The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

May/June, 2018
Volume 53, Number 3

This year’s Annual Conference theme is entitled, “Living Parables,” from Matthew 9:35-38. Jesus often used parables when teaching the crowds. And the disciples finally asked Him, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matthew 13:10). Perhaps they thought it was a strange way of communicating. Or, maybe they thought that Jesus should have been more direct and straightforward in His teaching. Maybe they thought He should make things more clear and easy to understand.

Jesus responded by saying that, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them” (Matthew 13:11). Jesus acknowledged that some people would be able to understand the parables, and others would not. This was because some people had been given the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and others had not.

Jesus then went on to quote from Isaiah 6:9-10 and said that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled in these people. The heart of the people had become calloused, and so they hear, but don’t hear. They see, but don’t see. In fact, they have closed their eyes. The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are no longer recognizable to them. They are hidden.

Jesus acknowledged that the key to the “mysteries” of the parables lie not so much in the effectiveness of the communicator, nor the intelligence of the hearer, but rather in the spiritual condition of the hearer. To a callous heart, Jesus’ parables are a mystery. But to an understanding heart, Jesus’ parables are “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.”

Please read this fine article by Harold Martin on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and gain insight into heaven’s perspective on piety, pride, humility and forgiveness.                        

— Eric Brubaker


by Harold S. Martin
Luke 18:9-14

About one-third of the recorded sayings of Jesus are in the form of parables. A “parable” is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning! However, it’s not always quite that simple. The Greek word “parabole” occurs 48 times in the synoptic gospels. Two ideas lie within the word:

The first part of the word parabole (“para“) means “one thing by the side of another.”

The second part of the word is “bole,” which means “to throw” or “to place.”

And so the entire word “ parabole ” (or parable) means “to place one thing by the side of another.” The purpose of the parable is to assist the reader in understanding. Parables help the mind and the thinking-capacity because we can compare something less familiar to us, with something much more familiar.

The parables in the Bible focus on God and His kingdom—–revealing what kind of God He is, and the principles by which he works, and the principles which He expects human beings to live by. The parables in the Bible usually have features which are taken from everyday life—things that we are familiar with.

It is important that we think of a parable as a whole—the parable is generally a story that emphasizes one important truth. The different parts of the story need not be taken literally—but the one thing that it is teaching—–is to be taken seriously.

For example, in Jesus’ parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), He teaches that some people (in this life)—will be wise (in preparing for the life to come)—but other people will be foolish, and will not make preparation for the next life. In this parable we must not conclude that the number of the saved, and the number of the lost in the next world, will be equal—–simply because Jesus said there were five of the wise and five of the foolish virgins.

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. And He told it to those who, “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” (v.9) The parable is this:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’

And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14/NKJV).

The purpose of this parable is to help us guard against the depreciation of others. All of us need to be careful not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. In verse 9, we learn that Jesus addressed this story to those who trusted in themselves, and were of the opinion that everybody else amounted to nothing! In choosing a Pharisee and a tax collector for the illustration——–Jesus chose two extremes:

The Pharisees were a sect of the Jews—-the most strict, the most narrow, and the most legalistic of all the Jewish religious groups. Pharisees were noted for observing the Jewish law carefully as far as appearances went—–but their hearts were far from God.               The tax collectors were Jewish officers of the Roman government, whose job it was to collect taxes to pay the operation of the government in Rome—-and they were persons who made themselves rich by the odious practice of collecting more than was required by the government.

The parable says that the two men had gone to the Temple to pray. There was a major difference in the spirit and the object of the prayers of the two men! They were both standing in the Temple; both had come to pray.

The one flattered himself, and was full of commendation—he commended himself. The other was seeking mercy, and was honest in his condemnation—he condemned himself. This contrast is a great study in pride and humility——which was the major issue in the lives of these two men. Jesus addressed this parable to certain of his listeners who were self-righteous, and who looked down their noses at others (verse 9).

One of the major duties of the church is to preach the Gospel to sinners everywhere—and often, when we talk about sinners, we tend to think only—–about drunkards, criminals, and prostitutes—-forgetting that so-called “good” people are sinners too!

Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to illustrate the fact that many persons are blinded to their real need for salvation—by their own goodness! The Pharisees were religious leaders—and were respected men. The tax collectors were despised men, known as “cheaters” to most people.

In the parable, a representative of each of these two groups went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee chose a prominent place in the front of the Temple (where everyone could see him)—and prayed loudly, saying: “Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men.”

The tax collector felt so needy and so sinful that he didn’t even go into the inner part of the Temple. He stayed in the outer court and smote upon his breast, and cried out to God saying, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”

It is a fact that while the tax collector was a sinner of the most wicked sort, —-the Pharisee was also a sinful man. Thus—in the parable Jesus told—–there were really two sinners at church!


Sometimes we tend to despise the Pharisee, and yet there is a sense in which the Pharisee must be given credit for his high stan­dard of morality. All those things that the Pharisee said about him­self were undoubtedly true. Jesus did not deny that this man’s words were true.

For one thing, the Pharisee went to the house of God. No person can be what he ought to be, if he doesn’t avail himself of the opportunity of going to the house of God. The Pharisee wasn’t like the fool who said in his heart, “There is no God,” nor was he like some hardened sinners who don’t believe in prayer. This man prayed. He prayed to God. And he did it on a regular basis.

The parable indicates that the Pharisee was an honest man in business affairs.    He was not an extortioner. He never tried to drive a hard bargain–in order to get a few extra dollars in his pocket. He was honest in business. He paid his bills. He was fair in his dealings.

The Pharisee also was a morally clean man. He could say, “I am not an adulterer; I have never stooped to the sin of immorality; my body is not festered with venereal disease.” The Pharisee revered his home. He loved his wife. He kept his marriage vows. He was a good husband and a good father.

We are told too that the Pharisee had a zeal for religious matters. He brought tithes to the Temple and he fasted twice in a week. Many church members in our day never have given a regular liberal ­portion of their income for the Lord’s work, and have seldom [if ever] fasted in order to devote the time to prayer.

We have a right to call the Pharisee “a good man”—but the startling thing about the whole account is that Jesus says this good man was lost! Jesus says the tax collector (the other man) was justified instead.

There are several reasons why the good man [the Pharisee] was a lost man. First, the Pharisee’s righteousness was outward, and not inward. He looked carefully after the outward observances, but the inside was filthy and despicable. He was really like a beautiful cemetery—lovely and neat on the outside, but within, full of dead men’s bones.

Let every person consider this thought seriously: We can be circumcised, bap­tized, confirmed–but if nothing has happened on the inside, God is not pleased at all. All of us who have named the name of the Lord, need to be careful lest we properly go through all the outward forms–but within, harbor feelings of bitterness and hate; or gossip, and lie, and cheat; or become slaves of worldliness and questionable habits.

The Bible teaches the need for piety and for church membership and for good living—-but God wants a goodness of the heart, not merely a “cover-up” on the outside. The Pharisee’s righteousness was out­ward, and not inward.

Another reason why the Pharisee was rejected was that he trusted in himself, and in his own good deeds. He used the pronoun “I” five times. He said, “I fast” and “I give” and “I do.” What he was really saying was this: “Look at me, God; look at the good things I have done; in comparison with others, I am much better than they are.”

This man evidently felt that God was quite fortunate to have one such as he even to offer prayers to Him! The Pharisee’s motive was wrong. He hoped to win God’s favor by his own good deeds. He failed to acknowledge his sinfulness, and to cry out for God’s mercy. He did not regard himself as a sinful man—-and yet every living person is a descendant of Adam and Eve—-and therefore every one of us has inherited a depraved and sinful nature (Romans 5:12).

Even after we have given our hearts to Jesus Christ, we are con­stantly in need of the forgiving grace of God. You need the grace of Christ today, just as you did on that day when you felt the burden of sin so keenly—-and you came to Him for salvation! Both the Pharisee and the tax collector were sinners. The one was a down-and-out sinner; the other was a pious, religious sinner.


Not much is said in the parable about the tax collector. There’s only one sentence in the entire account that describes his prayer. His attitude was different from that of the Pharisee. He frankly acknowledged that he was a sinful man. The tax collector said, “God, be merciful to me ‘the’ sinner.” The word “the” indicates that the tax collector was agreeing that he was the very sinner mentioned by the Pharisee.

The tax collector was like a member of the Department of Internal Revenue. The Roman system of taxation was very simple, but it often led to a great deal of sin. The Roman government “framed out” each province under its control to a certain tax collector for a fixed amount of money. After the tax collector turned in to the government the fixed amount of money required, he was allowed to gather all the surplus tax money he could get, and keep it for himself.

Many poor people had been robbed by the tax collector. He was wealthy, but at the expense of the misery of others. Many times he had likely taken the only ox some poor farmer had. He carried out the furniture of helpless widows. He seized money and property from rich and poor alike, all under the guise of collect­ing taxes for the government. The tax collector was likely guilty of just about every sin mentioned by the Pharisee. If any man ever deserved to go to Hell—it was this tax collector.

But the tax collector came to the Temple to pray. At first glance, it would seem that God would scorn any prayer he would make. It would seem like God would turn His face away from such a man—a man who had been so wicked. Yet, we are told that God heard his prayer, and that the tax collector “went down to his house justified, rather than the other man.”

There are some reasons why God would hear the tax collector—-and why God forgave him. First, the tax collector came to God—-confessing his sins. This is a lesson every one of us needs to learn if we expect to meet God some day in peace. We must all come to the place in life where we will cry out like the prodigal: “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” Our Lord—-has no salvation for anybody but sinners. There is only one thing in this world worse than being a sinner—and that’s not to admit that we are one.

The tax collector had sinned, but now he repented—and resolved in his heart to forsake sin. He had been a crooked tax collector, but he decided to be crooked no longer. He planned to live a new kind of life; He felt the weight of his sin; he was sorry for it; He repented toward God.

This is just what the Pharisee did not do. The Pharisee was satisfied with himself just as he was; he felt no need for change. The tax collector was penitent. He not only con­fessed his sins, but he hated them—–and he determined to forsake them.

The tax collector was justified (counted as if he had not sinned)—-because he came to God asking for mercy. He confessed his wickedness, and acknowledged his transgressions. Actually there are only two religions: Some hope to be saved by their own merits; Others hope to be saved by God’s mercy.

The Bible method of salvation is clear: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The only way the sinner can find salvation is if he is willing to come like a beggar to God’s door pleading for mercy. Only those who know and acknowledge that they deserve Hell—-are ever going to make it to Heaven.


The time came when the two men went down to their homes. The one went proudly on his way, wrapped up in his own self-importance. The other went home thanking God and rejoicing because his sins had been forgiven.

The tax collector was justi­fied; He was accepted before God. He was justified—not because of any goodness that he possessed—but because of the marvelous grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

To trust completely in the mercy of God is one of the most difficult things for many of us to do. It seems to be extremely difficult for the natural mind to understand that salvation is by the grace of God alone, and that it is completely granted apart from any human merit whatever. The average person seems to think that we will get to Heaven because of our good deeds—and by performing certain religious acts.

Many feel that if they have had religious parents, if they do a number of good deeds, if they are a baptized member of a church, if they have never gone on a major sinning spree, if they have tried to live by the Golden Rule—that then they are going to make it to Heaven.

If you ask the average individual on the street the question, “How does a person get to Heaven?”—the replies will be something like this: “Live right; go to church; keep the Ten Commandments; be sincere; read your Bible; be good to your neighbor; pay your honest debts; etc.”

You see, they define salvation as “being good.” Jesus is really out of the picture. Most people seem to think (like the Pharisee) that the gulf between man and God can be closed by good deeds and by performing certain religious acts. They seem to think that if you say so many prayers, or give so many alms, or go to church services every Sunday—-that these things will somehow erase a sinner’s guilt.

But this will never do. The gulf between man and God is so great——that none of us by his own efforts is ever going to be able to close it. All the good that we can ever do—can never pay for all the bad that we have already done.

Throughout the entire Bible, the teaching is that sin is forgiven, that eternal life is received—–only by faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. And God expects His people to be good people; He expects us to keep the ordinances and to obey the commandments—–but these things alone will never earn salvation for any person.

Salvation comes not from doing good things—–nor by refraining from doing bad things—-but from a simple trusting faith in Jesus Christ—-obedience and surrender to Him.

Persons who become reconciled to God, never become reconciled on the basis of their good deeds, but always on the basis of their faith in Christ, the innocent Lamb of God who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities (John 1:29; Isaiah 53:5). It is a fact that you and I need a Saviour—no matter how good we are.

Suppose an airplane is flying toward a base in the continent of Antarctica—and suddenly it crashes and splashes down into the cold waters north of the continent. Nobody is close to the spot, and the nearest land area is the country of New Zealand (and that is more than one thousand miles away). One of three men on board the plane can swim for ten minutes. The second man can swim for two hours. And the third man on board is supposed to be the world’s champion long-distance swimmer.

Which of these three men is going to reach safety? The answer is obvious—none of them. The only difference between them is that the one man will drown in ten minutes; another will drown in two hours; and the champion swimmer will drown a few hours after that. There is really no basic difference. All will drown.

This is a picture of the human family. The criminal is like the swimmer that can keep afloat for ten minutes. The average man, good enough to keep out of jail and yet bad enough to do almost anything he wants to do——–is like the swimmer who can stay on the surface for two hours. The man who is honest and upright and sober, and a good citizen—but he is like the champion long-distance swimmer—still unable to reach land.

What the three men need—–is a rescuer. They can never make it, a thousand miles to land, by themselves. And just so, what each of us needs is a Saviour—–one who can rescue us from the bondage of sin.

Seneca, the Roman thinker who lived at the time of the Apostle Paul—–said one time, after observing all the corruption about him: “What we need is a hand let down in order to lift us up.” And friends, that Hand has been let down! John 3:16 describes it. The Bible says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The wrath of God against sin is unspeakably terrible. The penalty is eternal death. But Jesus Christ has tasted death for every person (Hebrews 2:9), and if you have never received Him, He is waiting at the door of your heart right now.