It’s important for a speaker to know his audience. Of any speaker, we should expect that Jesus knew how to read an audience, and we see His ability to do so displayed several times in the gospels. To introduce the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke reveals that Jesus knew those who were listening to Him, and adapted His teaching to best serve their needs. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke to those who trusted in their own righteousness and despised others.
The parable reads:
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 18:9-14)
These two men represent the extreme difference you would find in a crowd listening to Jesus. The Pharisees were the religious elite in Jewish society, though their righteousness and respect for God was severely overstated. They were a self-righteous bunch who had little concern for anyone but themselves. They would listen to Jesus teach at times, but seldom was it because they wanted to be instructed by Him. They wanted to know what He was teaching, and were looking for something in His teaching to accuse Him.
Tax collectors were a despised group of people, perceived by some even to be traitors to their nation. Some earned their reputation, taking advantage of those whom they collected taxes from, charging more than what they ought. However, it would be unfair to paint all of them with the same brush. Recall, Jesus went to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), who was an honest tax collector. Surely he was not alone. In fact, one of Jesus’ apostles, Levi (or as he is better known, Matthew) was a tax collector, as were many of his friends. They seemed to be a regular in Jesus’ audience, perhaps encouraged by men such as Levi and Zacchaeus to listen to the Good Teacher.
In Jesus’ parable, both men came to the temple to pray. Notice how Jesus characterized the Pharisee’s prayer. Though he referenced God in his prayer, he was not praying to God, but “with himself.” Two things we might deduce from this—one, the man’s words were for himself and about himself, and two, God was not listening to his prayer.
of the wicked vinedressers enraged the Pharisees, for they knew that Jesus spoke of them. However, they did not lay a hand on Him, for they feared the people (Matthew 21:46-48). Immediately, He spoke another parable against them.
Notice the things spoken by the Pharisee:
I thank You that I am not like other men.
Could there be a more arrogant statement? He considered himself to be greater than other men, more righteous, better.
I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I possess.
He was proud of his works. The Pharisees were avid fasters, but not so they could focus themselves on meditation and prayer. They made a show of fasting, to receive the praise of men. Of their tithes, it was as though they sounded a trumpet beforehand, so that men might see what they were doing. For them, religion was not about God and giving glory to Him, but about themselves and how much glory they could receive.
There is no hint of humility in the Pharisee at all. His words ring of arrogance. His deeds were done to receive the praise of men. Even his posture, when contrasted with the tax collector, tells us something about the Pharisee. He stood in the presence of God and bragged on himself.
Notice then how Jesus describes the tax collector. He kept at a distance, not supposing himself to be worthy to come into the presence of God. He stood, “afar off,” and “would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven.” It is not that he despised heaven or did not want to be in God’s presence—he did not count himself worthy to even glace toward heaven. He even went so far as to beat upon his breast, a sign of extreme grief and sorrow over his sin.
He did not exalt himself, or flatter and flaunt himself before God as the Pharisee. He did not present a list of his works to impress the Lord. He confessed he was a sinner and needed mercy.
Place yourself in Jesus’ day for a moment and think about seeing these two men at the temple in prayer. One, a well respected religious leader, known for good works, lauded for his holiness. A man from a class of men who are considered outstanding citizens, not thought to cheat or steal or abuse or mistreat anyone. And then nearby, this man who has presumably built his wealth by taking from his countrymen at the tax offices intermittently found along the roadsides throughout the land. He may never have been seen doing a good work, may not wear long tassels or a large phylactery, and by looking at him, you would never get the impression that he is fasting. He is from a class of men who are characterized as thieves—what would make him any different?
Having presented these two men to His audience, Jesus spoke of the latter:
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 18:14)
Friend, where do we belong in this parable? Who are we like? Do we exalt ourselves above others, claiming that we are something special before God? Or do we humble ourselves in the presence of God and confess that we are sinners, needing God to shower His mercy upon us? Do we do our deeds to be seen by men, as the Pharisees did (Matthew 6:1-4)? Or do we look for opportunities where we can do good and give the glory to God (Matthew 5:16)?
Luke tells us that Jesus spoke the parable because there were some who trusted in their own righteousness and despised others. Does that describe us? If so, then take to heart the lesson of the parable, such individuals are not heard by God, nor are they justified in His presence. May each of us humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord (James 4:10).