demons, and healing the sick. In Jesus, one witnesses the inbreaking of the new age—the news of messianic salvation by grace through faith. Jesus followed this charge of proclamation of the Good News of God’s kingdom (10:7) with instructions about what to expect and how to act. Again, Luke writes: “After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and to preach in the towns of Galilee” (11:1). With the announcement concerning the kingdom of God, one was introduced to the new age of righteousness and the new life. This message bears the name Gospel—Good News about God’s Way of salvation in and through Jesus. Matthew epitomizes Jesus’ ministry this way: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (4:23).

In Chapter 12 of the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew again reports an encounter with the Pharisees concerning the behavior of Jesus’ disciples (12:1-2). Jesus responded to their criticism by referring to the Old Testament to give validity to His disciples’ actions (12:3-8). After this disagreement, one finds Jesus again in their synagogues (12:9). Jesus again came under scrutiny from the Pharisees for healing a man with a “shriveled hand” on the Sabbath (12:9-14). The Pharisees’ hatred of Jesus reached a point in which they “went out and plotted how they might kill him” (12:14). Once more, Jesus clashed with the Pharisees over His healing of a man who was blind and mute. As a result of healing this man so that he could both see and talk, the Pharisees accused him of doing this miracle through the power of Beelzebub (12:22-37). After this miracle, the Pharisees had the audacity to request to “see a miraculous sign” from Him (12:38). Once more, Jesus castigates these self-righteous Pharisees for their failure to accept the miracles that they had already witnessed (12:39-45; see also John 3:1-2)).


This background from Matthew’s unfolding of Jesus’ ministry helps one to understand more clearly the comments of Jesus in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). In the chapters preceding this parable, one observes that the Pharisees were not conscious of their need of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. In Chapter 15 of Luke, Luke records three parables that Jesus gave in order to set forth His purpose in coming (15:1-31)—The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Lost Son. Luke begins these three parables with his introductory remarks in order to set the stage for a proper interpretation:

Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: (15:1-3).

            Following these three parables, Jesus continued by telling His disciples another parable—The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” (16:1-13). Even though Jesus told this parable to His disciples, nevertheless, the Pharisees were able to listen. This parable brought about a negative reaction to Jesus and, at the same time, a stinging rebuke from Jesus against the Pharisees:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight (16:14-15).

            Then in Chapter 17, one again witnesses Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees concerning the coming of the kingdom of God (17:20-21). Following the various clashes with the religious leaders, Luke simply says that Jesus spoke another parable “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (18:9). Just a casual reading of Galatians and Romans reveal that this attitude did not stop among the religious leaders in Israel. Many were not willing to put their trust in Jesus for their salvation. Many Jews still went about to establish their own righteousness and did not rely upon the righteousness “from God,” that is to say, a righteousness available only through faith in Jesus. It is in this same vein that Paul writes to the Romans:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes (Romans 10:1-4).

            The Jews, as a whole, rejected God’s redemptive activity in Christ. They failed to reflect upon the words of Jeremiah concerning the “righteous Branch” that would come, the One who would be “called: The Lord Our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:5-6).[6] Paul hammered home this truth: “All have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The religious leaders failed to comprehend that the righteousness of God is manifested in the Cross of Jesus. In Jesus, one witnesses God’s grace and His righteousness. Grace means incarnation and atonement. The death of Christ on the Cross is an act of grace, and, at the same time, the means of maintaining God’s justice. The Cross of Jesus is God’s justification for His action of redemption in and through Jesus. The answer to the sin problem is not law nor is it performing certain rituals, but rather it is Jesus. Keep your mind on Paul as he seeks to explain what God has accomplished for humanity:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement,a through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law (3:21-28).


            This parable is an excellent commentary on Romans 3:21-28.[7] The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) evokes shock at the attitude of one who was exalted in his own eyes. One observes his zeal for external acts—prayer and fasting and tithing. Not only did he dedicate himself to these acts of piety, but he also refrained from external acts that were anathema to the God of heaven—theft, adultery, and evil in general. In his prayers, he was conscious of the tax collector—a notorious sinner, a traitor to Israel. One cannot read this parable without observing his pride—a pride that flashes like neon lights at night. Christians stand in horror, and rightly so, at such a display of vanity. Instead of a prayer to God for mercy and forgiveness, this religious Pharisee was giving himself a testimonial of his own righteousness before God—“God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (18:11).

Present Day Application

            Christians can read this prayer with concern, but, at the same time, they, too, participate in this same kind of behavior, even though it may not be as obvious. This author, Dallas Burdette, has witnessed, over the years, Christians repudiating their Christian witness because someone did something they did not like. How did these offended believers react to the offensive behavior of others? Yes, their negative reaction was/is—“God, I thank you that I am not like other men and women.” This mindset frequently results in rejection, not only of individuals whom they find distasteful, but also of God Himself. John, one of the original twelve apostles, warns Christians about their relationship to other believers:

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in himd to make him stumble. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him (1 John 2:9-11).

This attitude of hate usually results in individuals refusing to meet with God’s people on Sunday mornings, that is, they completely give up meeting with the Christian community. For many of these so-called disillusioned Christians, Sunday becomes a day for sleeping late or visiting relatives and friends, or a day at the lake, and so on. It is not uncommon for these offended Christians to give up Bible reading and Bible study. They also cease to witness to others about God’s Way of salvation. God becomes a relic of the past. The point of justification for dismissal of God is that there are too many hypocrites in the church. Is this mindset a valid reason for slothfulness for spiritual things? No! It is not! This argument is simply an evasive tactic to justify one’s negative response of others and of God Himself. Is this not the sin of pride? Christians can recognize this sin of self-righteousness in the Parable, but they cannot recognize this sin of arrogance in their own lives. James, the Lord’s brother, writes with penetrating words about mistreatment of brothers and sisters in Christ:

Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor (James 4:11-12)?

One can know the entire Bible by heart, yet it is of little value until the biblical Word penetrates one’s innermost being. Since Christians look toward the coming of Christ, believers should reflect upon God’s love. To illustrate the above paragraph of dullness on the part of many Christians to detect sin in their own lives, one only needs to consult an incident in the life of Jesus when he addressed “many thousands” that gathered to hear Him (Luke 12:1). One of the subjects addressed concerned the ability to interpret the times, but, at the same time, these same individuals could not judge for themselves what is right (12:57). Pay attention to this message of the Master:

He said to the crowd: When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? 57 Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right (12:54-57)?

            Christians can be censorious, or hypercritical, in their judgment of others, but, on the other hand, they cannot see sin in their own lives. Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, addresses this fault of the religious leaders:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5).

            In this Sermon, Jesus deals with the religious leaders. In fact, He adds the following warning: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Beginning with 5:21, Jesus calls attention to the behavior of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. The Sermon on the Mount, too, is an excellent commentary on Luke 18:9-14. As one seeks to be critical of others, one must ask himself or herself the following questions: Is there a “plank” in my eye? Do I turn a “speck of sawdust” into a mountain? Do I have a tree in my own eye while trying to remove a splinter out of someone else’s eye? How do you approach God? Do you cry out: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:14)? Emil Brunner captures the essence of the tax collector’s prayer with the following words:

Does this imply that we are continually to come before God with this prayer on our lips: “God, be merciful to me a sinner”? Yes, this is implied. Even more. Only in this humility do we actually stand before God in prayer. You see, to stand before God is a great mystery. It is not enough to say the words of prayer. We stand before God at the very moment when the thought strikes us: I am a sinner; God have mercy on me! And as soon as this thought, this insight, vanishes from our hearts, do we vanish from the presence of God, even thought we may go on praying for hours.[8]

What does this statement of Jesus mean to you: “Blessed are the merciful” (Matthew 5:7)? The merciful are those who have their hearts open to mercy. It is significant that Jesus follows this statement with: “Blessed are the pure in heart” (5:8). The pure in heart are those who have or exercise the pure vision of God—those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn because of sin, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are peacemakers, and so on. The Pharisees were the very opposite of this kind of spirit—a spirit hostile to God. They frequently expressed anger toward Jesus and others who were not as righteous as they were in their meticulous adherence to traditions (5:21-26; 12:1-14).

Even today, it is not uncommon for Christians to allow their anger to lead to sin. Paul warns the Christians at Ephesus against rash behavior: ‘“In your anger do not sin’a: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Have you given the devil a foothold in your Christian witness? Do you allow disagreements to turn into hatred? What is love all about? Listen to Peter as he, too, addresses the pharisaic mentality of self-righteousness as he calls attention to the impending destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70:

The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. 8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:7-11).

Earlier, in this same Epistle, Peter writes, “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1:22). Does your love for others cover “a multitude of sins”? How do you pray? Do you ever pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12)? As Luke begins Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, he adds, as stated above, the following parenthetical note of introduction: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 18:9). Even today, pride and lack of love still towers in the lives of many men and women in spite of the forcefulness of this parable against high regard for oneself. When men and women stand before God with “full hands,” they are Pharisees.

The religious leaders perverted the teachings of God by asserting that one could earn God’s favor and forgiveness through Law. Love for others identifies one with God’s interest in others. Both the Mosaic and Christian economy taught God’s people to care. Caring stands like a citadel within the Christian community. After Jesus’ condemnation of the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees (Matthew 23), Jesus issues another scathing rebuke of the religious leaders for their unconcern for others. Listen to Jesus as He draws attention to the consequences of neglect for His followers:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46).


One cannot read the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector without seeing that the religious leaders perverted God’s Word by teaching that men and women could earn God’s forgiveness through law-keeping. This parable unfolds a false conception of God and His righteousness—righteousness through law-keeping. The type of character manifested by the Pharisees is the natural product of a mistaken idea about God and of the way to obtain His forgiveness. Just a casual reading of the Gospels, one observes Jesus’ anger against the Pharisees for their inhumanity. This parable stands out in bold letters as it calls attention to one’s recognition of God and one’s neighbor. One cannot read this parable without a consciousness that love for one’s neighbor means an identification of oneself with God’s interest in others. 

This parable about pride and humility calls attention to the fact that God looks at the hearts of men and women. Whenever one approaches God with “full hands,” as the Pharisee does in this revealing parable, one is a Pharisee. God looks behind the confession, such as set forth in this parable by the Pharisee and the tax collector. If one allows the prayer of the tax collector to vanish from his or her heart, one fades away, as it were, from the very presence of God. One stands before the presence of God when one prays, “God, have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). This story should cause everyone to stand in awe at the mercy of God. Once more, one should focus his or her attention on the words of Jesus as He concludes His thoughts about the notorious tax collector: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (18:14).

Does this parable condone sin? No! One cannot remain a dishonest tax collector or prostitute or drunkard, and so on, and expect God’s favor (see, 19:1-10, Zacchaeus the Tax Collector).[9] For an example of right conduct after forgiveness is found in one of Jesus’ healing miracles. John writes about a miracle of a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years (John 5:5). After healing this man, Jesus says, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (5:14). When Jesus forgave this man his sins, he informed him that he should stop sinning.  The redeemed of God will endeavor to walk according to His desires. When one responds to the Good News of salvation by grace through faith in and through Jesus Christ, the Gospel loses the form of an external law and then becomes an internal principle of life. Out of the biblical doctrine of grace, the biblical mandate for ethics develops (Ephesians 4:17—6:20; Titus 2:11-15).

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector one is confronted with the arrogance of pride on the one hand and humility on the other hand. Until the power of pride and the lack of love are broken, one will not be open to forgiveness and to good works that honor God. Those who receive forgiveness must do His will. It is not true that it makes no difference how one lives after he or she has responded to God’s grace of redemption. Christians cannot live lives of debauchery, or wickedness, and please God. Hopefully, this parable will awaken within everyone the desire to humble himself or herself in seeking God’s forgiveness.

If one does not adhere to this mindset of obedience after forgiveness, one will continue to be stubborn, rebellious, and proud. One kind of behavior leads to destruction; the other kind of behavior leads to life. Christians should never take their Christianity lightly (Matthew 7:15-23). What does the parable say to you? Are you like the Pharisee in your approach to God, or are you like the tax collector in your approach to God?  What does this parable convey to you? Is your disposition like the Pharisee or like the tax collector, which? What does the following Scripture citations mean to you?

14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17 Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears (Hebrews 12:14-17).


Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased (13:15-16).




[1]All Scripture citations are from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), unless stated otherwise.

[2] The singular (Pharisee) occurs six times in the Book of Luke—7:39; 11:37, 38; 14:1; 18:10, 11. The plural (Pharisees) is employed nineteen times in this Book—5:17, 21, 30, 33; 6:2, 7; 7:30, 36; 11:39, 42, 43, 53; 12:1; 13:31; 14:3; 15:2; 16:14; 17:20, 39.

[3] Luke 3:12; 5:29, 30; 7:29, 34; 15:1.

[4] Luke 5:27; 18:10, 11, 13; 19:2.

[5] The singular (Pharisee) occurs one time in the Book of Matthew—23:26. On the other hand, the plural is mentioned twenty-eight times—3:7; 5:20; 9:11, 14, 34; 12:2, 14, 24, 38; 15:1, 12; 16:1, 6, 11, 12; 19:3; 21:45; 22:15, 34, 41; 22:15, 34, 41; 23:2, 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 27:62.

            a That is, boxes containing Scripture verses, worn on forehead and arm

                b Or Messiah

[6] For a detailed explanation of  “the Branch,” see Dallas Burdette, “Jesus Is Our Prince of Peace” [ONLINE]. Available from [accessed 29 August 2004], located under BIBLICAL STUDIES and then under NEW TESTAMENT and then under EPHESIANS.

            a  25 Or as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin

[7] For a detailed explanation of  Romans 3:21-28 see Dallas Burdette, “Overview of Romans” [ONLINE]. Available from [accessed 29 August 2004], located under BIBLICAL STUDIES and then under NEW TESTAMENT and then under OVERVIEW OF NEW TESTAMENT BOOKS.


            d Or it

[8] Emil, Brunner, “The Pharisee and the Publican,” in Sowing and Reaping, Translated by Thomas Wieser (London: The Epworth Press, 1964), 23.

            a Psalm 4:4

[9] For a study of this story, see Dallas Burdette, “Zeal for God: Zacchaeus the Tax Collector” [ONLINE]. Available from [accessed 29 August 2004], located under BIBLICAL STUDIES and then under NEW TESTAMENT and then under GOSPEL OF LUKE.