17. The Pharisee & the Publican

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 17. The Pharisee & the Publican

Luke 18:9-14:  To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’  But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Purpose & Context: We seem to be in a part of Luke where rather than consequential flow being the style he uses, he instead simply picks up on a variety of, dare we say, bits and pieces of the things he has been told. I say this because there seems no direct flow into this parable from the previous one about not giving up on prayer. The only link, and it is a good one, is that both parables involve prayer but in this one, prayer is the channel for revealing the heart and not the heart of the parable itself.   The point is made very obvious from the outset: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.”   That’s it, it is about humility before God and how that is revealed through the way different people pray.

Content:

  • there are two men who go to the temple to pray.
  • one is a Pharisee who distanced himself from other people, exalting himself in declaring how righteous he was, fasting and giving tithes – certainly different from that tax-collector over there!
  • the other was the tax collector, who came in humility, not daring to look up to God, and just simply prayed for forgiveness and mercy, acknowledging he was a sinner.

The punchline that follows is clear: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”  That is the conclusion from the parable, but what brings that about?

The principle behind it is obviously stated: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Application: Again, this is one of those parables that are so obvious that we wonder whether any comment is necessary. Yet it is worth dwelling on the nature of the two men in the parable. First, the Pharisee. This is a man who is clearly very religious. The Pharisees were known for their knowledge of the Law and their zeal for upholding it. This man at least expresses piety through the standard ways, fasting and giving tithes. However, it is his attitude that brings censure. Because of his piety he thinks he is better than other men, certainly better than obvious sinners, like the worldly and often corrupt tax-collectors. He comes before God displaying his pride openly.

Second, there is the tax-collector who, yes, is possibly worldly and corrupt – be he knows it and is not proud of it. He still has a desire to pray but he doubts his standing before God and all he can do is ask for mercy. In this he is being utterly real. This is not to condone his lifestyle but it is to acknowledge the humility with which he comes.

For us who are Christians of long-standing, this can be an uncomfortable parable if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, for after years of seeking to remain righteous before God, it is so easy to slip into an attitude of superiority when we look at other people who are not believers, those who are not bothered about righteousness.

Even more it is so easy to become complacent about prayer and, as I have commented elsewhere, especially public prayer. How easy we pray mechanically, just saying the right words, with little consideration to the thought that God – almighty, holy God – is there, is the one we are addressing. How rarely it is that people ‘out front’ pause before the Presence before they utter the words, how rare that they come with humility. I am sure that most of us would look at this very simple and straight forward parable and denounce the Pharisee without realizing that in many ways we are more like him than like the other man.

It is a difficult balance to hold, this realization on one hand that we are children of God, with a loving heavenly Father and all the familiarity of years of teaching and experience that has blessed us, while at the same time remembering that actually we ARE still sinners, redeemed yes, but still prone to sometimes getting it wrong (see 1 Jn 2:1) and we are what we are because of what Jesus has done and what the Holy Spirit is doing in us. As Paul said, we have no room to boast (Rom 3:27, Gal 6:4, Eph 2:9) just room for humility. May we remember that.

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