By Rev. Kyle Norman, Crosswalk.com
The Pharisees frequently find themselves on the wrong side of interactions with Jesus. Time and again, Jesus voices a critical word about how they live out their faith. Pharisees are shown to be hypocritical and villainous; their lives are not centered on God, but on the self. This is shown uniquely in Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, found in Luke 18. In hearing this parable, it is easy to see which character we are called to emulate. We know who the winner is.
This parable, however, is more shocking than it first appears. Christ’s parables often rest upon a twist of logic or an upset of contemporary wisdom. In this parable, the twist comes in how each person is represented. While we may associate a Pharisee with prideful arrogance and hypocrisy, in Christ’s day, the Pharisee was the epitome of righteous living.
The Pharisee was understood to be zealously dedicated to the faith. In fact, it was the tax collector who was commonly assumed to be selfish and hypocritical! The shock in the parable, therefore, comes with Jesus’ call to emulate the sin-filled tax collector over the pious Pharisee.
This parable is as relevant today as when it was first voiced. Luke makes clear that this parable is directed to those who are “confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9).
This means we cannot reduce the moral of the parable to something as quaint as “Don’t be like a Pharisee!”; we cannot be too quick to rest upon our own spiritual accolades. The parable presents two vastly different ways of living one’s life before God.
The vocal prayer of each person ultimately discloses the focus of their lives and their faith. This parable calls us to assess our spiritual lives and ask: Am I living a self-centered life or a God-centered life?
The Self-Centered Life
The self-centered life is one in which the individual takes priority. This is the way of life revealed by the Pharisee. Pharisees saw themselves as the standard of faithful life that others had to strive to meet.
After all, it was the Pharisees who were concerned with the execution of the faith; it was the Pharisees who strove to be perfect according to the Law. Thus, Pharisees saw themselves as more deserving of God’s blessings than others. Internally, this created a spirituality based on pride.
The prayer of the Pharisee discloses his self-focus. Luke describes how the Pharisee “stood up and prayed by himself” (Luke 18:11). Importantly, there is a certain ambiguity in the original Greek translation. The words translated as “by himself” can also be rendered “for himself,” “to himself,’ or even “about himself.”
In each rendering, the emphasis is clear. Jesus describes a person whose prayer is solely focused on himself. The Pharisee is so drunk on his own sense of importance that his prayer voices nothing but how great he is.
There is no submission, no humility, no sense of awe before God. “God. I thank you that I am not like other people!” he prays. His prayer is one of self-exultation. In fact, in one simple prayer, the Pharisee refers to himself five times!
This self-focus robs the Pharisee of any heartfelt connection with the Lord. His devotion to tithing and fasting is no longer an expression of worship but is a vain testimony to his own greatness. This lack of loving connection with God is perhaps the saddest part of the self-centered life.
The Pharisee in the parable has nothing to say beyond the shallow execution of religious action. There is no sense of divine relationship.
Thus, his righteousness only exists in comparison to others. While he attempts to laud his own efforts, the Pharisee is ultimately judged by them. This is the epitome of the self-centered life.
The God-Centered Life
The God-centred life ushers in freedom. It is a life of grace, spiritual nourishment, and divine love. This is because the God-centered life is founded upon a recognition of our own needs. This is what is shown in the person of the tax collector.
In the ancient world, tax collectors were looked down upon by the social and religious elite. Tax collectors were considered charlatans and swindlers because of how they lined their pockets with other people’s money.
Furthermore, these were Jewish people who worked for the Roman oppressors. Not only did they steal from their own people, but they did so to benefit the nation that was oppressing them.
Thus, many saw tax collectors as traitors. Unlike the Pharisees, these were the epitome of the type of person you did not want to be like. There was nothing redeemable about being a tax collector.
This is the shock of the parable. In the parable, it is the tax collector who prays rightly, because he prays out of his need, and not out of his sense of personal righteousness. The tax collector knows that he can bring nothing before God.
Thus, he casts himself down and pleads for God’s mercy. When the tax collector beats his breast and says, “Lord have mercy upon me a sinner” (Luke 18:12), he recognizes his inability to secure his own spiritual life. The tax collector recognizes that life with God is not about how well we perform. This is the God-centered life.
Jesus makes clear that it is the God-centered life that leads to justification and mercy. We don’t work our way into forgiveness or blessing. These are gifts given to us in love. Jesus says, “This man went home justified, for everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
When we humble ourselves, by taking our eyes off pridefully touting our own accomplishments, we are exalted. The God-centered life places our spiritual focus where it belongs, upon the grandness of Christ Jesus.
This, in turn, transforms our lives. The God-centered life frees us from feeling self-justified or self-condemned. We no longer torture ourselves over our own failures or our own obligations; we become free to follow the way of God, and the Spirit of God. Importantly, the God-centered life doesn’t deny the importance of our religious actions.
The fault of the Pharisee lies in his own self-focus, not in his religious activity. Rather than a duty in which we attempt to prove ourselves before God (or others), the God-centered life frees us to engage in faith-filled actions as an expression of our longing for our Lord. Our outward life of faith becomes an echo of our inner focus on the Lord.
The Sacrificial Life
There is no transformation in the self-focused life. After all, why search for transformation if you believe yourself to be the epitome of righteous faith? In the self-centered life, we live for ourselves, we justify ourselves, and ultimately, we condemn ourselves. A spirituality that is God-focused, however, opens us to transformation.
In the light of God’s perfection, we see our imperfections and sins. Rather than leading us to condemnation, this leads us to freedom and forgiveness. In placing ourselves honestly before God, we receive God’s mercy and forgiveness.
As soon as we are tempted to say “God, I thank you I am not like so-and-so,” we have become a self-centered Pharisee. We have turned our eyes upon ourselves and off the Lord. The only antidote to this pride-based spirituality is to remain focused on Jesus.
We are called to empty ourselves, constantly, so that we can experience all the blessings we cannot possibly create for ourselves. And, like the tax collector before us, the best place to start is in our prayers and in our worship.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.