Uncle Bob’s Favorite Parable: A Moral Trap

Uncle Bob, the church’s beloved Sunday School teacher, flicked through the pages of his Bible until he arrived at his favorite parable. With great flourish, he introduced it and then proceeded to read the following from the Gospel of Luke 18:9-14:

There were some people who thought that they were very good and looked down on everyone else. Jesus used this story to teach them: One day there was a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both went to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee stood alone, away from the tax collector. When the Pharisee prayed, he said, ‘God, I thank you that I am not as bad as other people. I am not like men who steal, cheat, or take part in adultery. I thank you that I am better than this tax collector. I give up eating twice a week, and I give one-tenth of everything I earn!’ (International Children’s Bible)

At the end of the reading, Uncle Bob looked around at the children and asked, how do you feel about the Pharisee’s prayer? After getting answers, he explained how bad it is to think we’re better than others. We are all God’s children and should be thankful that he treats us equally. We should do the same with others. Grateful to God that he had got his message of humility across to his Sunday school class, he asked them to bow their heads in prayer and, with deep devotion, began, “God, we thank you that we are not like that Pharisee…”

Unwittingly, he became the Pharisee.

The first hearers of the parable and each one of us today realize, too late, that Jesus has subtly led us into a moral trap. As we do today, the disciples probably laughed at the Pharisee, at least under their breath.

The moment we smile or laugh at the blatant self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the Pharisee, we too become like Uncle Bob and the Pharisee. Most fall into Jesus’ trap because we’re all convinced we are morally and intellectually superior.

Let’s take the Pharisee’s prayer apart, phrase by phrase:

-God, I thank you that I am not as bad as other people.
-I am not like men who steal, cheat, or take part in adultery.
-I thank you that I am better than this tax collector.
-I give up eating twice a week.
-I give one-tenth of everything I earn!

What do you notice here? His whole prayer was focused on his presumed “good” deeds—his piety, generosity, and holiness.

A modern-day Pharisee’s prayer could look like this…

-Dear God, I thank you that I am not like others.
-I go to church every Sunday.
-I read my Bible and pray every day.
-I have saved many souls.
-I thank you that my good works earn my salvation.
-I am blessed because you need me.
-I give some money to the church.
-I don’t have affairs, drink, dance, smoke.
-I don’t have to repent of any sins because I diligently follow your commandments.

And this is precisely the problem with fallen human nature and the quest for “holiness,” or even “goodness.” We think we are better than others and that we’re doing God a favor with our “good” acts. But Jesus sets us straight and tells us: I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).

Praise God for his loving-kindness, forgiveness, and generosity toward us, for giving us his Son that we may have eternal life, and for choosing us to do great things for his kingdom by the power of his Holy Spirit.


-Photo by Claudio Cesaro on Unsplash

John I. Snyder