“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Think of a time where you felt out of place. Whether at a new job, visiting a friend’s hometown, or in a foreign country? How did being an outsider make you feel? What did you learn from the experience?
Jesus uses a story about two different people going to the Temple to pray in order to train his followers to embrace outsiders.
This passage is in a longer section of Luke called the “Lukan Travel Narrative” (Luke 9:51–19:41). Scholars suggest that as Jesus taught his followers in this section, they travelled from the outskirts of Galilee to Jerusalem where Jesus was later arrested and crucified. This travel period is not merely describing how Jesus moved geographically. Scholars suggest that Luke wrote this way to make a theological point: that the Christian life is best lived while in motion. There’s a good chance that Jesus may have shared this parable while he and his followers were in the neighboring region of Samaria, where they would have been outsiders, themselves.
This story has two unique characters who were from different backgrounds in order to create a contrast. However, there are comparisons between the two, as well.
Jesus used an example of a Pharisee and a Tax Collector at a Temple for his story.
Sociologists suggest that we all navigate life and interactions with others along a “social map,” a set of social cues that inform us about life, whether we realize it or not or even if they are helpful or not. It was similar in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ audience would’ve had a social map that would’ve given them expectations to the one who was potentially favored by God in this story and the one who was not favored by God.
It is interesting to consider the fact that this parable is the only one that Jesus told with a religious setting (praying and the Temple). Many of the parables of Jesus were told on a farm or in a village.
Jesus said that the Tax Collector went home “justified before God” (v.14). Justification is an important idea in the Christian faith, for it suggests that our holy God has the right to call us his family members, even though we may not have always followed God. Justification is God’s announcement that one is “in the right” or is in good standing as a family member with God. This story is stunning, then, for it suggests that the Creator God announces justification over the character that the original audience (and we ourselves as modern readers) would not have expected. When the Creator God looked upon these two individuals, one showed the right way to approach God while the other was overlooked.
In regards to this parable, Eugene Peterson said: “If we stop to think about it… it becomes obvious that there is far more inside a person that there is outside… Storytellers activate our imaginations to see and hear beneath the surface of life and involve us in the many dimensions of what is going on behind our backs or just around the corner… Every time Jesus tells a story, the world of those who listen enlarges, understanding deepens, imaginations are energized. Without stories we end up with stereotypes – a flat earth with flat cardboard figures that have no texture or depth, no interior.”
As we dream of a world that is more generous and just, may we ask the Living God to start that work within us. As we encounter the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in our world, let us be dedicated to recognize who they are beneath the surface.
Almighty God, you have graciously called us into the world to serve and not to be served. We confess that we have allowed pride and self-righteousness to prevent us from denying ourselves and following you completely as you require. We acknowledge that by your hand the Earth was established and all who dwell therein are sustained by your Word. By your Spirit, give us the grace to remember that we are but dust and that your very breath gives us life. Forgive us for the ways in which we exalt ourselves, and humble us so that we might walk in the way of our Savior Jesus Christ, who for our sakes humbled Himself unto death, even death on a cross.
Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus used parables to convey deep truths about the Kingdom of God, God himself, and his followers. These simple stories reveal a richness and depth that, at first glance, may escape the hearer. But each parable says something eternity-revealing and spur us into action.