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Article Info:
published: 10/8/13

Parable of the Pharisees and the Tax Collector

What is the parable of the pharisees and the tax collector?

The parable of the pharisees and the tax collector was spoken by Jesus Christ and is recorded in Luke 18:9-14. The lesson is driven home by contrast, once more, between the pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14), disclosing the true economy of grace. On the one hand it is permissible to understand this as typifying the rejection of legal and carnal Judaism; on the other, we may expand its teaching to the universal principle in St. John (4:23-24) when our Lord transcends the distinction of Jew and heathen, Israelite and Samaritan, in favour of a spiritual Church or kingdom, open to all.

St. Augustine says (Enarr. in Ps. lxxiv), "The Jewish people boasted of their merits, the Gentiles confessed their sins". It is asked whether those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others" were in fact the pharisees or some of the disciples. From the context we cannot decide. But it would not be impossible if, at this period, our Saviour spoke directly to the pharisees, whom He condemned (at no time for their good works, but) for their boasting and their disdain of the multitude who knew not the law (cf. Matthew 23:12, 23; John 7:49).


9 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.

11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.

12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.

13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

Further explanation

The pharisee's attitude, "standing", was not peculiar to him; it has ever been the customary mode of prayer among Easterns. He says "I fast twice in a week", not "twice on the Sabbath". "Tithes of all that I possess" means "all that comes to me" as revenue. This man's confession acknowledged no sin, but abounds in praise of himself-a form not yet extinct where Christians approach the sacred tribunal. One might say, "He does penance; he does not repent".

The publican is of course a Jew, Zacchaeus or any other; he cannot plead merit; but he has a "broken heart" which God will accept. "Be merciful to me" is well rendered from the Greek by the Vulgate, "Be propitious", a sacrificial and significant word. "Went down to his house justified rather than the other" is a Hebrew way of saying that one was and the other was not justified, as St. Augustine teaches. The expression is St. Paul's, dikaiousthai ; but we are not required to examine here the idea of justification under the Old Law. Mystically, the exaltation and abasement indicated would refer to the coming of the Kingdom and the Last Judgment.

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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).

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