Two Worshippers, Two Sinners
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We know it well. But this story isn't just about prayer—it's about making comparisons.
Ben TurnerMar 20, 2023, 12:37 AM
We might want to be like Moses but most of us won’t lead 1 million people into battle. Esther’s life must have been amazing but it’s unlikely we’ll marry into royalty and then save the lives of an entire nation. David’s killing of a literal giant? Improbable in our lifetime. Balaam’s argument with a talking donkey? Chances are slim. Elisha’s floating axe head? Not any time soon.
But every now and then a Bible story comes along that makes us think, "Wow, that is me, I can relate to that." Almost like spiritual déjà vu, you read the story and it's like reading your own story. I experienced this recently during a deep Bible discussion. We were going over the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple (Luke 18).
The story was familiar to me so there were no surprises when examining the Pharisee, in all his boldness, proudly standing there, thanking God for his many blessings. He is a decent person, well respected, and he has no trouble pointing to the areas of society that don’t measure up to his life. He fasts twice a week so he has control over his impulses, he pays tithes on all his income so his responsibilities to God are complete, and he is thankful to God.
Nor was there anything astounding when Jesus then shifts the focus to the tax collector who, knowing his unworthiness, can’t raise his eyes up to heaven and instead begs God for forgiveness because he knows he’s a sinner and his life isn’t as it should be. He was right. He probably was ripping people off, causing great harm and, worse than that, he was part of the machine that kept pagan Rome’s stranglehold on Israel. He was a collaborator of the worst kind and everyone knew it—including himself.
However, when putting these two characters together and re-examining the story, a different picture emerges than simply good tax collector/bad religious leader. A picture I had never seen before. In his boasting the religious leader is targeting the tax collector’s failings. He compares the tax collector's indulgent parties with his spiritual act of fasting. His charge of other sinners as "swindlers, unjust" shows his disdain for the tax collector's act of robbing the people of God by taking taxes for the Romans, while he himself pays a full tithe in all he earns to God. Effectively, the Pharisee is comparing his life to that of the tax collector.
But why would the religious leader bother to compare his life to the tax collector? The reason doesn’t seem obvious. He seems to have a complete life, a righteous life even, so why would he compare himself to someone so different? Comparison is generally done when objects are at least similar, but listening to the Pharisee’s prayer it would seem that there are no similarities between the two of them at all.
Here is where I could clearly see my life in the story. When I was younger my thoughts and prayers were perfectly aligned with those of the Pharisee. I would compare myself to my peers and those around me, feeling fully justified in my superiority. Sure I had a slightly different list than the Pharisee but my attitude was much the same. Any aspect of my life I would compare to others and feel better, superior even. Yet even at this time deep down I knew that my life was not perfect. But when I felt inadequate I would look to the lives of others and feel better again.
What if, without saying it, and almost imperceptibly, the Pharisee’s underlying cause for his boasting and lavish comparison to other "sinners" is because he himself feels inadequate? He may not even realise it but his feelings of inadequacy could have caused him to look at others, even seek out those less spiritual, for the sole purpose of justifying himself and making himself feel better. How do we know that his life wasn’t actually perfect? Jesus' reflection is that he didn’t go away justified so there were indeed problems in his life.
But this realisation changes the story: instead of two totally different people coming to the temple to pray, we have two identical people coming to the temple to pray. Two sinners who feel inadequate about their lifestyle, choices and religiosity. The Pharisee has simply chosen to deal with his feelings of inadequacy by comparing himself to those he sees as inferior, finding comfort and peace in his superiority. The tax collector, on the other hand, has simply bared his heart before God, begging for mercy from the only Source that can give it. This is why Jesus said the tax collector leaves justified.
Here we have the story of two worshippers; both were acquainted with God and the sanctuary service but neither yet knew Jesus' power to change hearts and lives. And only the tax collector chose to cry out to the One who could do something about it.
As it was in my life, I believe the conclusion of this story is best played out in the next chapter of the Bible. In Luke 19 we are presented with the meeting of the tax collector Zacchaeus and Jesus at the fig tree. The meeting with Jesus changed Zacchaeus’s life so much that he vowed restoration of all he'd done wrong. So marked is this incredible evidence of his meeting that Jesus said salvation had come to his house that day.
But salvation couldn’t come unless those deep down feelings of inadequacy were dealt with by confessing them to God; not hiding them behind the veil of others' faults. That’s what it was like when I finally met Jesus and traded my life of comparisons for a life filled with Him.
Although laying yourself bare before God isn’t easy, and for a man it’s really uncomfortable, it’s the only way true restoration can come.
If you look around at the lives of others in your church—leaders, elders, youth—and instead of feeling compassion and genuine love for them you feel your life is better than theirs, maybe you should ask God to show you your own heart so you can lay it bare before Him. Then Jesus will change your attitudes and life, just like He did with Zacchaeus.
Ben Turner is an IT professional working for the South Pacific Division. His passions include preaching, small group Bible study and photography.
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