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This parable, like the previous one, deals with prayer, but here the issue is the content of the heart as one prays. The parable is one of contrast and is unique to Luke. It contains common Lukan heroes and villains. The hero is the tax collector; the villain is the Pharisee. Humility is the exalted virtue. The parable serves as a rebuke, since it is told to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else. The Pharisees are the specific targets in Jesus' audience (Jeremias 1972:142-43; Josephus Jewish Wars 1.5.2 110).
What is most dangerous about pride is noted right at the start. First, we come to trust in our own abilities rather than trusting God. Second, we come to regard other people with contempt and disrespect rather than seeing them as created equal in the image of God.
This is a danger inherent in professional ministry: ministers and other Christian leaders can come to look down on laypeople. Here we are reminded, however, that God honors those who realize that their ministry does not commend them before God or make them superior; rather, we are all the objects of his grace and mercy.
The parable takes place at Israel's most holy site, the temple. The two visitors are on opposite ends of the social spectrum. The Pharisee is a respected religious member in a most honored social group, while the tax collector belongs to one of the most hated professions possible for a Jew.
The two prayers also make a contrast. The Pharisee is sure that he is a blessing to God: "I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." Clearly, God's program could hardly advance without this man's contribution. In fact, his prayer's form is revealing. It starts out like a thanksgiving psalm in which God is praised for something he has done. But the form is perverted, since the occasion of thanksgiving is what the man has done for God. Here is trust in oneself. His real prayer is "God, I thank you that I am so marvelous." In his own "humble" eyes he is not unrighteous. He fasts above and beyond the call of duty, twice a week, in contrast to the one fast a year on the Day of Atonement required of Jews. He gives tithes from everything (Lev 27:30-32; Num 18:21-24; Deut 14:22-27). He probably tithes down to the smallest herbs (Lk 11:42). God needs to do nothing for him. He makes no request of God, he offers no honor to God. This religious man has done it all. After reading his prayer, we wonder whether God should apply to be his assistant!
In contrast, the tax collector senses that he approaches a holy God, a great and unique being. This man comes with timidity, from a distance, not lifting his eyes to heaven. While the Pharisee had stood right at the front and addressed God, the tax collector beats his breast in an obscure corner to reflect his contrition. A similar sign of emotional dependence in the New Testament is the lifting of hands to God to show one's need of what he provides (1 Tim 2:8). Both practices indicate an awareness of one's humble position before God.
The tax collector knows he is a sinner; the Pharisee is confident of his own righteousness. The contrast could not be greater. Here is another brilliant use of literary space and contrast by Jesus.
The tax collector asks for mercy. He desires to improve his spiritual health, not rest on any personal laurels. He is aware that the only way he has access to God is through divine mercy (Dan 9:18-19). Such access is not earned; it is the product of God's grace.
When Jesus evaluates the two prayers, only one petitioner went home justified. The tax collector's prayer honored God and was heard, not that of the Pharisee. To drive the point home, Jesus concludes, "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Such reversals in God's judgments are common (1:51-53; 6:20-26; 14:11; 15:11-32; 16:19-31). The parable's point is summarized in this saying. The tax collector has a humble heart. He is honored by God. Since this parable is an example story, the call is to be like the tax collector.