Full disclosure here: I am the son of a tax collector! No, really … literally, I am. My father was the tax collector in the rural township where we lived in New Jersey, as was his father before him. Together, they did it for 60 consecutive years in Harmony Township, NJ. It was a regular feature of my childhood that practically every day, several people would come to our home, walk through the kitchen to my father’s office and pay their property taxes, often in cash.
People don’t like tax collectors. Just think for a moment about what you feel when you see a letter from the IRS in your mailbox. Even though my father tried to make it clear that he had nothing to do with tax rates and assessments … that he was merely the bookkeeping agent for collection … people would vent to him. I even remember people calling him at 5:00 in the morning to complain that their snowy street was not yet plowed, as if he could do anything about it whatsoever.
But in the Roman world, tax collectors were more than mere accountants. They could set the rates to some extent and were well-known to extort, overcharge, and keep a portion for themselves. All of this carried Roman authority. The Romans didn’t care what a collector skimmed off for himself, so long as they got their portion.
So tax collectors could be rich fellows, but also hated fellows for taking advantage of their fellow citizens and countrymen. If you wanted to pick out the most odious character in the land at the time, the local tax collector was about as low as you could go … probably worse than a used car salesman or a pimp.
So when Jesus tells a story (to the religious leaders) that contrasts a Pharisee and a tax collector, he is juxtaposing the best person they could think of (someone in their category) to the worst and most vile character in the culture. And then for Jesus to turn the tax man into the winner, well, it was even worse than seeing a Samaritan as the hero of another story on another day.
In theological realms, we use a lot of words to describe salvation and systems of belief as to what it is that constitutes being a person who is in an eternally correct relationship with God. We may talk about efficacious grace, soteriological universalism, Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Amyraldianism, Arminianism, or Calvinism. A couple of these words are good, a couple bad, and a couple somewhere in the middle.
But at the end of it all, it comes down to this: We bring nothing to salvation, and God brings it all. There is no merit that we can bring. We can boast of nothing — not even being smart enough to have the faith to believe, as even that is a gift of God.
So it is better to be a humble tax collector than a proud Pharisee filled with good works.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Luke 18:9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”