A Fresh Look at the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” -Luke 18:9-14

The interpretation of this parable is too often filtered through the two terrible dichotomies of Christendom. That is, it is seen as a heaven/hell and saved/lost comparison. But is that accurate?

The context of the passage finds it sandwiched between the Lord teaching about the coming tribulation for Israel, his return, the earthly kingdom, and the lives of those alive at the time. Their choices are compared with those of Lot and his wife (among others) as they are warned to be ready. But does this not assume his listeners are believers? Lot's wife left Sodom, but her heart was still with that city. She was not "saved" then "lost;" she lost her liberty and reward.

They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. “In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. 
-Luke 17:28-33

He who is on the housetop, etc. Is he warning unbelievers of the terrible times to come? Is he warning unbelievers to remember Lot's wife? Note the last verse. The word "life" there is the Greek word "psychḗ" which can mean life or soul (see Matt 10:28; 11:29; etc.). We have dealt with the common error and mythology of how Christendom handles the word "soul." We can see here how losing one's soul is lauded here. That doesn't make any sense in the common theology of this hour.

 We do understand the word can go both ways, so let's look back at our original passage for more context. We started in chapter 17 with a warming about the tribulation and the need to be ready. This leads into chapter 18 and we end our passage with this, "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

This cannot apply to those who have no hope in the age to come. What does it mean to be humbled? Tortured by fire by God with no hope? Of course not. We have a reminder that entrance and position in the earthly kingdom (for those who have that hope) is determined by one's heart and action. Those who do not qualify will "wail" and "gnash their teeth." They will suffer loss. But they themselves have the free gift of life. They will have life, but be humbled.

Just as the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 cannot mean being condemned to the flame for not doing anything with a gift (does God trust unbelievers as stewards?), he also does not threaten those with the free gift of resurrection life with loss of that gift. With that understood, the parable in Matthew 25 and our parable in Luke 18 must refer to believers.

So what does it mean to be "justified?" In the case of one who has the hope of the kingdom, it means being declared worthy of the kingdom. These are those whose righteousness is greater than the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). The alternative is to be cast into outer darkness among the nations ("weeping and wailing" etc.).

Isaiah speaks of this future time. His prophesy looks ahead in great measure to the fulfillment of the "hope of Israel." He points to the darkness outside the kingdom (on earth) among the nations.

Just one example:
Arise, shine;
For your light has come!
And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.
For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth,
And deep darkness the people;
But the Lord will arise over you,
And His glory will be seen upon you.
The Gentiles shall come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising.
-Isaiah 60:1-3

Remember, when the Lord first warns of this casting out (also seen in the parable of the talents), it is in Matthew 8 wherein it refers to "the sons of the kingdom." That is, it refers to those who are the heirs of the promised kingdom in Israel, not to unbelievers or the heathen. That kingdom is gained by deeds of the law, contingent upon faith. This brings the great truths of justification in Romans and James together as seen in the Acts Age ministries of the apostles...

Note what Paul says in Acts 13:

Therefore let it be known to you, brethren [Jews], that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.

From what could the law not declare you justified? It could declare anyone free from the penalty of death. "By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal 2:16). We receive the new nature (which is life from God) by faith alone (Gal 3:2; etc.). "The law is... holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12),  but faith is necessary beyond the law. But does this exclude the law? In terms of life, yes; in terms of the kingdom, no. Paul is adamant, repeatedly, that in regard to "the forgiveness of sins," the law is useless. It cannot declare one worthy of life. If you try to find forgiveness of sin, you will only find your sins in the law.

Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. -Romans 3:20

The context of the Romans passage is the forgiveness of sin. This is the path to life.

being justified [declared free of the penalty pf sin] freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. -Romans 3:24-28

We still have to deal with the words of James.

Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. -James 2:23

Let us first note James' exclusive audience: the twelve tribes (James 1:1). So, if a man is "justified by faith without the deeds of the law," where do justifying works come in found in James 2? Are they not excluded? Paul tells us, very clearly in Romans 11, that grace and works are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be requirements for being declared free of death (justified from the penalty of sin). So, the works to which James points are excluded from justification from penalty of death.

And what odd "works" they be if we look to them as God's requirement.  Sacrificing one's son and committing treason by lying! These "works" are the result of faith. Abraham and Rahab had long been declared "justified" from the penalty of death, but in their acts of faith they bring their faith to maturity and are declared worthy of the blessings to come.

We see these two noted in the great faith chapter, Hebrews 11. Abraham is said to have been "tested" (v.17) and Rahab is juxtaposed against those who died in Jericho because they did not believe. Because they had faith, they had life, because they had proved their faith by their works they received greater rewards.

By faith [Abraham] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace... Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.

More on justification in my addendum in our look at the hymn "Saved by the Blood."


Remember We Are Looking At A Parable


We also should not miss that our passage is said to be a parable (Lk 18:9). Parables were spoken to the Pharisees and multitudes so that they might not understand (Matt 13). There are tremendous prophetic lessons here for Israel. She must come to the Lord in humility, acknowledge her sins, and ask for mercy.

In the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21 we see the follow-up to this parable and the place of works. In Luke 18 the difference in justification is not works, but faith. In Matthew 21 the difference is not in profession, but evidence.
"A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father? They said to Him, “The first. Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.
Here again is a tax collector as we had in Luke 18. In this case, he rebels, but then repents and does the will of his father. The self-righteous declares he will do the will of the father, but does not. This is the condition of Israel. They have rejected their Messiah, but they can still repent and enter the promised kingdom. This is message of the Book of Acts which is continuation of the Lord's ministry to Israel (Rom 15:8; Matt 15:24; etc.) seen in the gospels (especially in Matthew).


“Yet now, brethren [men of Israel], I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets [to Israel], that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, -Acts 3:18-20
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” -Matt 23:37-39

This calling has been set aside in the current age (Post Acts), but will one day soon be the condition for his return as Israel is placed again at the center of God's plan, channel, and focus.

  • There is justification from the penalty of death by faith alone (through grace)
  • There is justification for entering into rewards and promises by resulting works

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