A Pharisee in Tax Collector’s Clothing

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed boldly “God, I thank you I am not like that man” while the tax collector knelt in a corner, beat his chest, and prayed “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” One of these men went home right in the eyes of God, and we all know which one. And we all despise the other.

In a weird, ironic, but quite predictable plot twist by pursuing the position of tax collector we have become the Pharisee.

We. All of us.

That’s right you, reformed guy. And you progressive lady. And you republican baby boomer and you libertarian millennial. And you homeschool family and you public school family and you house church planter and you mega church pastor. All of us.

We have learned to revel in our weakness, to lead with our flaws. We call it “authenticity” – we are real in what we reveal. We aren’t hypocrites; hypocrisy is the new unforgiveable sin. We are the tax collector, or at least we play one on TV. We are so elated in our role as tax collector we, well, we can’t help but be a bit smug that we’re not like that person. That judgmental jerk on Twitter. That fundamentalist crank. That whoever-is-on-the-other-side-of-my-ideological-fence.

By becoming the tax collector we have become the Pharisee. In pursuing the position of authenticity we have puffed ourselves up. In distancing ourselves from those with whom we differ we have revealed our true selves.

In fact, we have far more in common with those we disdain than we dare admit. We may play the part of tax collector, but in reality we actually are the tax collector – morally decrepit, broken beyond repair, in need, sinners. And so is the one we are so glad not be like. We have only posed as tax collectors, pretended to be humble.

Which posture do we find ourselves taking – “I am so glad I am not like _____” or “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” We cannot do both. If we take former stance we are incapable of admitting or recognizing both our sin and our similarities to those we despise. If we take the latter stance we are incapable of thinking ourselves better than another. We can still disagree, vehemently even, but we can never think ourselves superior because of our position. The two postures are diametrically opposed.

It is so easy to play the role of tax collector because we know we ought, only to find ourselves being a Pharisee. We define “Pharisee” by traditional church legalism not realizing that we have justified ourselves, claimed righteousness, a thousand times over by extra-biblical standards. And that is legalism.

The long and short of it is that we are prideful people. It expresses itself in self-justification, in judgment of others, in smugness at the presumed rightness of our positions, and in a million other ways. And it always comes back to this: Which prayer do you pray – “I am so glad I am not like _____” or “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” One is the prayer of the Pharisee in tax collector’s clothing and the other is the prayer someone who will go away right in the eyes of God.

I live in the Nashville area and spend my days helping churches with leadership development. My nights are spent writing and rooting for Minnesota sports teams. I also podcast a bit. I'm the author of The Pastor's Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity, Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith, and The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches Every Part of Life