The Pharisee and the Publican
Francis Bourdillon, 1881
"He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 'Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: "God, 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." But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.'"
These two men went to the same place, at the same time, and seemingly for the same purpose — yet how different were they in heart and character! There is the like difference now among those who meet together in the house of God, and often even among those who come together in a more private way for prayer, and for the hearing of the Word. God alone knows the heart!
But though these two men both went up into the temple — yet they did not worship in the same part of it. It may have been because the Jewish law did not allow the publican to be where the Pharisee was (for there were different courts, to which different classes of people might come), or it may have been through his deep humility, that the publican stood "far off," while the Pharisee worshiped in the inner part of the temple.
There are no different "courts" in the Lord's house now. High and low, Jew and Gentile may worship together. The gospel has made all believers one. Whatever differences there may be in other places — in the house of God all stand on one footing.
Thus these two men prayed in different places, but their prayers were more different still. "The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus" [or "The Pharisee stood, and prayed thus with himself"]. Some think the meaning to be that he stood by himself while he prayed; and this would quite agree with the general character and practice of the Pharisees, who thought themselves peculiarly holy and wished to keep others at a humble distance. At all events, he stood up boldly in his proud self-righteousness, and spoke the words of prayer apart from others.
Prayer! It is called prayer because it professed to be so — but there was nothing of real prayer in it. The words were addressed to the Almighty: "God, I thank You, etc." but his thoughts were upon himself. He was really speaking to himself, rather than to God. What words they were! True, the opening words show nothing wrong; "God, I thank You" — fit words with which to begin prayer; but we judge of the feeling from which they sprang by what follows, "God, I thank You that I am not like other men."
In the solemn hour of prayer, how could his thoughts be fixed upon the faults of others? Had he no sins of his own to confess? What had he to do with "other men" at such a moment? Who had taught him to compare himself with his neighbors, rather than with God's holy law? If he had but looked into that perfect law — then how different would his feelings and his prayer have been! We can hardly think of anything less like prayer, than this proud Pharisee standing as in the very presence of God, and thanking Him for being so much better than others. Ah, why was he despising the poor publican, whom he noticed at that moment in a distant part of the temple — when he ought to have been humbling himself before God? How different from the apostle Paul, who, when he mentioned others as sinners, called himself the chief of sinners!
It may be that there was truth in the Pharisee's words; he may not have been an extortioner or unjust or an adulterer; he may have been free from some sins of which the publican had been guilty. But little did he think that at that very moment, when engaged in the outward act of prayer — he was guilty of a sin as great perhaps in the sight of God as extortion, injustice or adultery! The same Word which condemns these, condemns pride also; and we may be sure that there is nothing more displeasing to God, than a haughty self-righteousness and a despising of others.
This was all his prayer. There was not a word of confession of sin, not one cry for mercy, not one acknowledgment of need, not one petition of any kind — nothing asked for, either temporal or spiritual. In his blind self-satisfaction, he flattered himself that he was doing something meritorious in praying as he did, and thought that he was bringing something to God, whereas he ought to have gone to God to receive all from Him.
Now let us turn to the other man. How different a prayer is here! Even in outward appearance, all is different. There he stands, the poor publican, afar off. His head is bowed; his eyes are downcast; he smites upon his breast, and the words of prayer that burst at once from heart and from lips are these: "God be merciful to me, a sinner!"
This was prayer indeed! The publican had learned what the Pharisee, with far more opportunity, had never learned. He had come to the knowledge that he was a sinner, and in need of mercy. Doubtless the Pharisee was far superior to him in learning; with every part of the Jewish law he was probably well acquainted; he knew perhaps every fact in Old Testament history; he was well versed in the ceremonial of his religion — but how much more did this despised and ignorant publican know than he! All the Pharisee's knowledge was in the head — the publican's heart had been taught of God.
If the publican had been like the Pharisee, he might have said, "God, I thank You that I am not so bad as others of my trade. I am not wholly set upon gain. I have some care for religion. I come up to Your house to pray." But his thoughts were not upon others, but upon himself; and not upon his imagined excellence — but upon his sins. He is smitten with a sense of sin — it weighs upon his soul. He seeks not to hide his sin; he comes to God just as he is and sues for mercy. How humbly he sues! With downcast eye and smitten breast, hardly daring to pray — yet finding in prayer his only relief. "Can such a one as I hope to be forgiven?" Yes, poor publican! Yes, all of the publican's spirit. You may hope to be forgiven — for Jesus Himself speaks comfort and forgiveness to you: "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other." Justified — that is pardoned, acquitted, accepted by God!
The Pharisee confessed nothing, asked nothing — and received nothing. Proud he came up from his house — proud he went back again — unhumbled and unblessed.
The publican went up to the house of God with a heavy burden, the burden of his sins. Did he lose that burden there? Surely we may believe that he did. God, who heard his prayer and granted him mercy, doubtless gave him in his heart the sense of forgiveness. The publican went down to his house comforted, as well as justified. His burden was gone — his sins were forgiven!
This comfort, this blessing, was not for him alone: "For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." There is no comfort for the proud and self-righteous; but there is all comfort for the humble and contrite. Jesus has died for sinners — there is the source of all our hopes. It is when we cast aside all thought of our own goodness and approach God as sinners, pleading the merits of Christ alone — then it is that we receive pardon and peace.
There are still many who try to comfort themselves with the thought of their religious observances, their moral life, their being not so bad as others. This is not the way to pardon — this is not the way to peace with God. Christ is the way — the only way. We must go to Him, casting aside all other hope and dependence. "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" — we may add, "for Jesus Christ my Savior's sake," for we have a blessing that the publican had not. Jesus has died, and we now know clearly by the gospel that God is "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." The way is open, the ground of acceptance is sure, blessed be God!
Oh, let us beware of proud prayers, heartless prayers, prayerless prayers — prayers with no sorrow for sin, no sense of need, no real asking of God! How much we need — yet not more than God is willing to give! Just as we are, in all our nakedness and in all our need — let us go continually to the throne of grace. The way is clear: the Advocate is there before us — the all-prevailing Advocate. He died, He lives — for us. We need not stand afar off. Through Him we may draw near, and even come boldly to the throne of grace! "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace — that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Hebrews 4:16