I’ve misapplied one of Jesus’ parables for years. I understand it, but when I “put myself in the story,” I was the wrong person. I thought I was the tax collector, when actually I was the Pharisee.
The parable is in Luke 18:9-14 and reads as follows:
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 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.”
When I read the parable and reflect on it, I realize that the Lord Jesus is setting up a contrast – the Pharisee is the “bad guy,” the example we do not want to follow, and the tax collector is the “good guy,” the example we do want to follow. The clear implication is that the tax collector “went down to his house justified,” while the Pharisee did not.
All of that information was a large part of why I misapplied it for so long. Jesus told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” and I don’t trust in my own righteousness as the basis of my standing with God, therefore I wasn’t the target of His parable. I recognize my sin just like the tax collector, so doesn’t that mean I’m following the good example rather than the bad one? Not exactly.
I know that I was following the bad example of the Pharisee because every time I read this parable I thought to myself (never out-loud), “God, I thank You that I’m not like this arrogant, self-righteous, holier-than-thou Pharisee. I don’t do any of those things! Not only that, but I thank You, Lord, that I’m not like the people the Pharisee talks about, either – the bottom of the barrel. Look at all I do for You.” Who am I in the parable? I am the Pharisee and I ought to be the repentant tax collector.
After discovering my misapplication, I realized that I “play the Pharisee” on more occasions than I’d like to admit. I thank God for the fact that I’m not like other people based on what I eat or don’t eat; how committed to the Lord I think I am as opposed to how uncommitted I see others to be; what kind of books I read compared to the kind others read; how I dress for church compared to what other people wear; and dozens of others.
Realizing that you’re the Pharisee should cause you to pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” It did for me. The parable shows us that we should move from Pharisee to tax collector – it’s a large step and a small step at the same time, but it’s one that can be made. If we humble ourselves, we’ll be exalted by God. All of this, of course, is predicated upon understanding and applying the parable correctly.
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