The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is simple.
There are only two characters. The Pharisee who thinks he is better than
others, and the tax collector who thinks he is worse than others. They are both praying, and we get to see into
their hearts for just a moment.
The Pharisee thanks God that he is glad he is not like other people, who
are crooks and evildoers. He then brags about his religious practices. So it is
easy to dislike the Pharisee. Anyone that treats us like we are dirt, and at
the same time believes that they are super-religious isn’t very likable. It is
easy to say to ourselves, I don’t want to be like that. Even though he is
showing gratitude to God, he is doing it in a way that simply sounds like
On the other hand, the tax collector acts like he has just committed the
worst sin in history. He can’t even look up to heaven, but simply begs for
mercy for himself, believing that he is nothing more than a sinner. This man is
easier to like because he is humble, and most of us have had times in our lives
when we have made a mistake and we feel like dirt. But here is the thing, I
don’t really want to be like him either – because I don’t want to go through
life beating myself up. He doesn’t seem to see the good in life that God has
gifted him with, which is what we have talked about the last couple of weeks.
Now, you probably know, that this month we are focusing on the theme of gratitude. In this parable the Pharisee is actually more grateful
than the tax collector. But this highlights one of the challenges of gratitude --
that it can become an attitude of pride. For example, it is one thing to say:
“God, I am thankful that I have a roof over my head and shelter from the
storms.” It is another to say, “God, I am thankful that my house is nicer than
my neighbors. They don’t have stainless steel appliances or new landscaping
like I do.”
Now that may sound ridiculous, but it is a pretty small step to move from
simply being thankful, to being thankful that we are not like others: Which is
why the example of the tax collector is important in this parable. He serves as
a reminder that our religious practices, even our gratitude, can become
misguided. What was once good, actually becomes twisted and wrong. It is a
warning to us, that as we serve God, as we strive to be religious, we can get
off track, and become self-serving.
There is an Irish legend about St. Eloi, that before he became religious,
he was a smith. He was very proud of his skill and often boasted that the never
saw anything that another man could do that he could not match. One day a
mounted traveler stopped at his forge and asked simply to be allowed to use the
forge and fasten a loosened shoe on his horse. Eloi was then surprised as the
man twisted the front leg of the horse out of joint, placed it into the forge
and refastened the shoe. Once done, he twisted the leg back, patted the horse
on the shoulder and all was done.
Eloi not to be outdone called for one of his horses to be brought, and
twisted the fore leg out – unfortunately there was tearing of muscle and skin.
He then beautifully shoed the horse; however, when finished the horse was lame,
lied down and was near expiring. Eloi then realized that his pride and vanity had
probably killed the horse. The stranger seeing that Eloi was cured of pride,
explained that he had come from God to cure him of the vice, touched the horse
on the shoulder healing it, and then vanished.
After this Eloi becomes the patron saint of horses and farriers.
Eloi’s skill was a good thing, but he allowed his pride in himself to
twisted into that which caused harm to his horse. In a similar way, it isn’t hard for our
thankfulness to lose track of humility. So Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Tax
Collector serves as a reminder.
As I thought about it, I asked myself: What if we could be the best of both of these men? What if we can be
humble, like the tax collector, and grateful like the Pharisee? What if we know
that we depend upon God’s mercy, and are grateful for it?
Let me share with you the story of Rob Stephens in A Life of Gratitude Day
21. Rob shares that from early elementary school he was in trouble with the
law. At age 21 he was living his life in and out of prison. He describes himself
as a thief with an anger problem. He actually had come to see himself as a bad
person with a bad future.
But a family stepped into his life that began to change him. What happened
is that he stole a car phone from them (remember those things with the antenna
on your roof?) – sorry youngsters, you will have no clue! Anyway, a police
officer saw him carrying the antenna in his hand and was pretty sure he had
stolen it, but couldn’t prove it. So Rob decided that he would go to the house
where he had stolen it, and convince them to lie for him. Have them say he was
fixing it or something innocent like that, and beg his way out of going to
When he knocked on the door, Sandy answered with her hair in curlers and a
big smile on her face. She invited him in. Her husband walks down the stairs,
it is obvious he is blind, and they sit and talk. After a while, it is clear the
couple he met had no intention of lying for him, and Rob ends up telling them
his life story.
Here is where grace comes in. The couple still press charges for the theft,
but at court, Paul speaks and convinces the judge and prosecutor that there was
still hope for this man and had his sentence reduced to 30 days in jail. Paul
then offered to let Rob live with them, helped Rob find a job, and invited him
to attend church with them.
Unfortunately Rob fell into temptation again, and his relationship with
them was broken. He was so disappointed with himself that he considered
suicide, but God wouldn’t allow him to take his life. I quote “The fact that I
have not stolen anything since that time and that Christ has continued bringing
me ever so close to Him gives me a heart so full of thanks and gratitude. And
the blessings continue to flow since this was only the beginning of my path
towards our awesome God whom we serve. This is my personal thanks to God … my
gratitude for what he has done for me.”
You see, Rob knows he is not perfected yet, but he is grateful for what God has
been doing for him.
I think this is a good balance between gratitude and humility.
And in many ways we need to see ourselves like this all the time. We
need to be humbled to the point of change, and grateful for the opportunity to
change. We need to be humbled by the goodness of God, grateful for it, and
mindful of the fact that we sin. We have to be willing to lay aside our pride
and accept the help that God offers to us.
That was what the Pharisee lacked. He no longer saw himself as a person in
need of change, he no longer saw the sin he committed, no longer saw
opportunities for bettering himself or bringing himself closer to God. He had
forgotten his need for God’s grace, for God’s goodness, for God’s help.
On the other hand, the tax collector was desperately aware of his need of
God’s mercy, and his need for God’s grace. He knew that he needed to change,
and that he needed God’s help in doing just that.
And Jesus says, “I tell you, this person went down to his home justified
rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and
those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
Christ wants to lift us up. His goal is not to beat us up with the things
we have done, but rather to take us from the places in our life where we know
we are not doing what we should, and lift that part of our soul beyond its the
dusty imperfections. He wants to pick us up, clean us off, and restore to us
the image of God that has been planted deep within us from the dawn of
Our response to that should be one of humble thanks, thanks for the
transformational love and power of God’s grace, humility in knowing that
without God’s grace we would not be able to change. Humility in knowing that
there is still much more that we need to change – that we are not yet
perfected, and thanks that God walks along side us as we strive to make those
As I said earlier: We need to be humbled to the point of change, and
grateful for the opportunity to change. We need to be humbled by the goodness
of God, grateful for it, and mindful of the fact that we sin. We have to be
willing to lay aside our pride and accept the help that God offers to us.
Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, Patrick Kennedy
Life of Gratitude: 21 Days to Overcoming Self-Pity and Negativity. Shelley