The Pharisee and the Publican
Sometimes we enjoy this parable more than we should, for we are tempted to feel superior to the bloated Pharisee and suffer little compassion over his spiritual cancer. Our Savior did not create the parable in order for us to despise the braggart or admire the humble IRS officer, lest this heavenly illustration be mistaken for a ‘morality play.’ Jesus put into it an eternal truth, and blessed are they who have ears to hear it.
We note well the introductory sentence: “He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” Jesus would know how to use a pry bar to open some eyes and hearts to see themselves as guilty sinners, then to see Him as God’s gift of Righteousness that they might thereafter possess the eyes and ears (Mt. 13:16) of converted disciples. Indeed, if the Pharisee could first see himself as Jesus saw him, perhaps he could be brought to repent as did the humble tax collector.
The way the religious paragon did his praying and the content of his ‘prayer’ were symptoms of his trusting in himself that he was righteous. Jesus does not draw our attention to his ‘civic righteousness,’ but to his heart-prompted sense of a cherished spiritual superiority. The Pharisee relished rehearsing his good conduct, even to God: he was generous to widows and orphans, he was unsullied by cheating, pure from sex sins, and unassailable in his tax returns. As to his relationship with God–he did double duty on fasting and was meticulous about tithing to the temple. We note that Jesus brushed-in the detail that he was praying “thus with himself” in a staged monologue–to which God was not even listening. At bottom, he had placed his reliance on himself when weighed on the divine scales; he trusted that his style of morality would bring him to balance with God.
He simply did not see the rot of his soul’s cancer and his need for a Savior’s cleansing. And that�s about all we can stand of his bloated self-righteousness; he had not yet been blessed by God to appreciate: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness….”
In Contrast . . .
We want to spend a few moments now with the other fellow. How pointed the contrast! First, he’s one of those tax collectors, commonly guilty of venal abuse in his job opportunities, a social outcast, butt of hearty hatred–and that’s enough cause to pity him. He did not wish to be seen in church, nor that his praying be overheard. Eyes downcast, head bowed, a lump in the throat, utterly defeated in self-loathing, he could utter only the choked, desperate plea: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
But what was he sorry about and what was he confessing? A few bad deeds all in a day�s work? An apology for a life traitorous to his countrymen? It was much worse than that in his soul, for he stood self-condemned–his whole person an eyesore to God and a blotch to His church. The Pharisee might expect lightning to strike the Publican dead for the effrontery of his presence in the temple, and the Publican might agree. Yet there he was–without excuse and utterly without human defense.
But he knew how to ask for help.
From the shadows of his childhood he could yet recall: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies blot out my transgressions; wash me thoroughly from my impurity, and cleanse me from my sin….” With that in his heart he summoned the confidence to approach God, trusting that “a broken and a contrite heart–these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51).
And that’s what pulled him through. For the sinner’s business is with God, not with himself; the sinner’s refuge is with God, not with himself; the sinner’s salvation is with God, not with himself. And God, merciful in Christ Jesus to repentant sinners, comes through. “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Did we mention that repentance cannot be stressed too much?)
Neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector are caricatures; anyone who knows the sinner’s heart–as Jesus does–can testify that they live among us. And need our help.
Lord Jesus, accomplish humbling in the one sinner as You have done for the other, in Your mercy! Amen.
–Paul R. Koch