February/March 2014 - Vol. 72

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
“Be Merciful to Me, O God”
By Jeanne Kun
The Pharisee was not rejoicing so much in his own clean bill of health as in comparing it with the diseases of others. He came to the doctor. It would have been more worthwhile to inform him by confession of the things that were wrong with himself instead of keeping his wounds secret and having the nerve to crow over the scars of others. It is not surprising that the tax collector went away cured, since he had not been ashamed of showing where he felt pain.
– St. Augustine, Sermon 351.1
With the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus once again took his listeners by surprise. His Jewish contemporaries would have esteemed the Pharisee as a model of religious propriety, concurred with the man’s high opinion of himself, and assumed that he deserved God’s favor. They also would have looked down on the tax collector and scorned him. Yet, in another unsettling reversal of roles and expectations, Jesus commended not the “saint” but the “sinner.”

Jesus’ story made clear that this pious and devout Pharisee not only followed the law but even went beyond it. Jews were required to fast only one day each year, on the Day of Atonement; he fasted twice each week. Likewise, Jews tithed on their produce (Deuteronomy 14:22), whereas he tithed on his entire income. Glorying in his good works, the Pharisee confessed no sin or fault before God, because he was blind to any. He saw only the sins of others.

Local tax collectors were considered ritually unclean by their fellow Jews since they were employed by the Roman forces occupying Palestine and associated with gentiles. They were further despised as corrupt scoundrels because they often defrauded their own countrymen. Jesus’ listeners would have been appalled that such a man dared even to enter the temple, God’s holy dwelling place. The tax collector knew he did not measure up to the law and didn’t claim to be good or holy. Yet what was lacking in the Pharisee’s prayer — recognition of his need for God and repentance — made up the whole of the tax collector’s plea.

Humility is the recognition of the truth of who we are in relation to God. It is the ability to see clearly that God is our creator and the source of all life and goodness. Without him, we are nothing and have nothing. The tax collector had no illusions about himself or about God. He could see that by his actions that he had failed to please God and that he was greatly in need of God’s mercy. The Pharisee, however, was harboring two illusions—one, that he had no sin, and the other, that his religious acts alone earned him God’s favor. His greatest sin was pride. He trusted in himself rather than trusting in God.

When we fail to recognize our need for God, we also fail to recognize our need to pray. Whatever the tax collector’s sins, it was his disposition of humility, his recognition of the truth, and his desire for forgiveness that “justified” him. He received God’s mercy not because he deserved it or even because he thought he did, but because he asked for it through humble prayer.

Jesus told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:1). Its message was not directed to Jesus’ first-century hearers alone. As we look into the mirror of God’s word, may we have the humility to see ourselves as we truly are — and the grace to see the Lord as he truly is. For our God is merciful and compassionate, always willing and eager to “justify” each and every one of us when we come to him with repentant hearts.

In the Spotlight

The Jesus Prayer

For centuries, Christians across the world have invoked the name of the Lord in the “Jesus Prayer,” which is expressed most commonly as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.” The prayer finds it origins in St. Paul’s beautiful hymn about Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, which ends,

 “so that at the name of Jesus
  every knee should bend
  in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue should confess
  that Jesus Christ is Lord,
  to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).

The Jesus Prayer incorporates, as well, the humble entreaty of the tax collector in the parable and the cry of the blind men who begged Jesus for their sight. Indeed, the Jesus Prayer is so powerful that “[b]y it the heart is opened to human wretchedness and the Savior’s mercy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2667).

With the words of the Jesus Prayer, we make a perfect profession of faith, for it sums up the essentials of what we know and believe about the Lord. As we pray these few simple words, we confess our own sinfulness, cry out for God’s mercy, and open ourselves to his forgiveness and his healing presence in our lives. Busy as we are with our families, our work, and our daily responsibilities, we can enter more deeply into a life of continual prayer by repeating the Jesus Prayer frequently throughout the day.

In the Spotlight

Wisdom from the Church Fathers

The one guilty of insolent behavior suffered the loss of his justice and forfeited his reward by his bold self-reliance. He was judged inferior to a humble man and a sinner because in his self-exaltation he did not await the judgment of God but pronounced it himself. Never place yourself above anyone, not even great sinners. Humility often saves a sinner who has committed many terrible transgressions.

St. Basil the Great, On Humility

 In the case of that Pharisee who was praying, the things he said were true. Since he was saying them out of pride and the tax collector was telling his sins with humility, the confession of sins of the last was more pleasing to God than the acknowledgment of the almsgiving of the first. It is more difficult to confess one’s sins than one’s righteousness. God looks on the one who carries a heavy burden. The tax collector therefore appeared to him to have had more to bear than the Pharisee had. He went down more justified than the Pharisee did, only because of the fact he was humble.
St. Ephrem the Syrian,
Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron

 The foolish Pharisee stood there bold and broad, lifting up his eyes without a qualm, bearing witness to himself and boastful. The other feels shame for his conduct. He is afraid of his judge. He beats his breast. He confesses his offenses. He shows his illness to the physician, and he prays that he will have mercy. What is the result? Let us hear what the judge says. He says, “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke

This article is excerpted from Treasures Uncovered: The Parables of Jesus, by Jeanne Kun, © 2005 The Word Among Us Press. Used with permission. This book can be ordered online at The Word Among Us Press.

Jeanne Kun is President of Bethany Association and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. 
> See other articles by Jeanne Kun

Luke 18:9-14
9 [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the Spotlight

Contemporary Voices

The Pharisee does not receive God’s free gift of justification because he sees no need of it. He has justified himself. He confuses goodness (which he possessed) with perfection (which he did not). This is a common failing in religious people. Instead of looking up, at the all-holy God, the Pharisee looks around, at others. Discerning, rightly, that others have not achieved his level of goodness, he looks down on his fellow worshiper in the temple who, aware of how unworthy he is to stand in that sacred place, stands far off with bowed head, beating his breast in a gesture of humility as he pleads with God for mercy and forgiveness.

To compare ourselves with others is always a mistake. Such comparisons lead either to discouragement, when we find that others are better than we are; or to complacency, when we see that they are worse. Comparing ourselves with others is mistaken, too, because we do not know, and can never know, the difficulties against which others must contend. If I had been dealt the hand of the sister or brother who seems to have done so badly in life, can I be confident that I might not have done even worse?”

—John Jay Hughes, Stories Jesus Told: Modern Meditations on the Parables


1. What adjectives would you use to describe the Pharisee? What positive traits do you see in his actions and character? What flaws?

2. What does the Pharisee’s prayer reveal about his image and concept of God? In your opinion, what was the point of his prayer?

3. Compare and contrast the tax collector’s way of approaching God with the Pharisee’s. Pay attention not only to the two men’s words, but also to their gestures and posture.

4. How would you characterize the tax collector’s attitude toward God? His attitude toward himself?

5. How do you think Jesus’ hearers reacted to this parable? What reasons can you offer for your answer?


1. What has this parable shown you about your image of God? Does your understanding of God or your attitude toward him need to be corrected in any way?

2. In what ways has this parable challenged or changed your way of thinking about yourself? About the value you place on your efforts to please God?

3. Do you feel comfortable identifying yourself with the tax collector? Why or why not? What have you learned from him and from his prayer?

4. How easily do you fall into the trap of comparing your good deeds or your practice of the faith with the actions of others? Why? How can you avoid this pitfall?

5. By looking at the Pharisee, do you recognize any ways in which you’ve been blind to your own failings? If so, write a prayer to Jesus, asking him to forgive you and to help you change.

In the Spotlight

From the Catechism of the 
Catholic Church

[W]hen we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. (2559)

[The parable of] “the Pharisee and the tax collector,” concerns the humility of heart that prays. “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” The Church continues to make this prayer its own: Kyrie eleison! (2613)


1. Reflect on the gestures and postures you use when you pray. Perhaps you genuflect, bow your head, kneel, or lift up your hands. These outward physical actions are meant to be an expression of the inward disposition of the heart.

When you perform such actions, are you conscious of their meaning? How might you use such actions more effectively in the way you relate to God?

2. Reflect on the following passages to enrich your understanding of the parable you have just studied:

 Have mercy on me, O God,
  according to your steadfast love;
 according to your abundant mercy
  blot out my transgressions.
 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
  and cleanse me from my sin.
 For I know my transgressions,
  and my sin is ever before me. . . .
 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
  wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:1-3, 7)

 For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly;
  but the haughty he perceives from far away. (Psalm 138:6)

 For thus says the high and lofty one
  who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
 I dwell in the high and holy place,
  and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,
 to revive the spirit of the humble,
  and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15)

Jesus said: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1, 3)

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. (1 Peter 5:6)


“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Pray the Jesus Prayer as often as you can this week — while you are driving, doing household chores, taking a quiet pause in the day, jogging — whenever it comes to mind. Let the words of this prayer sink deep into your heart and remind you that you are always in the presence of God, no matter what you are doing.

 Illustration of the Pharisee and the Publican (top) of page) by James Tissot
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