A Modern Retelling of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
A fellow Christian and I went to social media to discuss our faith. I am a follower of Jesus. He is a Pharisee.
I tweeted out to my thousands of followers a prayer of thanksgiving: God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—fundamentalists, uneducated, unsophisticated or even like this Pharisee. I watch Game of Thrones and John Oliver; I participate in all the important trending hashtags on Twitter to raise social awareness.
But can you believe the Pharisee? He never even posted his thoughts to Snapchat. He wouldn’t even take his phone out of his pocket. I overheard him ugly crying and saying over and over again: “God, turn Your wrath from me—a sinner!”
How dare he talk about God’s wrath! Why would he call himself a sinner? Sure, he’s bad (he’s not like me afterall), but doesn’t he know we don’t use that language anymore?
Yet, I can’t help but wonder which one of us is going away justified before God? It couldn’t be him … could it?
Who were Pharisees and tax collectors?
The upside-downness of Jesus’ original parable in Luke can be hidden if we seek to jump too quickly to modern day application. We must account for Pharisees now being universally condemned.
In Jesus’ day, Pharisees carried religious and social clout. They were treated with respect in the community and were regarded as spiritual leaders.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were seen as cultural traitors for their agreeing to work for the Roman Empire and extort money from their fellow Jews.
Those direct characterizations are no longer the case today. Yes, there are still those who fit those historic concepts, but no one sees the title “Pharisee” as a compliment.
Jesus isn’t condemning the Pharisees for being tragically unhip and not watching enough HBO. His ultimate point is not about religious status (though He is concerned with that). Jesus called out the Pharisees because of their lack of personal humility. They were spiritually prideful.
He lets us know this with his post-story tag: “I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The first century Pharisee trusted in his good works to gain him access to God and didn’t see the need for a Suffering Servant, but the tax collector knew he was without hope apart from God’s mercy. But things are often different today.
Who are the Pharisees and tax collectors today?
As I alluded to in the retelling of the parable, frequently today we use “Pharisee” as spiritual shorthand for “someone I disagree with.” Pharisees are those other kind of Christians, whatever “other” is for us.
By placing them in that category and assigning them that title, we feel justified in judging them and launching into tirades against their positions. I know this because I’ve done this and am repeatedly tempted to do it now.
But then we are missing the great reversal of Jesus’ story because, while we may be using the same characters as He did, we are condemning the Pharisee to justify ourselves and stroke our spiritual ego.
No matter what positions we may hold, we become the essence of the historic Pharisees when we seek to congratulate ourselves and those like us for being more spiritual. This is even if we cast others in the role of Pharisee. As a matter of fact, this is especially if we cast others in that role.
We may “win” an online argument by portraying others as Pharisees. If the goal, however, is to become more Christlike ourselves and encourage others to do the same, we completely miss the mark with those accusations.
Yes, Jesus criticized the Pharisees in His day, but He did so with knowledge of their hearts and the motivations behind their actions.
He also loved them and welcomed them in as some of his closest followers, like Nicodemus. Jesus even entrusted one—Saul turned Paul—to be His witness to the Gentile world and write the majority of the books in the New Testament.
But those were men who demonstrated humility. That’s the difference.
If we are called to love everyone and treat them as our neighbor, that includes the Pharisee who would self-righteously condemn us with his prayers or walk on the other side of the road if they saw us knocked down in a ditch.
That also includes the “Pharisee” that doesn’t quite get cultural engagement, doesn’t have Netflix and has no idea how to get on “the Twitter.”
If you believe a fellow Christian is in sin and behaving pharisaical, check your life and your motives, then talk about this issue with them. That will keep you from becoming what you see in others.
Refusing to love Pharisees doesn’t make you more like Jesus. It makes you more like the people you claim to oppose. In the end, it makes you someone who needs a better understanding of Jesus.