The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

A note from Jamie Howison: What follows here are two different versions of a sermon on Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, with an eye to a reading from the prophet Joel. The recorded version is the more extempore version of the text version; very much informed by the same insights, but preached without notes in hand. Both are deeply influenced by the theologian Robert Farrar Capon, whose wildly creative take on this parable is available online.


verything I know about this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector I learned from my friend and mentor Robert Farrar Capon, and this sermon is but a pale reflection of one preached by Robert. As you will soon discover, I am going to cite liberally from that sermon. In treating a parable that speaks—among other things—to the need to be utterly honest about who and what you are, it is only right to tell you that right up front.

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Jesus told this parable as a challenge to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” There’s the set-up line. Those who trusted themselves and who treated others with contempt, and—human nature being what it is—the one flows right out of the other. Specifically, Jesus is challenging a kind of certainty and self-confidence that says, “I am doing this right, and therefore I have set myself right with God.” And what flows from that is a dismissive judgmentalism that goes on to say, “you, clearly, are not doing this right, and therefore are not right with God.”

In the eyes of Jesus, that is a deep problem, and so he tells his parable in which he draws the two characters with such broad lines that it is near impossible to miss his point.

Two men went up to the temple, a Pharisee and a tax collector.  The original audience would have recognized a number of things in each of those characters.

  • A tax collector: someone in collusion with the Roman imperial system, whose living is made by overcharging the set tax and getting rich off the surplus. A despised traitor, whose wealth comes from the bilking his fellow Judeans.
  • A Pharisee: devout, torah-abiding, tithing, literate, committed to the faith of his forebears. Just the sort of good solid character most of us want on our church boards.

Now, imagine the smile lurking at the corner of Jesus’ mouth as he begins to sketch out the Pharisee’s prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

Okay, his audience is thinking, we get the point. The Pharisees in the crowd are offended… but maybe just a bit uneasy, too, because they’re hearing something just a bit too close to the truth in this satirical story.  The ordinary folks who are listening poke each other in the ribs, exchanging delighted little glances; those overly religious types are getting a bit of a rough ride from the Galilean peasant rabbi… this is going to get fun.

Now, the tax collector, who is standing off to the side, staring down at the floor, able only to say “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Unless there happens to be a tax collector in the crowd (or maybe that former tax collector and current disciple, Matthew), no one is going to be sympathetic to this character. Not the Pharisees, and certainly not the common folk, whose wallets and purses are regularly plundered by these traitors.

And looking at these two broadly drawn characters, Jesus comes to his punch line: “I tell you, this man—the tax collector—went down to his home justified rather than the other.”

Hold it, hold it. This isn’t going to make anyone in the audience particularly happy (except, of course, any living, breathing tax collector who might be lurking at the back of the crowd, hoping to hear some good news…). The Pharisees may be prepared to admit that the cartoon version of themselves they see in the parable has an attitude problem, but at least he’s still paying attention to the torah. God might do well to tune him up—send him off to read one of those cranky prophets who have such strong view about bringing the letter and the spirit of the law together—but to say he is not a just man?

And the common folks are choking a bit on the idea of a justified tax collector. Or they are doing the very same thing that we tend to do, which is to insist that the tax collector is clearly in the midst of reforming himself; he’s as good as an ex-tax collector. But Jesus never goes there.

Earlier in this sermon I said that it was near impossible to miss the point Jesus is making here. It is near impossible to miss Jesus’ point, but as Capon says, “The thing you have to ask yourself is, ‘Why are you itching to send the Publican, the tax collector, back with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket?’” Without even thinking about it, we assume that the tax collector is now on the road to reform; that right before our eyes he is having a conversion experience, and is about to change his ways.

But Jesus never goes there. Not that in other places Jesus isn’t interested in how we live and what we do in response to the gift that is grace. Read the Sermon on the Mount, and you’ll know he takes our decisions and choices very seriously. But here, he just sketches out his characters, and then points to the one who, simply because he is honest about the disaster of his own life, is put right with God.

The proclamation of grace offered in this parable is simply audacious. Even the prophet Joel (whose words we heard read aloud tonight), for all of the catholicity—the universal and inclusive and non-sectarian character—of his message would find this parable a bit over the top. Joel writes about the spirit of God being poured out on “all flesh,” on men and women, young and old, slave and free, and he is sure that in the time of the world’s crisis, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The Hebrew scriptures are shot through with this kind of wild inclusion, this insistence that God intends to meet all who reach out in longing.

But here, in this parable Jesus takes it all right over the top. Again from Robert Capon:

The point is that this parable is about death and resurrection. It is not about morality, spirituality or anything else. It is about the fact that both the Pharisee and the Publican (the tax collector), are dead ducks. The Pharisee is a very high class kind of dead duck, but they are both dead as far as being able to reconcile with God is concerned.

The tax collector, you see, is beyond a self-directed program of reform… but so is the Pharisee, and so are you and I. If all it took was a little more determination and a better approach to managing our lives, then the world would have been saved through the Ten Commandments. Or maybe through Dr. Phil.

The gospel we proclaim is instead a bold proclamation that Jesus came not to fix or adjust or tune things up; not to set us all on a program of reform and spiritual self-improvement; but to seek out the last, the least, the lost, and the dead… which, if we’re honest, is all of us. That’s the one thing that the Pharisee in the parable could not face… and it is the one thing that the tax collector could see with startling clarity.

And that’s why Jesus told this story to us in the way that he did.


Jamie Howison

2 Responses to The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

  1. byron says:

    Read this last night, and listened this morning. It is clear and concise both ways.
    Thank you.

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