Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

144. The Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14)*

The spirit of Pharisaism existed in Jewry long before the time of Jesus. Indeed, in human nature of a certain sort it is endemic. "There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet are not washed from their filthiness. There is a generation, O how lofty are their eyes! and their eyelids are lifted up" (Pr.30 :12,13; and cp.28 :13). And Isaiah pilloried those "which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me: for I am holier than thou" (65 :5). These area smoke in God's nose, and not sweet incense. "They trusted in themselves that they were righteous" (v.9) is very close to the LXX text of Ez. 33:13; "if he trust in his own righteousness," a passage which has a marked contrast (in v.14-16) appropriate to redemption in Christ.

Jesus feared the growth of this self-righteous spirit in his disciples and in a short parable of matchless incisiveness he warned them against it.

Portrait One

First, there is the picture of the Pharisee who goes into the temple court and there strikes an attitude which will impress others whether they hear the tenor of his prayer or not. The Lord's phrase provides a withering exposure: "he prayed with (more exactly, towards) himself."

The opening words of his prayer are a formality: "God, I thank thee . . ." He is really thanking God for nothing. Nay, he is rather congratulating God on having such a fine servant as himself. Indeed he seems almost to pity the Almighty for being so short of worshippers as faithful as himself.

"I thank thee that I am not as other men, not as the rest." Thus he proudly divides into two categories all who are there in the temple court to worship—himself, and the others (Pharisee means separatist). How different is the spirit of men like Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah who, although actually untarnished by the wickednesses of their people, nevertheless confessed these sins as though they were their own (Dan.9 :3-15; Neh.l :5-7; Ezra 9 :6). But the Pharisee has no word about his own sins. Instead he happily writes his own testimonial and lays it confidently before the Lord of all. With what zest does he catalogue the sins of others—'extortioners, unjust, adulterers . . . this publican." That last phrase shows that he had noticed the publican at prayer and therefore must have been aware of the man's contrition. But he censures him none the less! He is serenely sure that in the evils he has mentioned with such relish he himself is blameless. It does not dawn on him, poor fool, that he has other sins which God abhors just as much.

Thus everything about him is deception. His parading of a life of righteous formality deceives others, he succeeds in deceiving himself (about himself), and consequently assumes that even the Almighty will be taken in.

This spirit of censure of others, which makes up an integral part of his prayers, is ever a danger signal! The reprobation of "this publican" (intended to be heard by him?) expresses the creed of the separatist. He speaks as though God needs the help of such as himself if the results of the Day of Judgment are to work out right. Yet he must have noticed the evident sincerity of the publican's self-reproach. Eager to have himself taken at face value by other men, he is unable or unwilling to do the same for others.

Next comes a proud mention of his own positive virtues: "I fast twice in the week"— every Monday and Thursday, although the Law of Moses specified only the Day of Atonement for men to "afflict their souls" (Lev.16 :29). "I give tithes of all that I get," even down to the trivialities of garden herbs (Mt. 23 :23; contrast Dt.14 :22). Thus he would outdo even his great forefathers, Abraham and Jacob (Gen.14 :20; 28:22).

There is no honour to God in prayer and worship of this sort, but only to himself. And of course that is the intention behind all he says and does.

Portrait Two

The contrast with the publican could hardly be greater. In all generations who has more practice than the tax-gatherer at the c 1 of reading the plausibility and deceitfulness of human nature? Yet this publican, although shrewd enough to see through the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, censures only himself, as he chooses a remote corner of the temple court and there continues to beat his breast in remorse for the life he has lived. Yet though he stands "afar off", "the Lord is nigh unto him that is of a broken heart, and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit" (Ps.34:18).

This man does not even wish to lift up his eyes to heaven (Ps.40 ;12), but only to prostrate himself in spirit before God.

Crashaw's version of this parable is excellent:

"Two men went to pray: oh, rather say,
One went to brag: th'other to pray.
One stands up close, and treads on high,
Where th'other dares not send his eye,
One nearer to God's altar trod,
The other to the altar's God."
And with what a prayer!: "God, be merciful to me the sinner" (cp. Lk.15 :18; Ps.32 :5; and contrast and compare the Pharisee Paul; 1Tim. l:15). He sees himself as the special sinner for whom the smoke of the altar offering rises up.

This idea comes out forcefully in the word he employs: "be propitiated to me." Its meaning, very precisely, is that of reconciliation through sacrifice (see Heb.2 :17; Rom.3 :25; 1 Jn.2 :2; 4:10). So here is no flash-in-the-pan repentance of a religiously ignorant Salvation Army convert. This publican is one who understands and appreciates the principles of the forgiveness of sins through a God-appointed sacrifice. And, in consequence, he goes down to his house justified, not having done anything by which to be justified except to offer a fervent prayer for forgiveness, firmly believing that through the efficacy of sacrifice such forgiveness is there for the asking.

But the self righteous Pharisee is not reckoned righteous before God. The idiom "justified compared with the other" means: "and not the other" (Hab.2 :4). See the examples listed in Study 35.

For disciples, not Pharisees

This parable of contrast was not spoken by Jesus to Pharisees. Had he done so, would they have greatly resented the picture of themselves, or would they have seen nothing amiss in such a cartoon? Actually, the lesson was for the benefit of his own disciples in danger of becoming tainted with the Pharisaic spirit: "certain which trusted in themselves because they were righteous, and despised the rest." It is also likely that the Lord looked ahead to a further reference of this parable to the Jews, the Pharisee nation.

And since Luke was guided to associate this parable closely with the preceding one (which clearly has special reference to the last days), there is some ground for believing that this spirit of Pharisaic self-satisfaction is to be looked for in the ecclesias of Christ near the time of the Lord's coming. This finds some confirmation in the parable's conclusion: "Everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (cp.14 :11: Pharisaism again). The words might well be the judicial pronouncement of Christ in the day when he separates sheep from goats.

Notes: Lk. l8:9-14

Trusted, This perfect participle might imply: they had been in the habit of thinking in this way, and now (in spite of Christ's teaching) they still thought so. In themselves. Gk: epi, depending on themselves.
The other: Gk: heteros, one very different. In v. 14 Jesus applies the same word to the Pharisee.
All that I possess. More exactly: get. The Hebrew equivalent goes back to the name Cain. The Pharisee does not attribute what he has gotten to the kindness of God, but to his own powers.

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