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The Publican and the Pharisee

INTRODUCTION: Only Luke's gospel gives us the account of the publican and the Pharisee in temple prayer (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus used here another parable to reveal and conceal truth. What can be learned from the Holy Spirit through this parable as we humble ourselves before the Lord to be taught of him? To begin the process of study I selected the text from the Revised Webster Version of the Bible, with comment interspersed among the verses. This passage is direct teaching from our Lord, and my desire is to learn and to practice a conduct of prayer, which is honoring to Him.

Luke 18:9, Revised Webster Version

"9 And he spoke this parable to certain who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:"

COMMENTS: The opening verse of this passage of six verses tells us the purpose of the teaching which is to follow, dealing with the condition of the heart of man. The negative aspect is a man with self-righteousness, coupled with disdain for the worth of others. The contrasted positive is a man with heartfelt humility, with appeal to an almighty and merciful God. For those with a truly hardened heart, the parable only conceals the saving message, but even a Hebrew of Hebrews and a Pharisee, such as Saul of Tarsus, can be converted, as indicated by Paul's own testimony when he wrote to the church at Philippi. Philippians 3:4 "Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: ... 9 And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:".
Jesus knows the heart of man, and he sets out this parable of a man who trusted in himself, holding on to his confidence in the flesh, and also despised others as he judged them by a standard from his own heart.

Luke 18:10, Revised Webster Version

"10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector."

COMMENTS: Pharisees were religious leaders in Israel, with respect before men and with apparently a core of sound doctrine; but Jesus is often seen in the gospel accounts at odds with this group because of their heart condition. When publicans are mentioned in scripture usually they are in the company of harlots or"sinners", and the Pharisees always have disdain for both the harlots and the tax collectors. Interestingly enough, publicans and harlots were also often in the company of Jesus. Matthew, one of the twelve, was a publican when Jesus called him, and Matthew immediately left his post and followed Jesus.

Religious leaders such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea were much slower to make such a public move. This same pattern of human nature is present in our day, as those who seemingly are of good moral character and have the respect of others, can find it very difficult to humble themselves to the simplicity of reliance on saving faith alone.

Luke 18:11, Revised Webster Version

"11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector."

COMMENTS: Isn't it interesting that the text says "prayed thus with himself"? Do I sometimes find myself thinking along the lines as would a Pharisee, and should I then remind myself that I may indeed be praying only with myself? Is not the value of my salvation based on my own former condition as compared with my new life, which is a gift from God? Even true conversion does not totally eliminate our inclination to follow the carnal thought processes of the old nature, and we can easily forget that without the conversion of the Holy Spirit we could do nothing to resist the world, the flesh, and the devil. Many years of religious practice should not elevate us in our own estimation, but rather we should take the position of John the baptist, and understand that "I must decrease, and he [Jesus] must increase". All righteousness is only from Christ and not from ourselves, so I must be cautious of my thoughts about others.
James 4:12 "There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?"

Lord help me to understand your mercy available to all those who are drawn by you, to your healing power which makes us whole, and then gives us the privilege of offering the sacrifice of praise in word and deed, because of a thankful heart, not pride.
Matthew 9:11 "And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? 12 But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. 13 But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

Luke 18:12, Revised Webster Version

"12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess."

COMMENTS: Jesus has told us in other scriptures what he thinks of the attitude displayed by the words of this Pharisee. Matthew 23:23 "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone." The spiritual guidebook of Psalms also points us to the attitude God wants us to cultivate as we work out our salvation.
Psalms 51:17 "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise."

But we must be careful not to reject the law, for it also comes from God; so we need the balance which is so important in the Christian walk by faith. Galatians 3:21 "Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. 22 But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe." And the Lord himself said this about the law:
Matthew 5:17 "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill."
Only God truly knows the heart of man. The law could not save us because of our inherent shortfall, but the only one who could keep the whole law, fulfilled its requirements in our behalf. And he also says, if you love me, keep my commandments. So we need to be careful not to omit either matter, by following the law to demonstrate our love for God, and by loving others, as we love ourselves, to demonstrate the grace we have received.

Luke 18:13, Revised Webster Version

"13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner."

COMMENTS: Jesus made reference in Matthew 9:13 to the Old Testament words from Hosea 6:6 "For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;" and the balance of that verse says, "and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." In the late stages of the northern kingdom, the people retained some of the signs of true faith, but their hearts were far from the true God, so any religious practice of theirs was of non-effect. Here though, in the tax collector, is a man who has realized how helpless he is, to be able to offer anything to God to justify himself, so he cries out for God's mercy because of the change in his heart.

Luke 18:14, Revised Webster Version

"14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

COMMENTS: The final verse in this brief passage leaves us with a most important conclusion, which we need to "take to heart". The Holy Spirit has certainly underscored God's attitude toward the proud and the humble through other scriptures, a sampling of which are listed below.

Job 22:29 "When men are cast down, then thou shalt say, There is lifting up; and he shall save the humble person."
Job 26:12 "He divideth the sea with his power, and by his understanding he smiteth through the proud."
Psalms 10:12 "Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up thine hand: forget not the humble."
Psalms 119:21 "Thou hast rebuked the proud that are cursed, which do err from thy commandments."
Psalms 138:6 "Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off."
Isaiah 2:12 "For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low:"
Matthew 23:12 "And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted."
Luke 14:11 "For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
James 4:6 "But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble."
James 4:10 "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up."
1 Peter 5:5 "Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble."
1 Peter 5:6 "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time."

--- Reflections in prayer ---

Lord, guide me as I study your word to become more like Christ. I don't want to see others as did the Pharisee of this parable, but I do not want to forget the "Pharisees" who are in the mold of Nicodemus or Joseph either. You have called people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and from every station in life. Remind me that whatever I learn from Scripture is only what has been revealed to me by the Holy Spirit, and this is just as much a gift from you as is my salvation from eternal death. Whenever you place me in a position of leadership, keep my thoughts on your model of servant-leader, and help me to put others first. Amen.

Published 1 June 2004, first issued 5 February 2002