The Pharisee and the Publican
William Bacon Stevens, 1857
"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a Publican. The Pharisee stood up and prayed with himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this Publican. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the Publican 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.'
"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."
The two characters introduced into this parable were well known as types of the two extremes of Jewish society; and the contrast is the more striking, because of the preference given to the humble Publican over the haughty Pharisee.
A brief examination of the characteristics of the two classes will enable us to obtain clearer ideas of the people brought to our notice, and of the truth which this parable was intended to convey. The Pharisee, as he thrusts himself more prominently forward, will first claim our attention.
Until the Babylonish captivity, the Jews, as a body, were united in opinion; but after their dispersion, they imbibed many erroneous dogmas, and, grafting the fragments of a Greco-Oriental philosophy upon the long-accumulating traditions of the elders — they sought by these to interpret the Holy Scripture; and thus, for more than a century before Christ, the people became divided in doctrines and split up into factions, both political and religious. The three prominent parties were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.
Of these, the Pharisees were the wealthiest, the most learned, and the most influential, and were so called from a Hebrew word which signifies to separate, because they separated and distinguished themselves from others, by affecting uncommon sanctity, and by wearing a peculiar garment. Thus Paul calls the Pharisees "the strictest sect of our religion," and Josephus says that "they were the most religious of any of the Jews, and the most exact and skillful in explaining the laws."
The two sources whence we obtain our knowledge of Phariseeism are the writings of Josephus, and the books of the New Testament. Josephus was himself a Pharisee, and he has presented the views and characteristics of that sect with force and minuteness in his several writings. His opinion was that of one interested in the case, and his representations are the most favorable that could possibly be made; yet, when closely examined, we cannot fail to discover how fully the leading features of this sect as portrayed by their apologist and expounder, and as drawn in Holy Writ, agree. The coloring is different — but when denuded of all masks and sophistry, the lineaments are the same.
We will take the Bible view of their case, because it is Divinely true, and because it is important to a right understanding of this parable, that we should look at them through the delineations of the Holy Spirit.
From the New Testament, then, we learn that this sect was held in high repute as expositors of the law; that they were . . .
very methodic in unfolding the Scriptures;
full of proselyting zeal;
rigorous in ritual observances;
oppressive in their exactions;
ostentatious in their charity and religion;
pompous and self-inflated in their affected holiness; covering up an intense love of sensual pleasures, by a pretended stoicism;
diligent in the performance of every outward rite, that they "might be seen by men," while "inwardly they were ravening wolves;"
haughty and imperious to inferiors — yet cringing parasites of royalty and power;
neglecting the weightier matters of the law, yet minutely critical in tithing and doing what the law did not require;
"serpents" in wisdom — but leaving the trail of their slimy deeds behind them;
"vipers" in the sudden and unexpected stings which they fastened wherever they thought they could strike their fangs with impunity;
"graves," over which the people walked and knew not the hollowness beneath until they fell into the pit;
"white-washed sepulchers," which indeed "appear beautiful outwardly — but within were full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness."
They substituted human traditions for God's Word.
They made their boast of the law by wearing broad phylacteries, and yet dishonored the law.
They turned their prayers into instruments of covetousness and extortion.
They "compassed sea and land to make one proselyte," and then made him "twofold more a child of Hell than themselves."
They united in the one aim of destroying Jesus, and effected their purpose through bribery, blasphemy, perjury, and a bitter vindictiveness, which could slake its thirst for blood only in the opened veins and riven heart of the Messiah!
So that it is unquestionably true, as has been well remarked by Mosheim, "that the religion of the Pharisees was for the most part founded in consummate hypocrisy; and that in general they were the slaves of every wicked appetite; proud, arrogant, and avaricious; consulting only the gratification of their lusts — even at the very moment when they professed to be engaged in the service of their Maker." Yet . . .
their pretended claims to the guardianship of the law;
their rabbinical learning;
their great outward sanctity —
gave them such influence with the people, that if they gave out any report they were believed. While their political influence was so vast, that at times they virtually ruled the people through the almost automaton hands that held the scepter.
No wonder, then, that John the Baptist, and our blessed Lord, whose omniscient eye took in at a glance their whole character, denounced them in the strongest terms as "serpents," as "generations of vipers," as unable to escape the damnation of Hell!
We turn now to contemplate another class. As the Pharisee was in the highest repute among the Jews, for sanctity — the Publican was regarded as the lowest of the race, in vice. At the time of our Savior, Judea was a province of the Roman Empire — subject, therefore, to Roman taxation; and the Publicans were the officers employed to collect the taxes. There were at this time two sorts of people called Publicans; the Mancipes, and the Socii. The "Mancipes" were those who farmed the taxes of the several provinces, and had the oversight of the inferior Publicans. They received their accounts and collections, and transmitted them to Rome. These Mancipes were sometimes Roman knights; and Cicero makes honorable mention of them in his orations.
The "Socii" were a lower class of Publicans, to whom the Mancipes rented out their several districts in smaller sections, and whose duty it was to collect from the people the sums levied by the senate.
While, then, the Mancipes were generally men of morality — the Socii or lower class, were spoken of with great contempt by heathen, as well as Jewish writers. Theocritus says of them, "Among the beasts of the wilderness, bears and lions are the most cruel; among the beasts of the city, the publican and the parasite." The reason of this general hatred was their rapacity and extortion; for they oppressed the people with unlawful exactions in order to enrich themselves.
Besides, Publicans were peculiarly odious to the Jews, who looked upon them as the instrument of their subjection to Rome, and who consequently regarded them as out of the pale of civilized society. Accordingly (in the New Testament), we find them joined with harlots and sinners, and other profligate people. Hence the objection made to our Lord, that He was "the friend of publicans and sinners," was designed as a reproachful slur upon His character. The Publican in the parable was one of this lower or despised order, with whom the self-righteous Pharisee thought it sinful to converse, and whom he regarded as "the offscouring of all things."
In conformity with the custom of the Jews, both the Pharisee and the Publican went up into the temple to pray at the hour of prayer. In common discourse, the word "temple" comprehended all the chambers, courts, and colonnades connected with the sacred edifice on Mount Moriah. When, therefore, it is said that the Pharisee and the Publican; that Peter and John; that Paul and Timothy; went up into the temple — nothing more is meant than that they went into one of the courts of the temple, and not into the sacred building itself, which contained the Holy and Most Holy Place. For into the Holy Place none but priests were admitted, and into the Holy of Holies only the High Priest could enter, and he but once a year, and then only with the blood of the atonement and the censer of burning incense. Into the temple, strictly so called, our Lord himself never entered, though He frequently visited its courts and walked and taught in its porches.
The "hour of prayer" was the "third and ninth hour" of Jewish time — corresponding to the nine o'clock in the morning and three o'clock in the afternoon of our computation. And the place where prayers were accustomed to be made, was that part of the temple called "the court of the Israelites," which was divided into two portions by an ascent of fifteen steps — the lower being appropriated to the women, and the higher to the men.
But though the Pharisee and the Publican came with the same apparent purpose to the temple — yet how widely diverse in their devotions! "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself." There is something quite emphatic in the phrase prayed "with himself," as if his prayer was for his own satisfaction, for the gratification of his own pride, for the laudation of his own merit. He in whose heart there is no godly humility, will always pray "with himself," rather than to God.
The Publican "stood," also, because it was not permitted to pray in the temple in any other posture; though elsewhere kneeling and bowing of the head were practiced. "I will either," says an old divine, speaking of the posture in prayer, "I will either stand as a servant before my Master, or kneel as a suppliant to my King; but I will not dare sit as an equal."
The prayer of the Pharisee (if such it can be called) was, "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." There is in this prayer, great self-delight, ostentatious devotion, and a boastful liberality. There was no humility of soul, no confession of sin, no craving of Divine pardon. It was rather the proud heart condescending to tell God how good it was, and how much it had done for Him; while, at the very moment of prayer, disdain for a fellow worm dwelt in his heart and was uttered by his lips. He "went up" to the court of the temple, and "stood" in the attitude of prayer, to pronounce in the ear of God a eulogy upon his own virtues!
The Publican, "standing afar off," at the other side of the Men's Court, was so abased in his own estimation that he "would not so much as lift up his eyes unto Heaven — but smote upon his breast, saying: God be merciful to me a sinner!" Here is manifested . . .
and earnest petition.
The words which he utters are few — but he condenses in them the whole force and fervor of his soul. The prayer is brief — but effective. It comes from a heart awakened by the Holy Spirit to a sense of its guilt, and made conscious of merited wrath. The cry for mercy proves that there was a felt deserving of judgment. The appeal to God evidenced a knowledge of sin as committed against Him, and of pardon as flowing only from Him. The calling of himself "a sinner" was a confession of iniquity, which was the first step to repentance; while repentance and conversion were not far distant from him who was so overpowered by conscious vileness and needed grace, as to pray, with smiting upon his breast, "God be merciful to me a sinner!"
This petition therefore, in its closest analysis, develops all the elements of genuine prayer, and illustrates the fact, how the deep yearnings of the heart can be condensed into one terse and vigorous ejaculation, that shall enter into the ear of the Lord Almighty.
What a contrast to the prayer of the Pharisee! There is here no boasting, no self-laudation, no ungenerous comparison of himself with others — but self-renunciation, self-abasement, and an unreserved casting of himself upon the mercy of God, as his only shelter from the curse of His broken law!
The result of these two prayers our Lord gives us in the concluding words of the parable, saying, "I tell you this man (the Publican) went down to his house justified, rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself shall be abased, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
The prayer of the Publican secured for him the favor of God; and, being pardoned through the abounding mercy which he so earnestly craved — he became, in the sight of God, as one who had not sinned, as a righteous or justified person, to whom pertained the promise of eternal life, and from whom had been removed the condemning power of the law, for he was "justified freely" by the grace of God.
The Pharisee received no such answer to his prayer. He had prayed "with himself" — and of course God did not hear him, to answer him; he sought no mercy — and consequently none was received. So he went down from the temple to his house just as he went up — a proud, self-righteous hypocrite!
This parable has two very important designs, namely:
1. to rebuke religious pride or Phariseeism, and
2. to point out the true way in which sinners should sue for pardoning grace, agreeably to the moral drawn by our Savior Himself: "Every one who exalts himself shall be abased, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted."
Religious pride or Phariseeism exhibits itself in a great variety of ways; and though its marks cannot always be read in the outward character — its ravages in the soul are naked and open to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.
Following the course of thought suggested by the parable, we remark, that the first sign of religious pride or Phariseeism, is to "trust in themselves that they are righteous."
The Pharisees vainly supposed that they made themselves righteous by their own works; and not only so — but, by a delusion stranger still, they supposed that God would look upon those works only as precisely as man looked upon them. They had so completely corrupted the Word of God by their traditions, that they had lost a true knowledge of some of His most necessary attributes.
As for understanding the nature of true righteousness, either as resulting from a perfect obedience to God's law, or as a casting of the soul upon God's mercy, through faith in an anticipated Redeemer — it scarcely found lodgment in their minds.
They reduced their religion to human standards; estimated their good works at a human valuation; and then measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves — came to indulge much self-conceit. And because friends flattered them, and parasites praised them, and the common crowd stood in awe of their apparent sanctity — they esteemed themselves to be the most religious men of the day, the possessors of a righteousness that would fully justify them in the sight of God.
In this low standard of religion, and in this self-righteous judgment — they are followed by many professedly good people at the present day.
Because such people have been guilty of no great crime; because they are not notorious evil-livers;
because they are zealous for the outward services of religion, and the visible means of grace;
because they are regular in the discharge of public duties, and possess great worldly integrity blended with an unimpeached morality and an attractive amiability —
they readily, under the flattery of friends, think within themselves, that they are righteous. The adversary of their souls . . .
lulls them into security with this deceptive thought;
makes them more and more pleased with their state;
keeps from them as much as possible, whatever will alarm their fears, or break up their delusion;
and thus causing them to tread in slippery places, "their feet shall slide in due time!"
The true Christian casts away all his personal righteousness in which he once trusted, as filthy rags — and trusts for his righteousness to the imputed merits of his dear Redeemer, made his by that appropriating faith which is itself the gift of God. He loathes himself; his language is, "Behold, I am vile!" He is ready to put his hand upon his mouth, and his mouth in the dust, and cry "Unclean! unclean!" He sees . . .
in himself, nothing but vileness;
in God, nothing but holiness;
in the law, nothing but righteousness; and
in Christ, the sole Redeemer of his soul from the impending curse of God.
Thus he finds no righteousness of a justifying character in himself; it is all derived from Christ, and he is accounted as righteous "only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by faith."
So long as a man "trusts in himself that he is righteous," he will never seek to be clothed with Christ's righteousness. But this is the only righteousness which will avail with God, or secure our salvation. Hence the absence of it, like the simple lack of the wedding garment — will insure being cast into outer darkness, "where there is weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth."
A second mark of religious pride or Phariseeism, is to "despise others."
This is a natural and necessary result of self-righteousness — a great part of which consists in comparing one's self with those around, and drawing invidious conclusions — as the Pharisee in the temple did, in reference to the Publican.
There are, it must be confessed, proud and haughty professors of religion, who look down upon their fellow Christians . . .
because they occupy lower stations in the Church or in social life,
because they are less educated and refined,
or because of their less apparent piety.
They are keen-sighted in detecting the errors and failings of their friends and neighbors; and they delight to depreciate real talent and true worth, in the hope that, by so doing — they will elevate their own position and character. Hence, they are devoid of that "love" which "is kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, and is not self-seeking" without which, says Paul, "the tongues of men and of angels," "the gift of prophecy," the possession of a "faith" that "could move mountains," the bestowal of "all I possess to feed the poor," and the giving of one's "body to be burned" — is profitless and vain. For prophecies "shall fail," tongues "shall cease," knowledge "shall vanish away" — but "love never fails," for it is the greatest of the three abiding graces of the Christian life.
The despising of others proves us to have an unkind and censorious spirit, widely at variance with the Gospel of Christ. It proves us to be under the influence of malignant and selfish passions, which are, in all instances, of Satanic origin. It proves us to be devoid of the Spirit of Christ, who was no respecter of people. And Paul tells us, "If any man has not the Spirit of Christ — he is none of His." It proves us to be deficient in self-knowledge, or in an understanding of our true position before God, or of our true relation to Jesus Christ. It proves that we are puffed up in our fleshly minds, thinking of ourselves above what we ought to think. It proves, in fine, that we have not the first element of the true Christian — but that all our professions, from the foundation-stone to the turret, being laid upon the shifting sand, will soon fall and bury us in its ruins!
A third trait of religious Phariseeism, is the cultivation of a mere ostensive piety.
The Pharisees practiced their religion "to be seen by men."
The wide phylacteries,
the enlarging of the borders of their garments,
the long prayers,
the soundings of the alms-trumpet,
the washings and ablutions,
the sanctimonious visage,
the rigid fastings,
the scrupulously paid tithes —
were all done for show — to make an outward impression upon the minds of others! And this was carried to such an extent, that our Savior compared them to white-washed sepulchers, "which indeed appear beautiful on the outside — but within are full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness!"
Nor has this feature of Phariseeism been done away. It exists in full vigor at the present day. We would not be uncharitable — but are we not warranted by the Bible and daily observation in saying, that a large portion of the religion of Christendom is a surface religion . . .
a praying of the lips, and not of the heart;
a bowing of the knees — but not of the soul;
a singing with the voice — but not of the spirit;
and a going up to the courts of the Lord, not with singleness of purpose to worship Him who is a Spirit in the beauty of holiness — but because it is the decent custom of society, and to be gazed at by the great assembly?
Religious forms are necessary to the fencing in and protection of the faith — but whoever trusts in them, rather than in the faith which they enclose — is leaning upon the hope of the hypocrite, which "will perish with the giving up of the spirit."
We are made true children of God, not by becoming strict keepers of religious rubrics, or becoming minute ritualists; tithing, as it were, the anise, mint, and cumin, to the exclusion of the weightier matters of the law — but by being born again of the Holy Spirit. We must observe rubrics, and conform to rites, and obey laws, as means whereby we gain important religious benefits; but not as an end, to rest in them alone. Whoever trusts to the forms of religion alone for salvation, trusts to the mere scaffolding of the Church, which shall be taken down when the whole building, "fitly framed together, grows unto a holy temple in the Lord." God recognizes no religion which does not dwell in the soul, which does not spring from His Holy Spirit, and which does not work by faith and purify the heart.
A fourth trait of Phariseeism, is to boast of one's goodness.
We have been struck, on reading some of the ancient Rabbis, with the unblushing egotism of the Pharisees. Humility was unknown, self-praise was a virtue, and their perpetual ambition was to seek out the chief seats and high places of earth.
The sound common sense of modern society puts a strong restraint upon this egotistical spirit, so that it does not betray itself as much now, as then. Still there is much of it abroad, masked under affected humility, seeking to win praise by a false meekness — which only half conceals the pride of heart which lurks beneath.
But no true Christian is a boasting Christian. One of the first works of the Spirit of God upon the heart, is to take down the idol self, and erect Christ on its vacant pedestal! And when Christ takes possession of our heart, we feel . . .
so vile and sunken in His presence,
so worthless and unprofitable,
so leprous with sin, and
hell-deserving with an ever accumulating guilt
— that we, like the Publican, scarcely dare lift up our eyes to Heaven, much less to boast of our goodness or make a parade of our virtues!
A boasting Christian is a living defamation of the cross of Christ! Instead of talking of our goodness, or praising our piety — let us look at our sins in the light of God's countenance, and bewail our shortcomings beneath the outstretched arms of the Crucified One!
When we can work out our salvation — then we shall be privileged to boast; but so long as salvation is "not of works — but of grace," being in very truth "the gift of God" — "boasting is excluded." For the poor, humble, Christ-dependent penitent is justified by God — before the praying, fasting, tithing, alms-giving — yet boasting Pharisee!
2.The other lesson which this parable teaches, is the spirit in which sinners should approach God, as indicated by the prayer of the Publican, and the words of our Savior, "He who humbles himself — shall be exalted." By reason of original sin, which "is the fault and corruption of everyone of the offspring of Adam," we have alienated ourselves, and that radically, from the love and favor of God. Return to Him we must, before our sins can be pardoned, and our souls be saved. But how shall we return? We cannot come to Him as claimants of His favor, for we have no claims — as we have forfeited every right and title to His regard. We cannot come as purchasers, bartering our own goodness for God's mercy — for our boasted righteousness is as filthy rags, vile and worthless. Nor can we throw ourselves just as we are upon God's clemency, and run the risk of acceptance and consequent salvation, for "God out of Christ" is a consuming fire; and such presumptuous conduct would be only rushing "upon the thick bosses of Jehovah's buckler."
The only way of access to the mercy of God, is through the blood of Jesus Christ. This is the way of His own appointment, to which He has annexed all His promises and blessings, and out of which, seek it as much as men may — they will find no salvation. We can be saved only in God's way; and every attempt to scale the gate of Heaven by schemes of man's devising, is insulting to God — as it virtually discredits His wisdom, mercy, goodness, and truth. And it is ruinous to man, for the Bible distinctly declares that there is "no other name under Heaven given among men, whereby they can be saved."
We must come to God, then . . .
conscious of our condition as sinners,
confessing our iniquities,
forsaking and truly repenting of our sins,
pleading for mercy for Jesus Christ's sake,
and resting the strength of our plea on the infinite merits and perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God, "who takes away the sins of the world." This is taking God at His word, and believing on the Lord Jesus Christ as our only hope and salvation. And when, through the operation of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to lay hold on this "hope set before us" in the Gospel — then do we find a peace and joy which the world can neither give nor take away.
These are the authenticating seals of the Spirit, "whereby we are sealed unto the day of redemption," certifying to us, under the hand of the Third Person of the adorable Trinity, that "there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit."
This is the only way to approach God, through repentance and faith — and these are the gifts of God, to be sought for by earnest prayer and supplication; for it is only in Christ that God is found "reconciling the world unto Himself."
Great, then, is the encouragement which the truly penitent and believing have to come to Jesus. What though, like the Publican, they are regarded as the off-scouring of all things? Christ came "to save sinners!" What though they feel their vileness so as to cause them to smite upon their breast in anguish, and be afraid to lift up so much as their eyes to Heaven? The deeper the consciousness of guilt — the more they feel the need of a Savior, and the more precious becomes His salvation.
We cannot be too humble, for "He resists the proud — but gives grace unto the humble." We cannot be too full in our confessions, for "He who confesses and forsakes his sins shall find mercy." We cannot be too penitential for our transgression, for it is "the broken and contrite heart with which God is well pleased." We cannot be too strong in our faith, for "without faith it is impossible to please God." We cannot be too importunate in our supplication, for "the kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force."
Come, then, in humility, in godly sorrow, in true repentance, in simple faith, in earnest prayer — to the Throne of Grace; and, like the Publican, we shall find acceptance with God, and go down to our house justified before Him!