Pharisee comes from the root word “pure.” A sect devoted to the strict adherence of all 613 commandments in Torah. Religious men who were blameless under the Law, virtuous in behavior and chaste in their passions. The kind of guy who returned a lost purse without collecting the reward; the kind of guy invited to bless the church potluck at the picnic; the kind of guy you trust your teenage daughter with at home alone.
Then there’s the tax collector, a designation that requires no etymology. A turncoat who betrayed his own people to collude with the Romans; who tariffed the poor to endow the Empire and collect the kickbacks, who was ritually and religiously, morally and ethically, and personally impure in everyway. The kind of son that even a mother couldn’t love.
In today’s parable, Jesus wants to contrast the two men even further. So what’s the biggest difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector?
Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Pharisee was prideful.
To be faithful, the tax collector figured out he was not God.
The Pharisee lost his religion trying to follow it.
I haven’t slept with the secretary; I come to a complete stops at the intersection; I put an extra check in the offering plate; I leave the toilet seat down; I return the shopping cart to the corral in the parking lot; I decline the chocolate cake on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Because of his merit-based theology, the Pharisee is full of self-aggrandizement. That my holy worth is determined by comparison, that my righteousness depends on his corruption. That my religious diligence earned me the right to stand alone in glory, to be exalted in honor. So Lord, I beseech you to be thankful for me your faithful servant, a moral exemplar worthy of heavenly praise.
Still, as William Sloan Coffin says, “Mercy can’t come to those who think themselves flawless. God simply can’t reach the self-sufficient.” Or the self-satisfied, or the self-adoring.
The biggest difference between the two men is the prayer of their lives: one of individual congratulations, the other of desperate need. For all the tax collector’s depravity, he understands the most basic affirmation of faith. That there are no “Good Christians,” that the only way to approach the throne is on the knees of humility, that the love of God can only be received by those who come open handed, who come empty handed.
Regardless of what you’ve done or left undone, whether you’re a Pharisee or a tax collector, whether you’re flaunting your accomplishments or beating your breast, we all somehow ended up here in the temple. So why not go home justified in the name of the one who came to save thieves, rogues, adulterers and sinners like you and me.