The Pharisee and the Publican

One of Jesus’ most powerful teaching tools was parables. At least 39 of them are recorded on the pages of the New Testament. Luke records 16 parables that are unique to his account. The one selected for our discussion in this article is one of them. It is recorded in Luke 18:9-14.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, this one shows a contrast between two (cf. wise and foolish man, rich man and Lazarus, two sons, two debtors, etc…) In this parable the prayers of two men are recorded so that we may have some insight into their hearts. There are several similarities between the two. Both were Jews, they each had access to the temple, and both recognized a need to worship. The similarities, however, end there. It does not take long to notice the contrast.

The Pharisee

Regarding the Pharisees, Jesus said that they trusted in their own righteousness. And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: (Lk. 18:9) They were blind to their own need for spiritual healing (Mark 2:17). The Pharisees were the epitome of haughty self-righteousness. Consider how the Pharisee in this parable brags to God about himself, (Lk. 18:11-12). Their haughtiness led them to make laws and tradtions that actually countermanded the laws of God (cf. Matt. 15:2).

The Publican

Publicans were Jews who had contracted with the Roman authorities to collect taxes from their own people. Most Jews considered them traitors and turncoats. They were often classed with harlots and the lowest kinds of sinners. Jesus saw in them an opportunity to teach. He chose one for an apostle (Matt. 10:3), ate at the home of another (Luke 19:5), and was known generally as a friend to them (Matt. 12:19). Why is this so? We’re told that the publicans and harlots repented upon hearing the preaching of John the Baptist (Matt. 21:32). The chief priests, scribes and pharisees, however, did not repent.

A Contrast of Their Worship

One’s worship reveals the depths of their innermost self. In revealing their worship (prayers), Jesus is revealing the true character of each. We must understand that God sees the inner man. He looks upon the heart. But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.(1 Samuel 16:7)

The Pharisee, we are told, “prayed thus with himself”. We would say, his prayer went no further than the ceiling. He was not interested in approaching God but rather wanted others to admire his pseudo-piety. This is exactly what Jesus taught against in the Sermon on the Mount and on many other occasions (Matt. 6:5). He felt no need for God’ forgiveness, but trusted in himself.

By contrast, the publican “stood afar off” (Lk. 18:13 cf. Matt. 6:6). He had no interest in putting on a show for others. He demonstrated humility and contrition. These are the qualities that are pleasing to God. For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word. (Isa. 66:2, cf. Micah 6:6-8). Instead of bragging about his righteous accomplishments, he confessed his sins and sought God’s forgiveness.

What Can We Learn?

What can we learn from this parable? First, we must realize that God sees who we are on the inside (1 Sam. 16:7). We may put on a show of piety, but is it sincere? Second, let us realize the great need for humility in serving God (Col. 3:12). Regardless of any great accomplishments in the eyes of men, when it is all said and done, we are still unprofitable servants (Lk. 17:10). Finally, realize that Jesus accepts the lowest of sinners if they will but repent.

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