October 10, 2021...“God’s anonymous: a Pharisee and a Tax Collector” Luke 18:10

October 10, 2021...“God’s anonymous: a Pharisee and a Tax Collector” Luke 18:10

October 10, 2021

“God’s anonymous: a Pharisee and a Tax Collector”

Luke 18:10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Back in May of 2017, to mark the launch of its “365 Days of Summer” competition, England’s

Canon company took a poll to determine who were the fifty best storytellers of all time. And why not?

After all, researchers say that most every one of us enjoys a good story, and on average, we tell as many

as four stories a day through words, pictures or conversations.

In the words of company director Matthew Searle, “You can’t beat a good story, whether it’s

words in a book, photographs, film or simply through conversation.” And he said, “Whether they are to

inform, relay a message or just to entertain, there are stories which will go on to be told for generations to


So who did their readers say were the very best storytellers of all time? Coming in at number 10

was J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit, not to mention The Lord of the Rings. American motion

picture and television producer Walt Disney came in 8th for his characters of Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto

and Mickey Mouse. Lewis Carroll was 7th and Hans Christian Andersen was 6th.

J.K. Rowling took the 4th spot for her stories about a lonely orphan-turned wizard named Harry

Potter. William Shakespeare came in at number 3, and Charles Dickens at number 2.

And holding the very top spot with 58% of the vote, as the greatest storyteller of all time, was a

man named Roald Dahl.

So who’s Roald Dahl? While you might not be familiar with his name, you’re probably familiar

with his books, like The Gremlins, or The BFG, (that’s The Big Friendly Giant), or James and the Giant

Peach, or probably his best-known story of all, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl is such a

popular storyteller, you can even celebrate him on his birthday, “Roald Dahl Day,” September 13th.

Our Savior Jesus told stories too. In fact, the book of Matthew says, “Jesus spoke all these things

to the crowd in parables; He did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matthew 13:34).

And think of the stories He told, about a sower who went out to sow his seed. He said that while

some fell along the path where birds came and ate it up, and some fell on rocky places and some fell

among thorns, the seed that fell on good soil produced a crop a hundred times of what was sown.

Or think of the Good Samaritan who stooped down to care for that man, wounded and bleeding,

by the side of the road, or the Rich Fool, or the Unforgiving Servant, or the Forgiving Father and his

Prodigal Son.

No one could tell a story like Jesus.

So it is in the words of our text, from the book of Luke chapter 18. I’ll start at verse 9: “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’” (Luke


If you’re anything like me, when you were young, you’d rush home from school and turn on the

TV to watch your favorite afternoon shows, like Batman, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, or even

those old Westerns, like Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger.

And one of the reasons we liked those shows so much was because we knew who was the good

guy and who was the bad guy. After all, the signs were perfectly clear. The good guy always wore a

white hat and rode a white horse, and the bad guy always wore a black hat and rode a black horse. And

the good guy was always good and the bad guy was always bad. And at the end of the show, the bad guy

always lost and the good guy always won.

And on the surface, Jesus’ stories also often seemed to be that way. The servant who buried his

master’s money so he wouldn’t lose it seemed like the good guy, and the prodigal son who wasted his

father’s inheritance seemed like the bad guy…

Until you look a little closer. Then you find that the “good” servant who buried his master’s

money was later called “wicked,” and the prodigal son who spent all his inheritance came home to a robe

and a ring and a party given in his honor.

So it is with the parable of God’s anonymous--the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

Now before I say anything more, let me ask you, for just a moment, to erase from your mind

everything you know about Pharisees and Tax Collectors. You see, after years and years of preaching

you’ve been conditioned to think that the Pharisees are the bad guys and those poor Tax Collectors are the

good guys.

But in Jesus’ day, it wasn’t that way at all! Actually, to be a Pharisee was to be in the highest

rank and of the highest order of the religious, completely sincere in their devotion to God. Remember

what Paul wrote to the Philippians? He said he was, “Of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a

Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the Law, a Pharisee…” (Philippians 3:5).

To put it another way, think for a moment of the very best person you know--a true saint, the salt

of the earth, no one could be better or stronger, the kind of Christian you would like to be--and then cast

that person in the role of the Pharisee.

Now, think of the absolute worst person you know--someone who’s hurt you, who’s done you

wrong, the very last one you would ever want to be stuck in an elevator with--then cast that person in the

role of the tax collector.

Now hold those two in your mind, and you’ll better appreciate this story of the Pharisee and the

Tax Collector.

It begins with this: “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’” (Luke 18:10-12).

Now I have to tell you, we have to give this guy a lot of credit. For example, he said, “I thank

You that I am not like other men.”

Well, he wasn’t like other men! His standard of morality was so high, it was far above anyone

else of his day. While the written law told Jews to fast once a year, he fasted twice a week! And while

the written law told Jews to give one tenth of their income to the temple, he gave a tenth of everything he owned, even the spices he used in his kitchen! He didn’t just obey the law of Moses. He went way

beyond the law of Moses. He was a model citizen, a good and faithful, God-fearing, law-abiding man.

And how about that other guy--the tax collector, as in dirty, rotten, no-good tax collector.

The Pharisee was right! He was no good! He was the epitome of evil, a cheat, a traitor to his

people. He’d rob you blind! He’d give a little money to the Romans, then keep the rest for himself. And

due to his ill-gotten gain, his house was bigger, his food was better and his clothes were finer than yours

would ever be. It’s easy to say that, in all of Israel, no one was hated more than that dirty, rotten tax


But like I said before, Jesus is about to turn our understanding of His kingdom completely upside


Let’s look again at the text, verse 11: “The Pharisee, standing by himself…”

Why did he stand by himself? Simply because he didn’t want to risk getting anywhere near

anyone else and becoming unclean, especially that despised tax collector. After all, he had an image, a

standard of holiness, to uphold.

Besides, he knew that if he were to stand by himself, people could see him a whole lot easier.

That way he could draw the limelight off of God and onto himself.

Then notice what he prayed, (that is, if the word, “prayer,” is what you want to call it). He said,

“God, I thank You that I am not like other men...I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke


Did you catch it? He’s really not praying to God at all. Even though he’s in the temple, he’s

standing by himself and he’s talking about himself.

And notice his words: “I fast twice a week”...”I give a tenth of all I get.” Count them, and you’ll

see he said it five times: “I...I...I...I...I.”

Do we ever do that? Do we ever pray like that? I’m afraid, sometimes we do. “I may not come

to church every Sunday, but I do come a whole lot more than some other people I know!” Or watching the news as someone’s taken off to jail, we say, “I may not be perfect, but at least I’ve never done that!”

And lifting ourselves up by putting others down, we’re no better than that Pharisee.

But he’s not the only one in this parable. There’s one more.

While one was the best of his people, the other was the worst. While one gave freely twice what

the law commanded, one extorted twice what the law allowed. While one fasted, the other feasted. While

one lived in abstinence, the other lived in opulence. While one raised his people up to God, the other

crushed His people under foot. And while one thanked God that he was such a good man, the other

couldn’t do anything but beg for God’s forgiveness.

Verse 13: “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!’” (Luke 18:13).

“Standing far off,” Jesus said. Knowing full well that God was holy, and that he was not, he

wouldn’t even take a chance on coming inside.

And neither would he lift his eyes up toward heaven. Instead, he beat his breast. Why his breast?

Because he knew, as Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, thefts, false

witness and slanders. These are the things that defile a man” (Matthew 15:19-20).

And what did he say? He didn’t say, “God, be merciful to me, I’m not a Pharisee,” and neither

did he say, “God, be merciful to me, I’m only human,” or “God, be merciful to me, I’ll try to do better.”

He didn’t promise anything. He didn’t offer anything. He didn’t make a deal, because he didn’t have a

deal to make. Instead, he said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

And not just “a sinner.” In the original, he said, “the sinner.” The worst of sinners. The chief of

sinners. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.”

And who went home forgiven, justified? Jesus said: “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” (Luke 18:14). Back in the early 1950s, C.S. Lewis wrote a book called, The Voyage of the Dawntreader. And

in that book, he told the story of a boy named Eustace Scrubb. He’s a miserable boy, full of pride, who

cares for no one and nothing but himself.

And as the story goes, he ends up on an island where he has to make repairs to his ship. And

while he’s on that island, he stumbles upon a dragon that’s dying. And as the dragon breathes its last

breath, he ventures into his cave where he finds all kinds of treasures--gold as far as his eyes can see.

Then completely surrounded and obsessed with all that treasure, he falls sound asleep.

Later in the story, when he wakes up again, he has a strange feeling. When he leans down to

drink from a stream, he’s startled to see his reflection. But instead of seeing his familiar face, he sees the

face of a dragon that owns all of the gold.

Pride is just like that. It did it to the Pharisee, and it’ll do the same to us as well. It’ll twist you

and change you into something you never, ever thought you’d become.

So what’s the remedy? What’s our cure?

Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus

who...humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians

2:5, 8).

Remove from us, dear Father, our pride, our arrogance and our unbelief, and help us, just like that

Tax Collector, to find our hope and help in You, for Jesus’ sake. Amen