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The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Book Reflection // January 1, 2023 // View Series

The Parables of Jesus by James Montgomery Boice

Chapter 9 // Luke 18:9-14

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is among the most well-known of all the parables of Jesus, along with the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. On the surface, this parable leads us to think that it is essentially about prayer. It is true that the focus of the story is on the contrasting prayers that are offered. Yet, what is being pointed out through these prayers is the pathway to salvation and who walks away justified. Justification is the essential point of this parable as Jesus is teaching us about escaping the wrath of God and being reconciled to God.

A Shocking Contrast

This parable is built upon contrast. We see here two contrasting individuals in not only who they are but in how they approach God. First, we see the difference between a Pharisee and tax collector. These were considered to be on the two extremes of the social order at the time. The most respected and highly regarded of the various sects of Judaism was the Pharisee. They were the ones who were intensely focused on following even the most minute detail in the law of God. They were the most venerated and powerful people in society. The tax collector on the other hand was the complete opposite. He was an Israelite who had been given authority by Rome to collect and exact taxes from his fellow countrymen. This was a highly coveted position by some since it was an avenue to become rich and powerful. The tax collector was charged with collecting the taxes due from each person, but they were allowed to keep for themselves whatever they could exact beyond what was required. Naturally, the people came to despise them as a group. It’s as though Jesus was comparing the President of the United States and a prostitute.

The second contrast is in how each person viewed themselves before God. The Pharisee stood up tall before all the people to offer his prayer and stated how worthy he was to pray as he recounted his faithfulness to the law. What he recounted in his prayer was probably true and everyone listening would have most likely agreed with him. The Pharisee was the one everyone looked up to and wanted to emulate because he had it all together. The tax collector on the other hand stood at a distance and cried out to God that he was a sinner. Which, everyone who was listening to him would have wholeheartedly agreed. The Pharisee approached God in his pride whereas the tax collector approached God in humility.

“Me, A Sinner”

As Boice points out, “The only difference between them was that the tax collector approached God on the basis of God’s merciful acts toward sinners and not on the basis of his own supposed righteousness, while the Pharisee did not.” The key element of each prayer is how each of them compares themselves. It does us no good to compare ourselves to other people or to some man-made line of righteousness. Like the tax collector, we are to rightly judge ourselves in the full light of understanding who God is and how far we fall short of his holiness. We cannot properly know ourselves until we understand and know God as our standard. It is not until we have an encounter with this holy God that we truly see the vileness that runs rampant in our hearts. We see this in multiple different portions of scripture. Adam and Eve hid from the presence of the Lord after they had taken the forbidden fruit. Job, after he was questioned by God, humbled himself and acknowledged that he knew nothing. Isaiah, seeing a vision of the God seated on his throne, cried out a woe to himself for how filthy and unworthy he was. These are the responses of a person who truly understands the holiness of God and the sinfulness of himself. We should all be humbled and come to Christ with this simple prayer of recognizing that I am not just “a” sinner, but “the” sinner. The chief of sinners as Paul confesses.


As we read and think through this prayer of the tax collector, we see that he simply asks God to have mercy on him. This translation would more rightly be translated as “be mercy-seated toward.” The tax collector wasn’t merely asking God to have mercy on him, he was asking him to treat him as though he was offering blood shed on the mercy seat for the forgiveness of sins. This sacrifice that the tax collector is evoking is one of bringing innocent blood to the mercy seat to atone for guilt. The tax collector has recognized the depth of his sin. He has seen the guilt that is stacked upon him. He understands his need for a perfect substitute to shed his blood on the altar of the mercy seat to satisfy the wrath of God against his sin.

We too must reach this point in our life as well. We must truly know and understand the holiness of God and how impossibly short we fall in comparison. We must come to the same critical point of faith that the tax collector has arrived. We must humble ourselves before this holy God and ask for his mercy through the perfect blameless sacrifice of Christ for us. It is the blood of Christ upon the mercy seat of God that speaks for us, that cleanses us, and that makes us right before God. “When we pray the tax collector’s prayer, we think of Jesus and the way in which God has provided a full and perfect salvation through Him.”

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (ESV)

Luke 5:8

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