The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18.9-14



I continue to share my reflection from writing the Luke commentary here in relation to the Occupy movement in HK. As I browse the web, I notice that prayers of the powerful are often published. We don’t however see many prayers of the disadvantaged published in fancy websites though.  Many prayers speak from the powerful and sometimes condescending position at the less powerful.


In Jesus’ parable comparing the Pharisees and the tax collector, Jesus put two prayers side by side and point for point for comparison. This prayer is fascinating in that the righteous is also powerful. His posture shows him puffing out his chest while standing in a place visible to all. He’s well accepted by everyone. He’s a highly moral person. He had never broken any law, at least not the laws the everyone’s familiar with from the Decalogue.


In contrast, there’s the poor tax collector. I say “poor” not because he lacks money but because his status is questionable. He stands off to the side not daring to puff out his chest or look up while he prays. He recognizes that he’s done many wrongs and asks for God’s mercy. Instead of telling God how much he didn’t trespass, he tells God simply that he’s a sinner. Jesus said in Luke 18.14, “This man rather than the other went home justified before God.” This simple contrast shows the nature of prayer not only in its content but in its eschatological orientation.


In Luke 18.1, Jesus talked about praying and not giving up, as the disciples waited for the day of the Son of Man. In Luke 18.9-14, Jesus talked about praying without arrogance. Why indeed is this necessary? Jesus said that God would be the one to judge. The arrogant, no matter how righteous or moral, would be humbled. What arrogance was Jesus speaking of? Jesus spoke of arrogance towards following the law and bragging about it. Obviously, the one truly followed the law wouldn’t appear arrogant before the God who created it in the first place. This Pharisee did follow the law, only to lose the entire meaning of why the law was established in the first place. The law was created so that God would be the ultimate authority to whom one’s to answer. Prayers for Christians have eschatological significance.


Back to the HK situation. So many prayers from “above” (i.e. the powerful position) sound like a list of moral accomplishments. We aren’t homosexuals. We aren’t deviants. We didn’t cause disruption to business. We aren’t prostitutes. We pray for the homosexuals, the deviants, the disruption of our prosperous city, and the prostitutes. The list goes on … The fact is, such bragging before God only earns condemnation. Quite often our prayer FOR our fellow humans is really a prayer AGAINST them. When we say “us”, we mean “them” because after all, we aren’t homosexuals, deviants, and disruptive prostitutes.


The scariest part about prayer taught by Jesus is this. Prayer comes alongside of the final judgment. Those who pray from “above” had better be careful or they may end up below. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Better believe it!