The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

  Paul, Philippians 2:5-8

Let us consider . . . the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, both of whom pray in the Temple in very different ways.

The Pharisee can boast considerable virtues; he tells God only about himself, and he thinks he is praising God in praising himself.  The tax collector knows that he has sinned, he knows he cannot boast before God, and he prays in full awareness of his debt to grace.  Does this mean, then, that the Pharisee represents ethics and the tax collector represents grace without ethics or even in opposition to ethics?  The real point is not the question “ethics – yes or no?” but that there are two ways of relating to God and to oneself.  The Pharisee doe not really look at God at all, but only at himself; he does not really need God, because he does everything right by himself.  He has no real relation to God, who is ultimately superfluous – what he does himself is enough.  Man makes himself righteous.  

The tax collector, by contrast, sees himself in the light of God.  He has looked toward God, and in the process his eyes have opened to see himself.  So he knows that he needs God and that he lives by God’s goodness, which he cannot force God to give him and which he cannot procure for himself.  He knows that he needs mercy and so he will learn from God’s mercy to become merciful himself, and thereby to become like God.  He draws life from being in-relation, from receiving all as a gift; he will always need the gift of goodness, of forgiveness, but in receiving it he will always learn to pass the gift on to others.  The grace for which he prays does not dispense him from ethics.  It is what makes him truly capable of doing good in the first place.  He needs God, and because he recognizes that, he begins through God’s goodness to become good himself.  Ethics is not denied; it is freed from the constraints of moralism and set in the context of a relationship of love – of relationship to God.

 Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth

The Encounter

 9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 

 13“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.’ 

 14“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.” 

Luke 18:9-14

Some Observations

This is one of the most clear-cut parables Jesus told – hard to escape the meaning as he sums it up at the end: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

I cross-referenced “humble” and its derivatives (humbles, humbled, humility) in Scripture and found it used in 88 separate verses throughout the Old and New Testaments.  Worth perusing the verses if you have the time – go to and search on the words humble and humility with an unrestricted number of responses.  There is a remarkable consistency to the theme of the proud being humbled and humble being exalted by God from beginning to end.

The excerpt from Jesus of Nazareth above, written before Joseph Ratzinger was named Pope, does a beautiful job coaxing the key nuance out of Jesus’ parable (highly recommend this book as the scholarship and insights are exceptional, even while not endorsing the concept of the Pontificate as the true expression of Jesus’ appointment of Peter as leader of the nascent body of Christ or all teachings and practices of Roman Catholicism).

The words used in the prayers of the Pharisee and tax collector represent stark contrasts.  Every word in the Pharisee’s prayer is focused on himself: “I am not like other men . . . I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”  The tax collector attempts no self-justification.  He will not look upwards, he beats his breast and then simply throws himself before God and his mercy: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Their reference points were totally different.  For the Pharisee everything is referenced to himself – how he is more righteous than other men and how he diligently obeys God.  For the tax collector, his reference point is God and his holiness.  His own brokenness and sin is seen in reference to God’s righteousness and mercy.

We see Jesus and all of Scripture teach that humility – first towards God, then towards those around us – is a foundation of experiencing God’s grace (it is a prerequisite to repentance) and then experiencing a life of peace and freedom.  Once we have thrown ourselves at God’s mercy and received his saving grace through Jesus, we are liberated from the constant striving for self-justification and trying to prove ourselves to others to establish our worthiness.  We are fully accepted and justified for all time.

This, in turn, should foster growing humility as we become more aware of our brokenness and the depth of God’s grace towards us.  Growing humility, like growing love, is a key marker of a follower of Jesus.

But humility must not be an abstraction.  While it must pervade our hearts and minds (God’s kingdom inside of us), it should spill out into every interaction we have.  The implications of this should be evident in every relationship God has given us – our spouses, families, friends, co-workers . . . literally every person we meet each day, starting with the guy ringing up the latte at Starbucks after standing in a slowly creeping 15 minute line (preaching to myself here).

Thank you for your grace towards us, Father, and your patience.  I confess my own pride and impatience.  Let me more and more see myself in reference to you – my unworthiness and your perfect love that raises me to unmerited sonship.  Increase our ability to comprehend how far apart these things are, yet bridged completely and only by your grace in Christ.  Continue to shape us into humble instruments that can be used for your redemptive purposes in the place you have put us.


“Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel.”

  Proverbs 20:15

A Prayer

“May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands for us.”

  Psalm 90:17