The Pharisee, the Publican, and the Proverb (Luke 18:9-14)

In today’s sermon we come to a familiar parable commonly referred to as “The Pharisee and the Publican”.  In this parable Jesus speaks to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).

The Pharisee

In Jesus’ parable, He mentioned that a Pharisee went into the temple to pray.  The Pharisees were Jewish religious leaders who were respected by many for their strict adherence to the Law of Moses—even going above and beyond what was required.  When Jesus mentioned that a Pharisee went into the temple to pray, many people thought: “Of course!  Pharisees are always praying in the temple.”  But what Jesus said about the Pharisee in this parable left His hearers shocked.

Outwardly Righteous.  It was customary to begin a prayer with a time of thanksgiving as one thanked God for His grace and mercy.  The Pharisee begins by thanking God “that I am not like other men” (11).  He is thankful that he is so good and commences to list all his good qualities (as if he is reminding God of his goodness).  He said: “I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (11-12). One would be hard pressed to find a more respectable person, but this Pharisee did not return to his house justified.  Let us consider why this is the case.

Inwardly Reprehensible.  Outwardly this Pharisee appears to be righteous, but inwardly he is reprehensible.  On what basis did Jesus make this judgment?  He did so on the basis of his prayer.  Consider the Pharisee’s prayer for a moment: First, his thanksgiving was perverted because he thanked God that he was not like other people (11).  He wasn’t so much thanking God as he was commending himself to God.  Second, his confession was absent as he did not confess his sinfulness but professed his goodness.  William Barclay wrote: “The Pharisee did not really go to pray; he went to inform God how good he was.”  Third, his petitions were missing because he believed he did not need anything from God.  Fourth, his intercession was replaced by contempt for others.  Instead of praying for others, he condemned others—especially the tax collector.  Jesus mentions the Pharisee’s prayer because it is a perfect example of someone who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt” (9).  G. Campbell Morgan summarized this Pharisee’s prayer as: “I…I…I…I…I…!”

The Publican

Outwardly Reprehensible.  A Publican was a Roman tax collector.  They were despised by many in their day because they collaborated with the Roman authorities and often extorted money by collecting more than they ought.  When Jesus mentioned that a Publican went to the temple to pray, many people thought: “A Publican?  What is that scoundrel doing in the temple?”  But what Jesus said about the Publican in this parable left His hearers shocked.

Inwardly Righteous. While it was customary to begin a prayer with a time of thanksgiving, the Publican wisely chose to begin with confession.  He felt that his most pressing need was to confess his sins to God because he recognized his desperate need for forgiveness and cleansing.  The Publican “beat his breast” as an outward sign of repentance and said: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (13). His prayer is unlike the Pharisee’s in many ways.  The most notable being that he begins with a humble recognition of being in desperate need of God’s grace, he does not compare himself to other men but to God’s holy Law, and he does rattle off all his good qualities, but acknowledges that he is a sinner.  In humbling himself before God, Jesus announces that this Publican “went down to his house justified” (14).

The Proverb

Jesus summarizes the main point of the parable with a proverb: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (14).

Humbled. By trusting in yourself that you are righteous, you will, by default, treat others with contempt.  This is because your standard of righteousness is based on how well you compare to other people and by looking on them unfavorably you are making yourself appear better.  This type of thinking is ungodly and sinful because “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6).  If you are similar to the Pharisee, your humbling is coming unless you repent.

Humble. If, however, you humble yourself before God and others, He will personally exalt you.  This exaltation means that He will bless you with grace and mercy.  While it is true that God opposes the proud, He also “gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).  Those who are humble and repentant recognize their great need and therefore do not consider others as being beneath them.  This humility comes from faith in Christ.  If you are similar to the Publican, then take comfort from this parable.  John Bunyon wrote: “This therefore is a parable that is full of singular comfort to such of the sinners in the world that are clogged with guilt and sense of sin”.  Come to Christ and find mercy.