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Thoughts on the Justification of the Tax Collector Rather than the Pharisee, from Geoffrey Bingham

1 September, 2009
Geoffrey Bingham, 1919-2009

Geoffrey Bingham, 1919-2009

[Jesus] 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.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Jesus once told the story of a man who was a tax gatherer. In Palestine tax gatherers were deeply despised because they collected tax for their Roman masters. The Jews hated the occupation forces and if a Jew were a tax gatherer he would be doubly hated. Although the hero of the story was a Jewish tax gatherer, the story was primarily about a man who was a Jew and a Pharisee. Jesus pictured him as standing in the temple court of worship, adorned in his Pharisee’s robes and talking with himself. Maybe Jesus meant he was not really talking to God. This is Jesus’ description; ‘The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee 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.” ’

At that point the tax gatherer was in the court of sinners, because Israel judged him to be a sinner, excommunicated from their holy congregation. He was beating his breast because of how he saw his sin. For the moment we will leave him and go back to the Pharisee who said nothing of his own sin. He was congratulating himself on his righteousness. In fact no human being can congratulate himself until he is as righteous as God Himself. God’s righteousness has never been achieved by a human being. Technically, righteousness is being right before the law, that is, never having sinned, and always having done only ‘right things’. Here a reader might protest and say, ‘God can be righteous because he is God, but surely you cannot expect a human being to be as righteous?’

What we must realise is that Man, being in the image of God, is called on to reflect God wholly, and so to be truly human is to be righteous. When Man fell in the garden of Eden he fell from being truly human. Of course history has shown that we think we are righteous because we are not as bad as others, and because we see ourselves as better than others. That kind of righteousness—if it is indeed true righteousness—is merely comparative.

When we say the Pharisee has no right to call himself righteous we are on good moral grounds. Undoubtedly the Pharisee was not deliberately a hypocrite. From his own standpoint he kept the laws commanded in Israel. Yet the aim of Jesus is shown in the words of the narrator, ‘He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’. This tells us that the Pharisee trusted in himself that he was righteous, and that he despised others—in this case the tax gatherer. Self-righteousness is exalting oneself higher than others, and putting down others who seem to be sinners! How often we fall into that trap. Let me give an illustration.

A Sunday school teacher was warning against being hypocritical in the way the Pharisee had been. She said primly, ‘Children, let us thank God we are not like the Pharisee’. Seeing her mistake we say, ‘Let us thank God we are not like the Sunday school teacher!’ It is a natural drive in all of us to be righteous because, as we have said, that is really a human drive.

To resume our story: the Pharisee is content to pray without any sense of self-condemnation. Not so the tax gatherer. He has a problem, a deep problem. He is a Jew. He understands the law. His own ugly sin has confronted him before the law, and his conscience is suffering. What is happening to him is not a simple case of remorse. In any case remorse is of no help. It is just recognition that one has failed and whilst recognition is perhaps helpful it does nothing for the clearing of guilt. Indeed no human being has the power to clear another’s guilt—much less his own. The tax gatherer has come to the temple to be helped, but he sees himself cut off from the altar at which relief would come were he to offer a sacrifice for his sins. However, he is unable to offer a sacrifice because he is excommunicated from the altar. Where, then, can he go? Only to this the nominated house of God, of God the great Creator and Redeemer. The prescribed sacrifice which would give him ease is denied to him.

So, locked off from the one way of relief—God’s forgiveness—he beats upon his breast in a frenzy of conviction of sin, appealing to God to be merciful without the prescribed sacrifice! His cry was, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Would God depart from the prescribed way of sacrifice and forgive this man? The answer is, ‘Yes!’ The cry that the tax gatherer gave which is generally translated, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ is literally, ‘God be propitious to me a sinner’. ‘Propitious’ means, ‘Please make propitiation for me a sinner!’ The thief has believed God would make propitiation for him, and so prove to be the God of mercy He had revealed Himself to be in Israel. In Exodus 34:6–7 God has given revelation of Himself:

The LORD passed before him [Moses] and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’

Many, many times in the Old Testament Israel has reason to quote God’s word to them about His own merciful nature. So often Israel failed its Lord by sinning, especially by idolatry, and the Lord punished them. At some point they would remember the revelation of Himself and His moral glory and they would speak God’s word back to Him, and in that faith would know His fresh mercy. In our story the thief was only telling God what he had been taught, perhaps in a life of godliness before he had become— out of greed—a tax gatherer and lost his rights as a Jew. Now he was crying, ‘God, be propitious to me, a sinner!’

And he was heard! Jesus said, ‘this man went down to his house justified rather than the other’, meaning, ‘The thief was met by the mercy of God, but the Pharisee, seeing no need of justification, was left in his delusion of self-righteousness to think he did not even need such forgiveness’. We ought not to think that the tax gatherer’s repentance was but a little thing. His beating his breast was no perfunctory exercise, and his groaning was not a passing change of mind. Every bit of him was in the yearning for deliverance, and his groaning was real and very moving. All this did not earn him justification. God’s grace did that, but the man had already known the measure of that grace of God, and his faith was that God, out of His kindness, would forgive him.

From Comprehending Justification, 3-8

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  1. Donna (Ellis) Burrell permalink
    2 September, 2009 12:38 pm

    VERY moving…especially the first sentence in the last paragraph, “And he was heard!”.

    • 2 September, 2009 1:24 pm

      I just found out about Bingham from an Australian Anglican I met in Edinburgh (I don’t get to say that very often!). If you click on Bingham’s picture it will take you to a lot of other things he’s written, all freely downloadable.


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