The Pharisee and the Publican


The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is a parable that encourages us to have an humble attitude rather than trusting in ourselves with a heart of arrogance and pride.  As we begin our study in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, I need to ask myself if I have pushed God off to the side within my thoughts.  Do I trust in God and allow Him and His word govern my actions, my speech, and my decisions?  

The wise man wrote these words in Proverbs 3.5...

Proverbs 3.5:  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” 

Do we place our relationship with God and our hope of heaven on the goodness of His grace or does it rest upon our own goodness?  Do we approach God on the basis that we deserve an audience with Him because we are good people? 

Think about that as we turn our attention to Luke 18 to the parable known as the Pharisee and the publican. 

Luke 18.9-14:  "Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

As we examine and explore any parable we always want to answer three critical questions.

  1. What is the context behind the Pharisee and the publican?  In other words, what was the setting and what were the circumstances that compelled Jesus to set forth this parable?
  2. What is the parable of the Pharisee and the publican?  What are the components of the parable?  What is the story that Jesus is telling?
  3. What is the lesson of the Pharisee and the publican?  What is the main point that Jesus is seeking to convey through this parable?  What is the message?


The Setting of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

Actually, you will find that Luke 18 contains two parables on the subject of prayer. 

The first parable is found in Luke 18.1-8.  This is known as the parable of the persistent widow.   This is a parable designed for those whose hearts were full of fear and sadness.  So Jesus began the parable by saying in verse 1 that men always ought to pray and not lose heart.

The second parable is the Pharisee and the publican, the one we are giving attention to right here.  It is designed for those whose hearts are filled with themselves.  What was going on that led Jesus to tell this parable of the Pharisee and the publican?  Notice the verse just prior to the parable.


Jesus Addressed Those who were Self-Righteous

Luke 18.9:  “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:”

The word that is translated as “trusted” is a similar word to the word that is translated as “faith”.  It is a word that is described as “confidence” or “belief”.  The word is used of those who have put their trust or have confidence in their riches.  Jesus said in Mark 10.24, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!”  

The few other times that this word is found, it conveys the thought of putting our trust in God.  This is the idea expressed on our currency by the phrase, “In God We Trust.”  Paul wrote of this confidence in 2 Corinthians 1.9, “Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead,”

So we find in the setting that compelled Jesus to tell the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, a group who had confidence in themselves.  They believed in themselves.  They regarded themselves as righteous and attributed their righteous condition to their own goodness. 

They regarded themselves as being pleasing to God, as having a relationship with God, and they looked forward to being with God in heaven because they had become righteous by their own good deeds.  This was their concept of themselves.  They trusted in themselves that they were righteous.  What we are reading about are some extremely arrogant people. 


Jesus Addressed Those who Despised Others

They not only trusted in themselves that they were righteous, but they also despised others, and don't the two go hand in hand? 

Luke 18.9:  “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:"

The only way that one can exalt himself is to view himself in comparison to others.  Therefore to exalt yourself, you must of necessity regard others as lower than yourself.

It’s the same way reversed as well.  If you have low self-esteem, it is because you have compared yourself to someone that is greater than you.  In the same way, you cannot have pride without first having someone to look down upon.  These to whom Jesus addresses in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican regarded themselves as righteous and also despised others.  

The word translated as “despised” comes from a Greek word that means to “regard as nothing; to treat with contempt”  [Strong].  For example, Herod treated Jesus this way when Jesus stood trial.  In Luke 23.11, we read, “Then Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate.”  This is how the audience to whom Jesus is addressing in this parable of the Pharisee and the Publican viewed others.  

So in the setting, we find Jesus teaching this parable that is designed for those who went around saying “I am number one, and you don’t even matter.”  They were not doing so based on their financial status.  They were not doing so because of their education.  They were not doing so because of their position in an elite social circle.  They were doing so because of their distorted view of their relationship with God.  “We are righteous.  Just look at how religious we are”


The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

We find within many of His parables that frequently Jesus would make a sharp contrast.

  • Matthew 18 is about the unforgiving servant compared to the forgiving master.
  • Luke 15 tells a parable about a prodigal son compared to a jealous brother.
  • Luke 10 tells a parable about the Good Samaritan compared to the religious leaders. 

In the same way, we find in this chapter a strong contrast being made between the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Luke 18.10:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.”

 Let's first of all identify the main characters in this parable.  Who is the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector)? 

The Pharisee

A Pharisee is a separatist.  In fact, Strong’s dictionary uses the word separatist to define the name Pharisee.  As a separatist, Pharisees did not associate with anyone who was what they considered beneath them. 

For example, Jesus went to the house of a Pharisee named Simon.  As He was there, a woman came to Jesus and began crying, and washing His feet with her tears.  Notice how the Pharisee reacted:  “Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, ‘This Man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner’”  (Luke 7.39).  

The Pharisees are well described by Isaiah who wrote of those, “who say, 'Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!’”  (Isa. 65.5).  They were religious elitists who viewed themselves as holier and more righteous than the rest of the Jews thereby separating themselves from the general Jewish population.

Let's keep reading this parable of the Pharisee and the publican, and notice his actions.

Luke 18.11,12:  “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’”

In verse 11 we learn that the Pharisee stood and prayed.  There is no sin inherent in standing while we pray.  In was a common posture for the Jews as it is a common posture for us.  But in this particular context, as the Pharisee and the publican were being compared side-by-side, it was a stark contrast to the Pharisee standing while the tax collector was humbled and ashamed.  When Jesus portrays this Pharisee as standing, He is calling attention to his arrogance.

This prayer was not a plea to God.  It was not even a prayer of thanksgiving.  It was a prayer about himself.  He said...

  • It is good that he was not an extortioner.
  • It is good that he was not an adulterer or unjust.
  • It is good that he was involved in good works by fasting and giving.

It is true that he lived a life in which he did good things and stayed away from bad things.  That is what he needed to do, and that is what we all need to do.  But in this prayer, he was not giving praise and glory to God, but giving praise and glorifying himself.  “Look at how good I am.  Consider how righteous are my actions.”  That’s where he went wrong.  He made the right choices, but he was prideful about it.


The Publican

A tax collector, also called a publican, is not the same as it is today. 

A tax collector who was employed by the Roman government in the first century went door to door to collect taxes.  Instead of taking what was due to the government in taxes, they would often take as much as they could.  Some of it they would pocket, and some of it they would turn over to Rome. 

A tax collector or publican in the first century was synonymous with a thief and an extortioner. 

Luke 18.13:  “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”

Jesus explains that this tax-collector also stood.  But in his posture he did not express an attitude of arrogance but humility and shame.  He stood afar off.  He was so ashamed that he would not even lift his eyes to heaven.  He would not even look in the direction of God.

He repeatedly beat his chest.  It was an emphatic action of remorse.  Here is the Pharisee who pushed his chest outward puffed up with pride saying look at me.  In contrast, there is this publican who was so ashamed that he could not even look upward to heaven, but beat his chest.  Do you see the contrast?

This publican in humility and shame says, “Be merciful to me a sinner.”  He says that he knows that he has sinned.  He knows that he has brought shame upon himself.  He begs God to show mercy even though he knows he does not deserve it.  it.  

He does not try to justify himself.  He does not make excuses.  He does not try to blame his circumstances, blame society, or blame his parents.  He knew he was guilty.  It was because of his own wrongdoing.  So he was throwing himself upon the mercy of the court.

The Pharisee looked around and saw everyone else but himself as sinful.  The publican looked around and saw himself as sinful.  What a contrast!

Therefore you have this contrast being made between the Pharisee and the publican -- two extreme opposites.  On the one hand you have one who viewed himself as righteous.  On the other hand you have one who saw himself as anything but righteousness.  On the one hand you have one who had his nose in the air.  On the other hand, you have one who had his hand out begging God for mercy.  Here are two extremes.

Who was the one who captured God’s heart?  You would think that as these two went up to pray that it would be the religious one who would come down justified.  He did all these good works.  He was involved in charity work.  He kept himself from sin.  Should not this religious Pharisee come down justified?  But we are going to find, for the sake of those whom Jesus was addressing, this Pharisee had a problem.

The Pharisee was self-righteous while the tax collector was self-loathing.  The Pharisee was arrogant while the tax collector was humble.  The Pharisee said that he is someone whom God needs.  The tax collector said that he is  someone who needs God. 

Luke 18.14:  “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

It was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went away justified.  Jesus told this parable to send a message, that you can be religious but still far from righteous.


What About You?

Do you go to church services as often as you can?  I hope you do.  Do you study your Bibles regularly?  Do you give liberally when the collection plate is passed around?  Are you active in helping out your neighbor when the need arises?  I hope you do all of that. 

Do you have the mindset that because you do all those things, that you are righteous?  Do you elevate yourself and despise others with a holier than thou attitude, or do you trust in God knowing that you are righteous, not because of all the good you do, but because of the love and kindness of God. 

Do you trust in yourself because of all your good works, or do you trust in God who saved you by His grace, and as a result of being saved by grace, you engage in good works by being obedient to His will.  Is that not what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2.8-10…

Ephesians 2.8-10:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

We are not to have a self-righteous attitude as a result of the good that we do.  That is the parable that Jesus told to an audience who trusted that they were righteous because of all the good that they have done.  

Now let's look at a lesson that we can put into practice in our own lives.


The Lesson from the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

The parable of the Pharisee and the Public brings to mind a question.  Who are those who are right with God?  To help answer that question, consider what God said through the prophet Isaiah…

Isaiah 57.15:  “For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:  ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

Those who are right with God are not those who are arrogant, and in their religious good works puff themselves up with pride.   Those who are right with God are not those who rest their hope and put their trust in themselves to earn salvation because they are so good. 

Those who are right with God are those who humble themselves and depend upon God and His mercy to make them righteous through the blood of Jesus Christ.  Again, through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “But on this one I will look; on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.”  (Isa. 66.2).

Consider the example of Paul.  He was a Pharisee.  But at some point in his life he would realize his sin and change.  Looking back on his life before he was converted to Christ, Paul wrote…

1 Corinthians 15.9,10:  “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am.”

Paul relied upon the mercy of God.  That is the lesson from the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.  The Pharisee relied on his own righteousness.  The publican relied on the mercy of God.  And that is exactly what we all must learn to do.



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