Pharisee or Publican

Bible Book: Luke  18 : 9-14
Subject: Prayer; Humility; Forgiveness

Some people simply do not get it! They live lives with a kind of oblivious ignorance of reality. This is seen in the following two stories.

Applicants for jobs at the company where my friend Diana works are asked to fill out a questionnaire. Among the things candidates list is their high school and when they attended. One prospective employee dutifully wrote the name of his high school, followed by the dates attended: "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday."

Part of my job at the District Attorney's office is to send letters to people accused of crimes, informing them when a court date is scheduled. One such notice was returned, clearly by a criminal mastermind, with this jotted on the envelope: "I Do Not Live Here."

Truly, there are many people who simply do not seem to live in the reality that most of us do. However, sometimes this is intentional. We shall see that in our text for today.

Please turn with me to Luke 18:9-14 and let's look at our parable for today. Here we find the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. One scholar stated that this parable is one of the most daring and scathing that Jesus ever uttered. That is hard for us to see. We cannot feel the impact of this like a first century reader would. We already think of the Pharisees as hypocrites and the tax collectors as those who received the grace of God. Jesus' original hearers would have thought, on the contrary, that it was the pious Pharisee who deserved acceptance by God.

When Jesus spoke these words, it created quite a stir. It made some extremely angry as Jesus' words cut like a knife. At the same time, His words were full of courage and comfort for those who humbly realized their sin, their coming short of God's glory.

I. There is The Contrast between the Two Who Attended this Prayer Service

"Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican." There you have the two actors in the gripping drama. Let us look at them in the order in which they are named.

The Pharisee comes first, of course. He climbs the steps of the church as if the whole institution were his. He goes up the aisle in search of a conspicuous place. Somehow we resent him. It is very evident, also, that the Master does not approve of him. But we are not to conclude from this that there is no good in him at all. In spite of his glaring defects, he has some virtues. He has certain good qualities that ought to make some of us who criticize him ashamed.

A. He is a Devoutly Religious Man

He belongs to the church and gives it his support. By so doing he is casting his vote, at least outwardly, on the side of a spiritual interpretation of life. Of course we realize that profession does not always guarantee performance, and that church membership does not of necessity make one a saint. It did not do so in his case. But having acknowledged as much, we are quite sure that, in belonging to the church, he is, to that extent, doing his duty.

B. He is Decent and Upright in His Daily Life

He is of unquestioned integrity. He is honest in his business dealings. Of course we are aware of the fact that there are those of his class who are accustomed to rob widows' houses, but no such charge is made against him. He dares to boast that he is not an extortioner, and there is no hint that he is not telling the truth. In addition, he has kept his marriage vows.

C. He is Liberal in the Use of His Wealth

He gives tithes of all that he possesses. In so doing he is walking the path of duty. Our Lord himself is our authority for this. "You pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin," he said on one occasion, then added, "these you ought to have done." I am aware that some say we do not have to tithe today because we are not under the law, but under grace. That is a very valid argument, too, when advanced by one who desires to give more than a tenth. It is rather shabby, however, on the lips of one who desires to give less. We should beware of making the grace of God to minister to our stinginess. R.G. Lee said, "To give less under grace than we give under law is a disgrace." If God required a tenth of the Jew who lived in the darkness, we ought not to expect less of ourselves, living as we do in the light. Surely an increase of opportunity does not mean a lessening of obligation. Of course, one may tithe and not be a saint. But while confessing all this, we still maintain that this Pharisee in tithing is doing something commendable. Therefore, because of his liberality, his loyalty to his church, his general decency, he has much to say for himself.

Next comes the publican. But how different is the publican! Seen through the eyes of his fellows, there is absolutely no good word to be said for him. He wears the clothing of a foreign power. He is looked upon as a traitor to his nation and to his God.

All this he has done to satisfy the master passion of his life, which is the getting of money. Upon the altar of his greed he has sacrificed his all. He cannot claim that he is not an extortioner. There are doubtless those at this very prayer-meeting who have been robbed by him. No wonder he is hated. No wonder the door to every respectable home is shut in his face. No wonder, also, that fists clench angrily and eyes flash fire as Jesus contrasts him, hated outcast that he is, at the very bottom of the social ladder, with this decent Pharisee who is at the top, and give his preference to the publican.

How does he dare? We can understand when we hear these self-revealing prayers.

II. Look at these Prayers

Listen, first to the prayer of the Pharisee. How clearly he reveals himself! How he reveals his very soul! "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week. I give tithes of all that I possess." As we hear these words we know this man for what he really is. What do they tell us about him? What kind of man is he?

A. He has a High Opinion of Himself

He is not as other men. He is magnificently different, beautifully unique. He has arrived while they have hardly begun the journey. He is at the top while they are floundering at the bottom. No wonder he offends us. We resent him for one reason because we realize the utter falsity of his claim. He is like other men. To assert the contrary is to show his own blindness. Of course, there are superficial difference, but in the fundamentals he is the same.

"God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are." What a prayer! We could laugh at him in utter scorn, only we might be laughing at ourselves. For who of us is wholly guiltless? Some are racial Pharisees who thank God for their superiority to all other peoples of the earth. Some are social Pharisees, thanking God that their forefathers came over on the Mayflower, possibly while those of others came on almost any old vessel. There is also the intellectual Pharisee who speaks contemptuously of the moronic masses. There is the religious Pharisee who prides himself on his own goodness and the strictness of his orthodoxy.

B. He Sees the Worst in His Neighbor

What does this paragon think of other men? He divides them roughly into three groups, "Extortioners, unjust, adulterers." Of course he rejoices that he is not like them. Then his eye lights upon a rough looking fellow who is beating himself upon his breast while he sobs out his tearful appeal for mercy. At once he drags him into his prayer. He is especially thankful that he is not like him. How utterly   blind he is, and what a jolt it would have given him had he realized that he was looking with proud superiority upon one whose seeking after God was even then making all heaven pulsate with hallelujahs! But his gaze is so fixed upon the publican that he fails to see the penitent.

Not only does this unique piece of perfection find his fellows utterly lacking, but he is so heartless that he can look upon their bankruptcy without a pang. When he declares that other men are extortioners, unjust, adulterers, there is no hint of a sob in his voice. On the contrary, he seems to rejoice over it.

C. He had No Real Thought of God

But does he not begin his prayer by calling upon God? Yes, he uses the word, but we can be perfectly sure that he has no sense of the Divine Presence. We can be sure for this reason, he has no sense of sin. Wherever and whenever any soul gets a vision ofGod, there follows always a sense of sin. Wherever any earnest-hearted Isaiah sees the Lord, high and lifted up, he at once sees himself as a man of unclean lips. That greater robber who died at the side of Jesus was brazen enough untill he saw himself against the background of his fellow-sufferer.

D. See how Beautifully Different is the Prayer of the Publican

He is not here on parade. He has been driven to this place of prayer by his sense of need. He claims no superiority. His only uniqueness is that his need is more desperate than that of his fellows. They may be sinners, but he is the sinner. He does not look about him for one more guilty than himself behind whom to hide. But for him, there were only two personalities in all of the universe, God and himself, and so to God he makes his appeal.

E. His Prayer is a Confession of Sin

He has not only done wrong, but he is wrong. There is no hedging, no offering of excuses. He says in simplicity and sincerity, "God be merciful to me a sinner."

His cry was echoed by the apostle Paul who said in Romans 7:24, "O wretched man that I am." It can be our cry.

III. See the Results of this Prayer Service

It is over and the two are on their way home. What has it done for these two men whose prayers we have just heard? The Pharisee has received nothing. What a tragedy to stand in the presence of a loving God who is infinitely eager and infinitely able to give and then to go away unhelped and unblessed! Why was this all that came as a result of his prayer? It was not because God did not love him. It was rather that he refused to take what God so longed to give. "If any man thirst," said Jesus, "let him come to me and drink."

Not only did he go away no better than he came, but worse. His self-satisfaction made him a victim of arrested development. The man who is as good as he desires to be will get no better. This Pharisee was conceited, critical, unbrotherly, when he went to church; he was more so when he came away.

How has he missed the way? He reads his Bible, prays, tithes, goes to church. These are all good. They have been found a means of grace to millions. But they are not so to him for the simple reason that he has made them ends in themselves. It is not a question of how many chapters we read in our Bibles each day. It is not a question of how many minutes or hours we spend on our knees. It is not   a question of how many services we attend and of how many sermons we hear. The question is what use we make of all these. Do they bring us to know Christ better? Are we more patient, more cheerful, more courageous because of them? Do they send us out like a person ready to minister? They had the opposite effect on this Pharisee because he made them an end rather than a means to an end.

But if this prayer-meeting was a failure so far as the Pharisee was concerned, it was an amazing success for the publican. He was not satisfied to merely say a prayer. He rather made of his prayer a way to open the door into the secret place of the Most High. He came to a genuine realization of God. Therefore he went down to his house pardoned, cleansed, and reborn.

And surely that is just the experience for which our hearts are hungry. That we may share it with him, let us join him in his humble prayer, "God be merciful to me a sinner." Do not hesitate. Do not think for a moment that you do not need to pray it. It is a universal prayer. It befits the worst of us and also the best of us. If you cannot pray it, you have no part in Christ's Gospel. He has not come to call the righteous, but sinners. He is out after the lost. And that takes us all in. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:8-9 KJV).