Two very different characters stood in very different places. The Pharisee stood “by himself;” the tax collector stood “far off.” And in that posture, everything is revealed.
The Tax Collector
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the tax collector was a good guy. He wasn’t. He was a scoundrel. John the baptist would not have instructed tax collectors to collect no more than was permitted if they weren’t, in fact, cheating as a rule. And in chapter 19, we’ll see a repentant tax collector vowing to restore four-fold what he’d cheated people out of.
On the other hand, the Pharisee was a model churchman in many respects. He went above and beyond what the law required … externally. He fasted one hundred times as much as the law required. And he was more scrupulous in his giving than the law required, as he gave 10% of everything he received … even if it were so much as a birthday present.
Their Posture and their Prayer
But the Pharisee reveals his heart in how he stands. He stands apart from other people. And his prayer reflects this. He thanks God that he is better than other people, which he shows by separating himself from them. He explains to God that, not only is he more than worthy of the kingdom, he ought to have a high post within it, perhaps be given the key to the City.
The tax collector, on the other hand, stands far off from the altar, distant from the Holy God he beseeches. And his prayer reflects this. He dares not even lift his eyes to heaven, so ashamed of himself as he is. He sees himself unworthy of approaching God. And yet, his estimation of the holiness of God is met by an equal estimation of his mercy. And so he pleads, “be merciful to me, a sinner.” Actually, he words might better be translated, “Be propitiated to me, the sinner.” Or, “Be reconcile yourself to me, the sinner.” He knows that for him to receive mercy, God must act. God must provide both cleansing and payment for his sin. His posture toward God is matched, too, by his posture toward others. Unlike the Pharisee who distances himself from others, the tax collector does not even dare to compare himself. He sees himself as “the” sinner, the chief sinner before God.
One is Justified
Jesus declared that the tax collector had approached his naturalization interview for citizenship in the kingdom correctly. The Pharisee had not. As one approaches the king, he must not only receive the lordship of the king, he must receive it as a penitent. There is no room for pride and haughtiness in God’s kingdom.
To the degree that you understand the grace by which you’ve been saved, to that degree you’ll have hope for, and patience with, other sinners, seeing the miracle that God would save such a wretch as the one staring back at you in the mirror.