Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Pharisee and the Publican


Luke 18:9-14

This parable follows the parable of The Widow and the Unjust Judge and contrasts the self-righteous prayer of a Pharisee with the prayer of a humble and contrite publican. While the focus of the parable is on the attitudes each brings to their prayers, the words of the prayers also serve to contrast acceptable and unacceptable prayer models.

Jews could pray at the temple at any time, but corporate prayer took place at nine in the morning and three in the afternoon during the time of the morning and evening sacrifices. Apparently the parable takes place during corporate prayer because both men are some distance from the other worshippers and pray at the same time.

Because Pharisees as a class were enemies of Jesus, our initial reaction may be to immediately cast the Pharisee in the role of villain. But we need to get into the skin of the people of those days to get the full impact of this parable. The Pharisee was a highly respected member of society; a religious person who was careful to please God even in minute matters. He was a person who upheld and sustained the religious traditions of the Jewish people. He rejected the theology of the more liberal Sadducees who had made doctrinal compromises with their Roman overlords. He kept the Sabbath strictly, paid his tithes faithfully, attended synagogue regularly, and fasted more often than was required. He was a moral guide and a pillar of society. Today he would be a church elder and a stanch supporter of society’s “moral majority”.

The publican, on the other hand, was classed as a thief, fraud, and traitor because he served the Roman enemy. Because of Zacchaeus’ confession, we know that publicans defrauded people as a regular practice. No one would consider nominating him for church office of any kind. The mention of his name would elicit curses.

The Pharisee stood by himself fearful that he might pollute himself by rubbing shoulders with people who were not careful about what they ate, what they touched, and who might not be ritually pure. The publican stood by himself because he was a social outcast.

The Pharisee's prayer begins first with what Buttrick calls "his virtues of omission." 1 He is thankful that he is not like others: "thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even 2 like this tax collector" (Luke 18:11). (The people of the time could applaud this prayer, especially the last part about the tax collector. They could all thank God that they were not publican “thieves” and “rogues”.) The Pharisee then proceeds to enumerate "his virtues of commission." He fasts twice a week and can be admired for his superb discipline in that fasting meant abstaining from food and water even on hot summer days. (Only one day a year was required for fasting, but Pharisees fasted more than one hundred times the number required!) He tithes a tenth of all his income to the temple. (While the Greek verb could refer to his purchases, Jeremias believes that he was paying tithe on every thing he bought, including things that were already tithed and did not need to be tithed again. 3 If this is so, he again contributes far more than is required.) Ordinary Jews could be counted on to admire this Pharisee for his supererogatory works. They would believe that if all of them were as righteous as he was, the Romans would not be their rulers!

To understand how Jesus' hearers would have reacted to this man's prayer, a similar type of prayer was offered as a commendable model in the first century A.D. "I thank thee, O lord, my God, that thou hast given me my lot with those who sit in the seat of learning, and not with those who sit at the street-corners; for I am early to work, and they are early to work; I am early to work on the words of the Torah, and they are early to work on things of no moment. I weary myself, and they weary themselves; I weary myself and profit thereby, while they weary themselves to no profit. I run and they run; I run towards the life of the Age to come, and they run towards the pit of destruction: (b. Ber. 28b).” 4

Before criticizing this kind of prayer, we Christians need to look at ourselves. Do we sometimes pray using the Pharisee’s prayer as our “prayer model”? A.E. Forrest asked one of his church members to offer a benediction. The member thanked God that the members of his church were not like others "in the community who broke God's law, thoughtlessly and deliberately profaned the Lord's Day, and never came to church." He listened, aghast but after the prayer no one seemed surprised. 5

The publican stands by himself because he doesn't want to defile others with his sinfulness. He knows what he is—a desperate sinner, who without God's grace is lost. He knows that he is a contemptible tax collector. He doesn't tithe half as conscientiously as the Pharisee and he has trouble even fasting once a year. He deserves nothing from God. In fact, he deserves condemnation. He knows his sinfulness and doesn’t dare to lift up his eyes to heaven. On this day, however, he comes before God not only recognizing his sinfulness but repentant and contrite. So he beats his breast in anguish and sorrow and throws himself upon the mercy of God. He cannot recite a litany of virtues of omission and virtues of commission. He just cries out, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" The people listening to Jesus would look at this prayer and say his prayer is appropriate to his condition. He didn’t enumerate his evil deeds and he can't enumerate any good deeds, so his prayer is short in contrast to the Pharisee’s and he’d better cry out for God's mercy.

Jesus’ commentary on the prayers of the publican and the Pharisee was designed to shock his audience. It is a complete reversal of what they expected. It was what Crossan calls a "complete, radical, polar reversal of accepted human judgment, even or especially of religious judgment. . ." 6 The moral, religious man, the one who should have been applauded, the one who should have been justified was the Pharisee, and the crooked, disloyal traitor, the thief should have been roundly condemned. But instead Jesus says, "I tell you, this man (the publican) went down to his home justified rather than the other. . ." (Luke 18:14) Why this reversal of human judgment?

Jesus’ commentary makes it clear that the prayers of boastful arrogance are offensive to God, but humble prayers of genuine repentance honor God. It was in the spirit of the publican that the Puritan preacher, Richard Baxter, cried out “There but for the grace of God go I” when he encountered a criminal or drunkard.

Pride and arrogance undermine the effects of righteous behavior. We admire people who are generous, but if it is discovered that generosity is motivated by something other than openhandedness, it is no longer admirable. Holiness is admirable, "but when holiness turns to `holier-than-thou-ness', the best turns to the worst, righteousness to self-righteousness, holy ones into ‘Holy Willies’. . . Spurgeon once said that he thought a certain man in his congregation the holiest man he had ever known--till the man told him so himself!" 7 In this respect this man was just like the Pharisee who believed that a surplus of good deeds put God in his debt.

Prideful arrogance is the worst of sins because it creates psychopathic behavior. Pridefully arrogant people come to believe that they can do no wrong. They become so preoccupied with themselves that they cannot love or feel compassion for anyone else. Even God becomes a rival. Like Lucifer, the psychopath aspires to self-deification. "I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; . . . I will ascend to the tops of the cloud, I will make myself like the Most High" (Isaiah 14:13-14). These people censure the sins of others but are not aware of their own. Like the church of Laodicea, they can say, "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing." They fail to realize that they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." (Rev 3:17)

In this parable, Jesus makes it clear that virtue alone will not save us and the price we humans pay for arrogant pride is catastrophic. We do not feel the need to change our thinking or behavior. We remain prisoners of our illusions of grandeur. We become separated from a God who longs to heal and restore us. Buttrick writes of the Pharisee that “measured by other men, he towered aloft. It had not occurred to him to measure himself by the sky. A mountain shames a molehill until both are humbled by the stars." 8

In this parable, Jesus informs us that our prayer model should be that of the humble and contrite publican. Jesus’ life assures us that God is mercy and forgiveness personified.

1. Buttrick, p. 88
2. The word “even” could also be translated “also”.
3. Jeremias, p. 140.
4. Ibid, p. 142.
5. Forrest, pp. 44-45.
6. J. Dominic Crossan, In Parables: the Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York and London: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 69.
7. Hunter, p. 64.
8. Buttrick, p. 88.

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