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