Humanity or Vanity?

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) presents two extremes of society’s hierarchal scale of judgment. One one end is the Pharisee, a man lifted up by others as a righteous man who follows in God’s laws and passed on traditions from one generation to the next. On the other end of the scale is the Tax Collector, a man despised for being a pawn of the Roman government who takes the hard earned money from the people. The two men are next to each other praying before God. 


For the passerby, who sees the Pharisee as a role model of good behavior, the prayer does not sound too auspicious:
“God, I thank thee that I am not like other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.” 
Thinking back on our own prayers, have we prayed something similar out of good intentions? Have we said something similar in petitioning God at our churches? Do you pray like the Pharisee?

The Pharisee prayer concludes with: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” Again, this does not sound wrong. This man sounds honorable and just. He is doing as God commands and even going above and beyond his instructions. When you pray aloud in your church, do you list your good deeds to God like the Pharisee did? What about when you pray alone. Do you list your good deeds then in your prayers of thanksgiving? Isn’t that what God says we should do?

This is all that is given of the Pharisee in this parable. If we were to be judge in this story, we would find no fault in this man for doing something that God says to do. So why did Christ say this man was using his prayer to exalt himself over God? 


For the passerby who sees the Tax Collector as a sinner, the prayer does not sound too unusual:
“God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
If you see the man in accusation and prejudged him for crimes based on the mainstream belief of a man in his occupation, you may feel displaying anguish and grief publicly for his wrongdoings are justified actions. Watching this man as a bystander you may feel a sense of pride and rightness by his humility. If he is an evil man then he should be acting like this toward God. Why does Christ say this man was more justified in his petitions before God? Why does Christ say this man’s actions were more sincere than the Pharisee?

“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone that exalts himself shall be abased; and the that humbles himself shall be exalted.”

This response of Christ does not make sense. What did the Pharisee do that was so wrong? What more does God demand from him that he is not doing already? If he is giving 10% back to God of all that he has and following the traditions of his faith to fast, even doing it more than the minimum amount required what is he not doing that Christ takes issue with here? 


Reverse engineering the problem from the solution: Christ’s response to the men’s actions we can better get a handle on why Christ said what he said. “Abase” according to the means to “behave in a way to belittle or degrade another.” “Exalt” means to hold something in very high regard.” We start to see an ongoing theme of how we are to see the other person take shape in these parables. And the response that Christ says we are to have is very different from the response that is our natural instinct to have when comparing ourselves to others. Where arrogance is rewarded in society it is frowned upon by God. 

“God, I thank thee that I am not like other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” This was not a prayer of sincerity but a prayer of arrogance. A prayer designed to make the one praying feel superior to the person standing next to him. A prayer of bragging and arrogance. 

Do we subconsciously do this with our prayers? Are we truly praying for other people or are we using our petitions to God to make our selves sound more holy and just to the church congregation or our peers? It’s something to think about and work on changing if you find that you pray more like the Pharisee than the Tax Collector. 


Parables are designed to teach us more about ourselves and how we interact with each other. When you learn something new about yourself you are always free to change it. You never have to the be the same person you were before. That is the beauty of freewill. 

Do you treat God like an employee? Does he work for you or do you work for God?