So, a Pharisee and a tax collector go to the temple to pray…
Sounds like the start of a joke, eh? But this is no joke, it’s a parable… a story with a lesson attached in Luke 18:9-14. And in this case, the lesson is clear: Only one of two was made right before God that day… and it may not be the one you would expect!
Why should we care? Because if we’re not careful, we can become just like the one who was wrong that day, and not even realize it.
Let’s take a look at what went wrong…
How to Be Wrong with God
1. Exalt Yourself!
The Pharisee’s intent in going to the temple is revealed straight away: he goes there to look good in front of the crowd!
“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed” (Luke 18:11 NLT)
This “standing apart” was not due to a need for privacy, nor due to shyness. No, this guy wanted attention.
Even if he’s not physically in the front of the room, you can tell by his next words that he thinks he’s at the head of the line in terms of worthiness before God… which leads him to his second mistake:
2. Emphasize Rules… Selectively!
What do you notice about the Pharisee’s words below?
“‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” (Luke 18:11–12 NLT)
Is it fair to say that his prayer is a list of do’s and don’ts?
- fool around
- act like a tax collector
- fast (not only once, but twice a week)
- tithe (with a full 10% of my income… probably before taxes!)
This Pharisee is emphasizing rules. He lifts himself up based on this list of do’s and don’ts. But here’s my problem with his approach: If he’s going to evaluate himself on keeping rules, he has to evaluate while including ALL the rules… not just some.
In other words, the Pharisee picks out the things he does well, while ignoring others. I would have loved to have seen the look on his face if someone had asked about some “other” rules:
- “So, how are you doing with ‘Love your neighbor as yourself?’ ‘Cause I just talked to that tax collector guy… and he isn’t feeling it!” (And lest you think this only applies to the New Testament, check out Leviticus 19:18!)
- And how about that, “Do not commit murder?” Because Jesus says that if you call someone out as a fool, you’re guilty! (See Matthew 5:21-22)
No, the Pharisee is very careful to highlight what he does “well,” while de-emphasizing his own weaknesses. But it doesn’t end there, because he is also committing a third faux pas…
3. Compare Yourself to Others!
If the Pharisee really wanted to ensure he was a top-notch guy, then why did he compare himself to the lowest of the low? Why not take on a respected Pharisee for his comparison?
There are a couple of problems with his approach:
- If you start comparing, it won’t take too long to realize there are also folks that are better than you! (So much for feeling good about ourselves!).
- But the real problem? God never asks us to compare ourselves to others, and that is never the basis for how “good” we are.
So… how do we make it right with God? Well, you’ll have to tune in to my next post!
Where else do we get it wrong before God? What other observations do you have about this parable? What advice would you give this Pharisee if you had the chance (and how would you give it)?