The Pharisee and the Publican

And he spake also this parable unto certain who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and set all others at nought:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
But the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, ‘God, be thou merciful to me a sinner.’
I say unto you, This man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

There is a lot of danger in believing that one is “righteous.” Jesus spent much of His time in His ministry exhorting people to repent and to serve God but yet never to trust in their own righteousness (cf. Matthew 4:23). Jesus provides such a contrast with the Pharisee and the publican, or tax collector, in Luke 18:9-14.

The Pharisee, in this parable, stands and “prays with himself.” There is no real petition to God in his comments– instead, it is a self-congratulatory note devoid of any compassion or mercy. It exudes arrogance and judgmentalism. All he can do is boast in the little he does accomplish and that he is not like others. The Pharisee represents the extreme example of the self-righteous, sanctimonious, self-assured, superficial religious person. Unfortunately, both the church and society have never lacked such persons.

While the example is extreme it is not without merit. The Pharisees to whom the man born blind testifies dare to declare to him that he was “born in sins,” and then ask if he teaches them (John 9:34). Such a question is only asked of people who believe, in some way or another, that they are above sin, or that their “righteousness” is unquestionable. Tragically, they are self-deceived, and will receive the due reward for their deception (cf. Galatians 6:1-4, Matthew 7:21-23).

Then we have the publican, or tax-collector, in the eyes of society the “chiefest of sinners.” They are Jews collaborating with the pagan oppressing power, quite often extorting the people and committing injustice upon injustice. Yet, in this instance, such a man is aware of his utter sinfulness. He is too ashamed to even raise his eyes to God, imploring God to have mercy upon him. He confesses that he is a sinner. And so we have the ultimate contrast with the self-righteous Pharisee: the thoroughly repentant tax collector, chiefest of sinners.

The conclusion to the matter, evident perhaps to us, is astounding in its scope. The “good person,” the “righteous” Pharisee goes home without justification. Instead, the publican, chiefest of sinners, despised by all, goes home justified. This is because God is not swayed by appearances. The exterior of righteousness and sanctimony is never sufficient. Even in the old covenant it was necessary to walk humbly before God, utterly dependent on Him, having nothing in which to glory according to the flesh (cf. Micah 6:8)!

It is easy for us to read this story and believe ourselves to be the “publican,” willing to admit our sin and to change our ways, and thus we should be (James 4:10, 1 John 1:9). We must examine ourselves, however, because there are times in which we play the role of the Pharisee– we get puffed up by our knowledge, our attempt to live the Christian life, or our supposed maturity beyond our brethren and others (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1, Hebrews 5:14, 1 Peter 1:15-16). We get into the mode where we feel superior to others and almost smug in our relationship with God. We must banish these impulses and attitudes from within us!

We have all come across street “preachers” proudly berating audiences and making a mockery of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus, and they may remind us of this passage. It is lamentable that the message of our most merciful and compassionate Lord gets thrown around so casually by the arrogant and sanctimonious. But let us keep in mind that it is easy for ourselves to fall into the same trap, in thought if not in word and deed (Galatians 6:2-4). We must always remember that at one point we all resembled the publican, and we must make it our goal to repent and to serve God in His Kingdom while keeping in mind the way we were, what God needed to do in order to secure our redemption, and therefore our need to relate to our fellow man and point him also to the salvation that comes in Jesus Christ (Titus 3:3-8). This is a tall order indeed, but let us remember that those who humble themselves are the ones who will receive the final exaltation, and seek holiness while maintaining the heart of the publican in Luke 18!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus, Sinners, and Pharisees

And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he entered into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. And behold, a woman who was in the city, a sinner; and when she knew that he was sitting at meat in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster cruse of ointment, and standing behind at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee that had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying,
“This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner.”
And Jesus answering said unto him, “Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.”
And he saith, “Teacher, say on.”
“A certain lender had two debtors: the one owed five hundred shillings, and the other fifty. When they had not wherewith to pay, he forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him most?”
Simon answered and said, “He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most.”
And he said unto him, “Thou hast rightly judged.”
And turning to the woman, he said unto Simon, “Seest thou this woman? I entered into thy house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath wetted my feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair. Thou gavest me no kiss: but she, since the time I came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but she hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:36-47).

One of the difficulties with humanity involves perception. It is easy for people to look at a given person or circumstance through one particular set of lenses and to make confining judgments.

This story clearly illustrates this difficulty. Simon the Pharisee is not an evil man or an evil-willed man. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity and his passion for the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, he looks at both the woman and at Jesus through certain lenses, and does not consider any other alternatives.

The woman, according to Simon, is a sinner. To Simon, this makes her unclean, spiritually if not physically. On account of this “sin” condition of hers, she ought not even be present before himself and Jesus, at least in the eyes of Simon. It does not matter how she feels about her sin– she remains a sinner.

Likewise, if Jesus really was who He said He was, He would know these things. Simon is willing to doubt that Jesus is a prophet because He is not holding to Simon’s expectation of holiness: “surely” a prophet would withhold himself from such a sinner. He would have nothing to do with her!

It is easy to see how such narrow-mindedness leads to hardened hearts: Simon would not be alone in this. He has his own set of expectations based on his judgments. He may question other things, but those judgments are not as questioned.

Thankfully, Jesus breaks out from all such narrow-mindedness and myopia. Did Jesus know what type of woman this was? Most assuredly He did! But the woman was not some unrepentant sinner– she came and demonstrated her repentance by her actions. Jesus’ parable illustrates the reality of God’s Kingdom against the speculations of Simon: those who are forgiven more are more thankful. She loved more, therefore, her sins were forgiven!

It was a shocking statement in first century Judea indeed, but it was true– prostitutes and sinners would enter God’s Kingdom before the Law-loving Pharisees (cf. Matthew 21:31). At the close of this scene, the “sinner” woman, and not Simon the Pharisee, is forgiven, and reconciled to God.

We would do well to learn from this story and to maintain Jesus’ attitude. It may very well be that the “terrible sinners” enter the Kingdom before the “good, moral people.” The Kingdom might be full of people with whom we would not automatically choose associate. Let us not attempt to confine the work of God based upon our perspective. We might find ourselves in the wrong position before the Lord! Let us repent of our sin and mourn for it, and love the Lord Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry