He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus is a master storyteller, and the parables are among His best. The settings and characters are earthy, but they reveal heavenly realities (Matthew 13:34-35). They are brief, but then linger in our minds (Mark 4:30-32). The plots seem familiar at first, but the endings always surprise (Luke 15:11-32). In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we see all three of these features on display. But it is the surprise ending to this parable that makes it the best of the best.
To appreciate the surprise ending, we must read the parable as a whole, and pay close attention to what happened after the men leave the temple. The surprise ending comes, as it should, in the last verse of the parable. Jesus concludes the story by revealing something otherwise invisible and unknown: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” For the sake of clarify, we can fill in the specific identities of the men in this way: “I tell you, the tax collector went down to his house justified, rather than the Pharisee.”
There are two aspects to the surprise ending contained in Jesus’ divine pronouncement.
First, Jesus’ words reveal that it was the tax collector who received favor from God, rather than the Pharisee. Like Jesus’ original audience, we tend to assume that it is the outwardly good and openly religious who please God. But Jesus surprises us; He upends our assumptions and exalts the outcast sinner who humbly prays for mercy. Jesus doesn’t ignore or normalize the tax collector’s professional or personal sins, and He doesn’t suggest the Pharisee’s concern for holiness is worthless. And this parable certainly does not teach us to pray, “God, thank you that I am not like this Pharisee!” Instead, through this parable, Jesus shines a light on the necessity and beauty of humble dependence on God’s gracious initiative to save us.
Second, and most surprising of all, Jesus’ words reveal that the tax collector received far more than he asked for. He asked for mercy: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In his earnest pleading, the tax collector begged God to withhold the just punishment he deserved as a sinner. But the tax collector did not merely go down to his house unpunished; he went down to his house, “justified.” This is the word the Bible uses to describe being in a perfectly right relationship to God. The tax collector wasn’t begrudgingly treated by God as not guilty; he was positively accepted by God as perfectly right in His sight. How could a just and holy God treat such a sinful and guilty man with such obviously unfair grace? Not by ignoring the tax collector’s sin, but by giving His own Son as the substitute.
The genius of this best-of-the-best parable is that it quietly but powerfully directs our attention to the storyteller, Jesus Christ Himself. The only way the tax collector could go down to his house justified is by Jesus coming down out of heaven to take his place. The themes of humility, justification, and the work of Jesus that we see swirling in this story are organized for us in Philippians 2:5-8.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Jesus did this in love (Philippians 2:1) so that we, like the tax collector, may receive the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Christ (Philippians 3:8-9).
Both those who struggle with a spirit of pride before God and those who struggle with a spirit of unworthiness before God find their struggles strongly rebuked, tenderly quieted, and faithfully overwhelmed by this parable of gospel grace. This best of stories has come to life in us who wholly lean on Jesus’ name! In Christ, God has given us far more than we have asked and far more than we dare hope. And so we all can join in singing:
Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own,
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son.
All praise to the Spirit, whose whisper divine,
Seals mercy, and pardon, and righteousness mine.
—John Stocker, “Thy Mercy My God is the Theme of My Song” (1776)