I never gave it much thought before, but I have a few tax collectors for neighbors. The other day I went to a house in my neighborhood to introduce myself to the mother of the kids my children play with. I heard strange music coming from the garage and walked in to find a number of people lounging around, smoking and drinking beer. I told them who I was and who my kids were, and they were all very friendly and introduced themselves as well. One guy introduced himself and his live-in girlfriend. One lady was a divorced mom. One guy had tattoos on his arms. I tried not to breathe in too much of the smoke wafting around, as I imagined my lungs getting black just from being there. Our conversation was pleasant enough, but I was uncomfortable nonetheless. And as I was leaving with an inward sigh of relief, it dawned on me. I was playing the part of the Pharisee, and they were the “tax collectors and sinners.”
Think back to Jesus’ earthly life. How many times did the Pharisees turn up their noses at the company Jesus held? They sneered at Him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. They looked down with haughty eyes at the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. They just couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that Jesus came for all people. That didn’t fit with their idea of a pious Messiah. And it’s so easy for us to look back on their pride and shake our heads, but have you ever considered that you just may be a closet Pharisee yourself? It hurts to admit it, but I certainly have a bit of that in me. There are certain lifestyles I look down upon, there are people with whom I’m uncomfortable, and like the Pharisees, I prefer to stick with people who are like me. But while I was walking out of that smoke-filled garage the other day, I realized something. Jesus would have gone to houses just like that.
You see, here’s the thing about Jesus. He sought people out who weren’t worthy. That’s why He came in the first place. You weren’t worthy of His love. Neither was I. None of us were “His type.” He humbled Himself and came down to this sin-infested world, lived with sinners, ate with sinners, and died for sinners. We are all tax collectors and sinners. But Jesus specializes in transforming lives. He called a tax collector to be a disciple, and Matthew ended up writing a Gospel account. Pretty impressive transformation. Jesus called Simon the Zealot, a revolutionary militant of the day, who left that radical lifestyle behind as he learned at the Master’s feet. Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, a social outcast in her own society for her lifestyle, as well as a social outcast to the Jews due to her heritage. She was transformed by Jesus’ message as well and became an evangelist to her own people, telling them about the Savior. Jesus called Zacchaeus, who turned from his lucrative but dishonest tax collecting practices and gave half of his goods to the poor while pledging to pay back four times the amount he cheated anyone. Jesus often ate with the “tax collectors and sinners.” Those were the people for whom He came.
So which one are you: a Pharisee or a tax collector? In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells us about the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple. The Pharisee stood there praying out loud and boasting. “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 I get.” Yep. Patting himself on the back in full view of everyone. Now, listen. It’s not wrong to thank God for the blessings He has given you. It’s not wrong to thank Him for making you a Christian or for a family who instilled in you a solid moral compass. It’s the motivation behind that. Are you genuinely thankful to your Savior for calling you as His own? Or are you trying to toot your own horn? Do not measure your righteousness compared to other people. Measure it instead by God’s Word. You will always fall short. If you try to exalt yourself by comparing yourself to others, you have completely the wrong motivation. This Pharisee had no intention of really praying in the temple that day. He was only there to show everyone else how pious he was.
But then again, maybe you identify more with the tax collector. He stood at a distance and would not even look to heaven. He beat his breast and pleaded only, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That’s all any of us can do, dear ones. And God’s mercy is all we need. But perhaps you have a hard time believing that. Maybe you think you’re too “bad.” Maybe you think God wouldn’t want anything to do with you after the terrible choices you’ve made in life or the destructive behaviors you’ve chosen. But there’s wonderful news. That tax collector in the temple was the one who went away justified that day in God’s eyes. Why? Not because his prayer was more sincere. No, but because he knew that saving action could only come from Jesus.
So whether you’re a Pharisee or a tax collector, or even a confusing mix of the two, know this: Jesus came for you. He sought you out. It’s not wrong to surround yourself with people who are like-minded. We draw strength from those relationships. But don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone, either. Introduce yourself to your neighbors. Throw a neighborhood barbeque and get to know the people who live near you. Introduce them to Jesus. And you just might meet a few tax collectors along the way.