Jesus often taught in parables. One of the shortest yet most profound was the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The Bible tells us that “There were some people who thought they were very good and looked down on everyone else. Jesus used this story to teach them” (Luke 18:9).
The word “Pharisee” means “the separated ones,” which sums up the basic nature of their beliefs. They were strict legalists who pledged to observe and obey every one of the countless restrictive rules, traditions, and ceremonial laws of Orthodox Judaism. They considered themselves to be the only true followers of God’s Law, and therefore felt that they were much better and holier than anyone else. Thus they separated themselves not only from the non-Jews—whom they absolutely despised and considered “dogs”—but even other Jews.
The publicans were tax collectors for the foreign occupier and ruler of Palestine, Imperial Rome. The Romans would instruct the publicans how much to collect from the people, and then the publicans could charge extra for their own income. So publicans were usually extortioners and were therefore considered traitors and absolutely despised by other Jews.
So when Jesus told this parable, comparing a Pharisee and a publican, He had chosen the two most opposite figures in the Jewish community. The one was considered the best, most righteous, most religious, most godly of men, whereas the other was considered the worst scoundrel imaginable.
One time there was a Pharisee and a tax collector. One day they both went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee stood alone, away from the tax collector. When the Pharisee prayed, he said, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not as bad as other people. I am not like men who steal and cheat. I thank you that I am better than this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of everything I get!’
“The tax collector stood alone too. But when he prayed, he would not even look up to heaven. He felt very humble before God. He said, ‘O God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner!’ I tell you, when this man finished his prayer and went home, he was right with God. But the Pharisee, who felt that he was better than others, was not right with God. People who make themselves important will be made humble. But those who make themselves humble will be made important.” (Luke 18:10-14)
Text © TFI. Art by Didier Martin.