The tax collector, who was standing far away, didn’t even want to lift his eyes to heaven, but he beat his chest saying, “God, make atonement for me, who’s the very definition of sinner.”
᛭ INI ᛭
This is one of Jesus’ most memorable parables. Besides that, this is one of the most pointed parables Jesus tells. Jesus doesn’t waste even a single word in telling this parable.
As with all His Parables, it’s misapplied, misunderstood, misused. But, in fact, it offers great comfort while also destroying “the wisdom of the wise,” “the strength of the strong,” as Paul puts it. (1 Cor 1) This Parable shows that the works of all people everywhere, of all the people who have lived or ever will live—those works, your works, are useless before God. All the so-called holy people, sages, gurus of all human religion aren’t worth anything at all in the Triune God’s estimation. (But that’s to get a little ahead of ourselves.)
(3. What are the characters and story of Jesus’ Parable?)
First, we need to consider Jesus’ parable itself. When it comes the characters the Lord Jesus crafts for His parable, He couldn’t have created two characters that were more polar opposite! The parabolic Pharisee and the parabolic tax collector would have been thought of like two boxers in opposing corners in the minds of Jesus’ first hearers. It’s important for us to understand this, because our old Adam, our old sinful self, is so used to twisting things because we all know now that Pharisees are supposed to be bad guys.
Not Jesus’ hearers, though. The good guy was the Pharisee! He was trained in the Word of God, an upstanding member of society, a leader in the religious community. Any self-respecting Jewish couple in Jesus’ day would’ve been overjoyed if their daughter had a Pharisee as a prospective future husband.
The tax collector was the bad guy. Not just because he collected taxes. (He wasn’t some Judaean IRS agent.) He was a Publican, which is the old way of talking about him, and that was an official position in the Roman Government. So the tax collector was despised. He was the scum of the earth, a thief, and—worse than all that!—he was a traitor to his own people, working for the Roman oppressors. Every self-respecting Jewish couple back then would’ve been horrified if their daughter showed any interest at all in a publican, and if she dared to bring one home, she’d probably be disowned.
It’s hard to describe what this would even be like in our day. In the 2,000 some odd years since Jesus first told this parable a lot’s changed. For us 21st Century Americans, there’s no analogy, no modern equivalent that comes close to these two characters, but I hope the description I just gave helps you to understand this: Jesus’ first hearers would’ve been absolutely shocked at how the parable ends. It’s a Parable that’s completely unbelievable! In the thinking back then, the Pharisees wer close to God and holy people, and the tax collectors, well, not. Yet Jesus says of the tax collector, “I tell you that this one went home justified rather than the other.”
(2. “What about me?” we wonder.)
“What about me?” That’s what we’re wondering. With this question often begins the misapplication and misunderstanding that I talked about at the beginning. It’s natural for us, and partly Jesus’ point for us, to place ourselves in His Parables. Each parable, of course, does this in it’s own way, but, again, so often this means we misapply, misunderstand, misuse, or even twist the parable to our own individual advantage.
What do I mean by that? Well, it’s easy actually! We see, no, we weasel ourselves into the story so that WE are the hero of the story. We are, after all, the heroes of our daily lives. We’re always right, or, at least, mostly right. There’s people in our lives that are wrong, that are against us, the hero, and we need to be better than them. That means, when we’re presented with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, each of you in your own way thinks, “I’m the tax collector. Can’t wait for pastor to go after those self-righteous Pharisees over there.” The problem is that when you think that way, you sound eerily similar to the Pharisee who says, “Thank God I’m not like other people or even like that tax collector, that sinner over there.”
This is actually Jesus’ point. We are all, in fact, sinners. But in our sinfulness, our flesh starts playing a wonderful game. The game that lands sinners in hell. Sinners play the game of comparison. They compare themselves to other sinners. How their sins aren’t as bad as other people’s. How their good works are better than other people’s works. How their good works mean something to God, and how they make them better off than other sinners. How their deeds make God happier with them than with other people. “I’m better at being like the tax collector than them.” How we all play the Pharisee game!
(1. God’s atonement in Christ really is everything.)
Our flesh does this because it hates God. It hates His holy Law, and it also hates His promises in Christ Jesus. But God’s mercy in Christ Jesus really is everything. It’s the only thing that will save sinners. Sinners like the tax collector. Sinners like the Pharisee, too. God is only for sinners. Jesus’ death is for all sinners, whether your sin is living against God’s Law or your sin is trying to use God’s Law to save yourself.
God only redeems sinners who have nothing to offer Him but their sins. He doesn’t take your works into account at all, even if you do outwardly keep His commandments. Even if you never steal, never commit adultery, never even check out another person who’s not your spouse, even if you fast, even if you put money in the offering plate—these are all good things to do. God doesn’t care! You won’t go home forgiven, that’s what justified means, if you parade that junk before God. Whenever the smallest work, the teeniest good deed, or even the best possible thing you as a human being could do is presented to God, it’s like opening—right under God’s nose—a full dumpster that’s been sitting in a hot summer sun. That gets you hell.
The Parable is not a clean-up-your-act parable. That’s what we think. How else can there be atonement or forgiveness? Gotta show that you mean it, right? We expect that the tax collectors of life show up at church eventually looking like the Pharisee. But this parable is really all about the God who saves and forgives sinners for free always.
“God make atonement for me, who’s the very definition of sinner.” You want to put your picture on the Wikipedia page for sin? The parabolic tax collector does. But even that doesn’t save him. He confesses that way because he believes in the God who makes atonement for such a sinner as him. That atonement is what it’s really all about! Jesus shedding His blood, God shedding His own blood, the very best work that could’ve been done, so that that atonement would be credited to your account.
GOD REALLY DOES MAKE ATONEMENT FOR SINNERS.
Not just imaginary sinners of a parable—you. Facts. Jesus shed His blood. Jesus died. Jesus came back to life again. All FOR YOU. As Paul under inspiration says, “He was delivered up for our transgressions and raised for our justification,” our forgiveness. That’s atonement, Jesus’ atonement, for you. And it is yours—made yours in holy baptism, placed right into your mouth with the bread and wine that really are, in fact, Jesus’ body and blood, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.”
Jesus destroys “the wisdom of the wise,” “the strength of the strong,” as Paul puts it. Jesus does this in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. Before God human works, human good deeds don’t matter. They will get you counted out just as much as your sins. Your neighbor needs your not stealing, your not committing adultery, your offerings, your good works. Not God.
Sinners will play the comparison game, jumping from this good deed to another, leaping over sins. Hopscotch to hell. If none of that works, we’ll redefine vices to virtues, signaling to God and everyone else how good we really are.
But the only one who has been good, who’s only ever been good, was Jesus.
GOD REALLY DOES MAKE ATONEMENT FOR SINNERS.
He lives His life for them. Sheds His blood for them. Dies for them. Rises for them. Baptizes them. Feeds them with bread and wine that He blesses to be His body and His blood “for the forgiveness of sins.” He does this for you. He’s the God who saves such a sinner—a sinner who really hasn’t done a single thing in their entire life worthy in God’s sight—a sinner like you.