Good Guys and Bad Guys

Reading Time: 8 mins

But the biggest problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is that he judges himself compared to other people, rather than to God. Our natural tendency is to do just this.

The following is an excerpt from “Scandalous Stories: A Sort of Commentary on Parables” written by Daniel Emery Price and Erick Sorensen (1517 Publishing, 2018).

One of those rare ideas that often unites both the quasi-religious and the “super-religious” legalistic folks among us is the idea that ultimately what will save a person is how good he or she is. You ask quasi-religious people how they know they will go to heaven someday and chances are (no matter what belief system they hold to), they will probably give you an answer something like “my good outweighs my bad, so I’m pretty confident God will let me in.”

At the same time, you ask super-religious, legalistic people what they need to get into heaven and you’ll hear them say something very similar. Yes, it will be couched in spiritual-sounding language, but scratch beneath the surface of the pious words, and it will probably boil down to, “You need to be really, really good to get into heaven.”

One says you just need to have 51 percent “goodness” compared to 49 percent “badness” and you’re in, while the other says you need to have the much higher ratio of let’s say 90 percent goodness to 10 percent badness to even think about eternal life. But essentially, they’re both using the same scale.

This thinking makes sense, because this is the hallmark of natural man’s religion: climb the ladder, be the winner. Work hard enough, earn your spot. Then, along comes our parable, tossing over the scale and screwing the whole thing up:

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 up 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 (Luke 18:9–14).

The “Good Guy”

If you’re like me, chances are you’ve heard a few sermons on this parable before. But I’ve got to be honest with you: I take issue with the way this is preached a lot of the time, specifically with the way the Pharisee is presented. Oftentimes (to make the point really stand out) preachers will portray the Pharisee as extreme and terribly irritating in his proclamations. He is loud and verbose and quite cocky in his tone of voice. He is haughty in his appearance and is made to look as villainous as possible. But in real life, villains don’t show themselves so obviously.

So, let’s just take this character at face value. For all intents and purposes, he really does appear to be a good guy. Instead of loudly boasting about his deeds to the world (as some preachers might make it seem), he is shown “standing by himself ” in the temple. In other words, it appears that the words he will mouth are words he keeps between him and God in prayer. Also, notice that he even begins with what sounds like praise: “God, I thank you . . .” So far so good. As this good guy thinks about his life, he praises God for all the sinful lifestyles that he doesn’t participate in and for the various ways he’s living righteously: “Thank you God 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.” I don’t think this is some sort of show prayer from a caricatured legalist. I think this is the prayer from a man who believes he is praying in a very devout manner. Truth is, in most aspects of his life, this Pharisee probably was “better” than others (at least outwardly). After all, if he really was fasting twice a week and giving tithes of all he received, then he was going above and beyond the call of duty. Indeed, if the Pharisee were alive today, we would certainly recognize him for being an upright man. So what’s his problem?

To get the answer, we sort of have to read between the lines a little. For starters, it appears this dude is super proud of himself. Yes, he thanks God at the beginning, but look a little closer and you’ll notice five times in his short prayer he mentions the word “I”. This Pharisee was completely focused on himself and all that he had done. His prayer to God was really just a facade for praying to himself. Really, he was thanking himself for being different than others. He was doing what we might call today a humble-brag (a statement that sounds humble but is really a secret way of bragging). Chances are you’ve done this yourself and certainly have heard others do it.

As a pastor, I can attest that my fellow clergymen and I fall into this trap all the time. It might sound something like this: “I thank God that since I arrived at this church, we’ve grown by leaps and bounds. I’m really praising God for all the programs I’ve been able to initiate and for all the new faces I—oops, I mean God has brought in . . .”

But the biggest problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is that he judges himself compared to other people, rather than to God. Our natural tendency is to do just this. I mean we can all think of people that we’re better than: “Sure, I’m not perfect, but it’s not like I’m as bad as _____________.” Once we do that, it’s only a small leap to move to, “Therefore, I’m doing okay.” And if we’ve deemed ourselves okay, then we’re pretty sure God will too.

Shortly after leaving his office as mayor, Michael Bloomberg was interviewed about his work. In his mind, because of all his work fighting obesity, smoking cessation and gun control, with a grin to the interviewer he said: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.” (1)

Contrary to what Bloomberg (and this Pharisee) thinks, our good deeds are not what will grant us entrance into heaven. You may do a lot of nice things and you may be a really generous person. You may have paid your taxes on time, and hey, maybe you were even so good that you were the one guy who actually checked that little box to give a little extra to the government, but I’m telling you, the Bible is telling you, before God none of that stuff is gonna cut it. God does not grade on a curve.

The Bible says no one is righteous enough, not one (Rom. 3:10). The Bible declares that from birth we are infected and plagued with a sinful nature and by nature are at war with God. Even worse news, it declares that there is no way of making up for this problem. We cannot become redeemable in it of ourselves. We are by nature damned.

But our Pharisee is blinded by the comparison game. His prayer would sound quite a bit different if his comparison was to the standards of a holy and just God. But yeah, sure, if you compare yourself to a tax collector you just might convince yourself. Of course you’re better than him!

Frankly, everyone in that society was pretty sure they were better than him.

The Bad Guy

Just as we must avoid a caricature of the Pharisee, we must also avoid the caricature of the tax collector. We have to stop and give a little background to this man before we plunge forward. Tax collectors were some of the most despised people in all of Jewish life. And there was a good reason for their being despised.

The tax collector was a Jew who had essentially traded sides and was working for the Roman occupiers rather than with the Jews. They were seen as collaborators with the enemy. They charged extra to their countrymen and got rich doing so. So hated were they that they were some- times referred to by the simple title, “Sinner.” So we must not whitewash where this tax collector was coming from. He was probably a bad guy who had done wrong and treated his own people poorly. And yet, to the audience’s surprise, he headed to the temple to pray.

What happened to make this sinful man feel like he should go to the temple? We can be fairly certain that this wasn’t a regular visit for him but rather something unique for him. Yet here he was heading to the temple to fellowship with God when Jesus gives us an interesting detail: he “was standing far off.” Did he get to the temple and feel that he was just so unholy that he had no right to enter with the rest of the people? Did he think that others would look down on him in church if he went in like the rest of them? Was he just sure if he darkened the doors of the church he’d burst into flames? We don’t know. All we know is that this tax collector stands far off from the rest. He knows he doesn’t belong with the rest of these good church people. After all, he’s a bad guy.

Maybe some of you reading this now have felt like that about going to church? Your addiction, your sexuality, your theft, your_______________ has left you believing that there’s just no place for you there.

I remember reading this passage out of Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace? some years ago, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. A prostitute came to a friend of his in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. His friend describes the scene:

"Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter—two years old!—to men . . . for you know what. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable—I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman. At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naïve shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse." (2)

The tax collector seems to feel the same way. He is so ashamed of his actions that he can’t even look to heaven, beating his breast over and over as he encounters a holy God. He is well aware of his sin, and he has nothing articulate to say. No declarations; no accomplishments to boast of; just a heartfelt plea: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

In the Greek, the sentence he says could be rendered, “O God, be propitiated toward me, the sinner.” Notice, there’s no comparison for this man to other people. He refers to himself as “the sinner.” And as such, he knows God must be propitiated toward him. That is, he senses that a sacrifice must be made to God to appease his wrath at his sin. It is the only way. This tax collector hopes that some way, somehow, the enmity brought by his sin between him and God can be dealt with for him to have any real chance of a right relation- ship to God. The good news for the tax collector, and us, is that God has indeed provided a propitiation for our sins.

The Justified Guy

First John 2: 2 says about Jesus, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Let that sink in: God has provided propitiation for himself so sinners like this tax collector are completely forgiven and declared wholly righteous. Thus, Jesus can go on to deliver the shocking conclusion to the story: “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.” Indeed, the only thing that separates the justified and unjustified is not whether they’re “good guys” or “bad guys.” Rather it is based on whose righteousness they’re depending on: their own or Christ’s.

I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter that sometimes I get irked by the way the Pharisee is often portrayed. That’s not all that irks me (sorry). There’s one other thing that usually comes at right about this moment in the sermon as the preacher wraps up. It usually comes in the form of a question, and it goes like this: “So, which one of these characters are you? Are you the humble tax collector or the proud Pharisee?”

Any sane person knows that the answer should obviously be “the humble tax collector.” But . . . if we’re honest, any one of us is a mixture of both on any given day. Sometimes I am utterly humbled by my sin, while at other times, I can be a proud son of a gun. If we’re honest, we find ourselves comparing our righteousness to others all the time. As David Zahl has said, “‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,’ But that hasn’t stopped us from comparing distances.” Each of us stands or kneels as a combination of the two men in our parable. Because as Martin Luther said, we are simultaneously saint and sinner. Nevertheless, the solution to the problem is always the same. Whether we find ourselves becoming too proud of our accomplishments or utterly humbled by our failures, the plea on our lips should always and ever be, “Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner.”


An excerpt from “Scandalous Stories: A Sort of Commentary on Parables” written by Daniel Emery Price and Erick Sorensen (1517 Publishing, 2018). Pgs 38-44.

(1) The New York Times, April 15, 2014, Page A12
(2) Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 11.