2014 - Vol. 72
Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Merciful to Me, O God”
By Jeanne Kun
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.
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
St. Augustine, Sermon 351.1
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
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
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.
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.
The Jesus Prayer
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
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).
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).
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.
Wisdom from the
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
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
– 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,
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.
Kun is President of Bethany
Association and a senior woman leader in the Word
of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
other articles by Jeanne Kun
[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.”
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.
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?”
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?
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
4. How would
you characterize the tax collector’s attitude toward God? His attitude
5. How do you
think Jesus’ hearers reacted to this parable? What reasons can you offer
for your answer?
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?
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?
Do you feel comfortable identifying yourself with the tax collector? Why
or why not? What have you learned from him and from his prayer?
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
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.
From the Catechism
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)
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)
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
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?
Reflect on the following passages to enrich your understanding of the parable
you have just studied:
mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me. . . .
me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:1-3, 7)
though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly;
but the haughty he perceives from far away. (Psalm 138:6)
thus says the high and lofty one
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit,
revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15)
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)
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.
of the Pharisee and the Publican (top) of page) by James Tissot