Only Luke’s gospel has the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14). The parable shows divine acceptance of the public sinner who humbly requests for mercy, on the one hand, and divine disapproval of the private sinner who looks down on the public sinner on the other.
Why were tax collectors considered public sinners? According to E.P. Sanders ("Historical Figure of Jesus," 1993), the tax collectors included customs officers, and they were mostly petty functionaries. The small towns around Galilee’s large lake (the Sea of Galilee) exported and imported goods. The customs officers collected taxes on the exported and imported commodities. In Galilee, these collections were then turned over to the puppet king, Herod Antipas, who in turn had to pay tribute to Rome.
There were indeed tax collectors who cheated and enriched themselves by charging more than the required amounts. Yet even if some were honest, tax collectors were seen as instruments of Herod and Rome, instruments of oppression, and thus they would be disliked by people in general.
As for the private sinner, he is usually blind to his hidden sins or sinful attitudes of arrogance, envy, and resentment. Jesus was chosen and sent to bring about “recovery of sight for the blind” especially for the spiritually blind (Lk 4:18). The merciful Father wants the conversion of both private and public sinners and their adoption of a new way of seeing that will lead to their reconciliation with God and with one another.
Another private sinner in Luke’s gospel is the older son in the parable of the gracious father with two (lost) sons (15:11-32) which is the longest parable in all the gospels and is exclusive to Luke. The younger son left his father and became a loser and public sinner, “but the older son has never really been there [with his father].” For years he has been “slaving for his father, resentful, selfish and angry” (Megan McKenna).
“Luke presents the mission and message of Jesus as a prophetic critique of the status quo” (Dennis Sweetland). This status quo is a world of separation, inequity or enmity between rich and poor, insider and outsider, male and female, private sinner and public sinner.
Before his conversion, Saul was a private sinner: “a Pharisee…[whose] legalistic righteousness [was] faultless” (Philippians 3:5-6). As an apostle, Paul preached the Gospel in season and out of season, and suffered as a good soldier of Christ.
The apostle experienced persecution in which he said, “no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.” Yet like Christ on the cross, he humbly prayed for those who turned their back on him: “may it not be held against them” (2 Timothy 4:16).
We have all sinned. May we accept this deep truth with faith in Christ and be ready to work and suffer for the Gospel of reconciliation until our last days when we can thank God and with deep humility say, like the apostle, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).