The Pharisee and Publican At Prayer

Ordinary 30C

Luke 18: 9 14


The CCD version of the Bible (1952) literally translates the opening of our text as, "But he spoke this parable also to some……" (NSAB is similar.) In other words, having outlined some critical material on the correct attitude to prayer for his followers, i.e. to foster a spirit of constant prayer in one's heart and to be assured of God's comforting support, Jesus also drew dramatic attention to the danger among his followers of spiritual arrogance. This parable is therefore intended as a powerful and decisive warning against allowing any notions of religious superiority to develop among his present and future followers.

Some Notes On The Text

Verse 9

Our text begins where the parable of the Persistent Widow left off:

"But he spoke this parable also to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else."

We need to get the scene right if we are to get the right message. This parable is not addressed to the Pharisees as a group but to the followers of Jesus, some of whom we know were devout and honourable Pharisees. As mentioned above, it is a warning to any among his followers who were in the habit of relying on their own self-perfection, and denying the holiness of others. It is therefore not addressed to any particular class, sect or level. The danger can be present anywhere among Christ's followers.

Even at this stage, our Lord can identify among his followers some of the arrogance and elitism they so quickly detect in others. By making such a strong stand about this he is clearly consistent with other Orthodox Jewish teachers such as Hillel the Elder who said:

"Do not separate yourself from the community; trust not in yourself until the day of your death, judge not your fellowman until you have come into his place."

Verse 10

"Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector."

The first thing we notice is that the setting is at a time of prayer in a very holy place. Without any details (which were not necessary in those times) we are given two characters. These are mentioned as distinct types: opposite classes of characters. The Pharisee represents the moral, the respectable, and the externally correct. The publican or tax collector represents the wicked, the profligate, and the utterly irreligious. We should recall a few facts about both, as they are essential to draw the right conclusions.

The Pharisees evolved around our Lord's time, or a little earlier, as a courageous, loyal and devout movement determined to hold the onslaught of pagan culture and religion from devastating their faith. Inevitably, this gave rise to the need to draw limits to the communication they would have with harmful, foreign religion. They tried in all sincerity to promote a position, in an occupied country, rather similar to the Christian concept of "being in the world, but not of it". Thus there was always a need for balance, and maintaining at the forefront, the reasons for pursuing such a way of life.

The tax collectors, on the other hand, saw themselves as pragmatists: "if you can't beat them, join them!" They were virtually collaborators with the Romans and exercised enormous control over their own people, thus performing the role of lackeys to the Roman overlords.

Verses 11 and 12

"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and give a tenth of all I get'"

The Pharisee stood in the traditional stance for certain forms of prayer. There may be a hint that he stood very erect rather than in a partial bow, but we cannot be sure. God gets a brief mention, and fades quickly. The man is right, of course; he is none of the things he lists, nor does he scourge his own people the way the tax collector does.

It could be said he didn't pray at all; he simply listed his virtues to parade before God. Expressed more formally, he exalted his owns works of supererogation (Ryle). He fasted even more than God required. He gave tithes over things which God did not command to be tithed, i.e. of all his possessions.

In a sense, he "has God cornered". God is his debtor and he betrays an attitude of now having God under an obligation. He has carefully chosen the things in which it suits him to excel, and then he leaves the Temple confident that neither God nor man can deny that what he said was correct. He is therefore quite out of character with the Scripture he is supposed to stand for:

"For thus says the high and lofty one,
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
And also with those who are contrite
and humble in spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite."

Isaiah 57: 15

Judged by authentic Jewish criteria, the so-called prayer of the Pharisee is, therefore, not acceptable to God, and is rejected.

Verse 13

"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me a sinner'."

This man also stood for prayer, but adopted an obvious aspect of humility, "at a distance". Looking down, he kept beating his breast and kept repeating his brief plea before God. His prayer was entirely Biblical and is found often in the Psalms.

The more literal translation is "O God be merciful to me the great sinner." In other words "I am the very sinner the Pharisee has just described!"

The words "have mercy" refer not to some physical need or distress but to a spiritual predicament he acknowledges himself to be in. He sees himself as he really is and knows he cannot help himself. He can only plea for healing.

This man's prayer is acceptable and therefore reaches the throne of God.

Verse 14

Jesus reports the outcome:

"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Let's look at this verse closely in its literal form.

  • "I tell you…." is a way of emphasising a truth to be taken note of.
  • "this man went down to his home…." (ie back home)
  • "in the right relationship with God more than the other…." — or rather than the other. The term "right relationship" (or having been justified) points to a relationship that will last henceforth — meaning he was healed of a spiritual affliction. The Greek original text implies that God was the agent of delivery from an evil life repented.

It is wonderful news but a warning nevertheless. Many people describe how, by the time they come to the end of our Lord's parable, they find themselves thinking, "Thank goodness I'm not like that Pharisee!" At this point they feel they have fallen into the same trap as he did. Our Lord does not send anyone on a guilt trip, but rather uses parables to show us what we are sometimes like. This is meant to help open to us new windows of insight into how to avoid distraction from the goal he has pointed us towards, or rather, calls us into. Obviously, he sees one of the quickest ways of going off track is to compare ourselves to others to our own advantage; so we would be hypocrites to point the finger at Pharisees or anyone else.


Shall we take a leaf from the ancient rabbis whom Jesus would have loved: It was a favourite saying of the Rabbis of Yarneh:

"I am a creature of God, and my neighbour is also his creature; my work is in the city and his is in the field; I rise early to my work and he rises early to his. As he cannot excel in my work, so I cannot excel in his work. But perhaps you say, I do great things and he does small things. We have learned that it matters not whether a man does much or little if only he directs his heart to Heaven."

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