Parable of The Pharisee and The Publican, by Father Basil William Maturin

He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14

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There is nothing more remarkable in our Lord’s dealings with people than His gentleness and considerateness. It had been foretold of Him long before, ‘He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause His Voice to be heard in the street A bruised reed shall He not break, and the smoking flax shall He not quench.’ (Isaiah 13:2,3) He ever respected personal life, and by His treatment of men He taught them self-respect He treated their difficulties as realities, and answered them or led them to see the answer for themselves. He saw latent possibilities of good where none others did, and led on those who came to Him gently, lovingly, wisely. If we were to speak of Him – which of course is impossible – merely as a human teacher, we should say He never made a mistake in His method of dealing with people; whether in speaking to a multitude or to an individual, we feel instinctively that He said just the right thing, that which was most likely to do good and to draw out whatever latent good there was in those whom He was addressing.

Yet there was one exception, the more remarkable from the fact that it stands out in such extraordinary contrast to all the rest His language to the Pharisees is quite unlike His language to all others whom He addressed: it stands quite alone, without a parallel; to them His language was always the same, stern and terrible denunciation. He does not speak to them words that would even seem likely to lead them on or to draw them to Himself; all that He says to them has a tone of scornful contempt He never said a word to the greatest sinner, or to the most degraded class of sinners that would lead them to despise themselves, still less that would lead them to suppose that He despised them. To the Pharisees He does; He uses words which neither they nor the multitudes which heard them could for a moment misunderstand. ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ (Matthew 23:33) ‘Ye shut up the Kingdom of Heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.’ (Matthew 23:13) ‘Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him two-fold more the child of hell than yourselves.’ (Matthew 23:15) ‘The publicans and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you.’ (Matthew 21:31) How strange such words sound compared with those He used to the woman taken in adultery. ‘Hath no man condemned thee? Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.’ (John 8:10) Or to the Magdalene, ‘Thy sins are forgiven.’ Or to the woman of Samaria, who was living in sin.

Yet strange as His words sound to us who know something of the real character of the Pharisees, they must have sounded far stranger and more incomprehensible to those who heard them. For we must not forget that we know the Pharisees only as they have been exposed to us by our Lord. The power of that revelation has for ever made them despicable to us, so much so that we are apt to imagine that the word Pharisee was even in those days a term of reproach; but, on the contrary, it was an honoured and respected name. ‘They had their reward,’ and their reward was the praise of men. Men did praise and reverence them. They appeared in their day as the leaders of the devotional life; they were to be seen constantly in the temple courts, at the comers of the streets, everywhere, at their prayers. They were strict to the very letter in all the observances of the law, in most things going beyond, in some things far beyond what was commanded. They would probably be pointed out in their day by the religious leaders in Jerusalem as the strength of their Church, always to be depended upon, never failing, faithful in worship, fasting, and almsgiving.

Yet it was of such men as these, highly respected and strictly religious, that our Lord said, ‘How can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ ‘The publicans and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you.’ It was these men that He singled out for His denunciation and His scorn. No wonder that His language seemed incomprehensible. Were there not sinners enough, open, flagrant, against whom to utter His denunciations, rather than against men whose religious character stood so high? Yet, on the contrary. He had none but words of gentleness towards sinners. ‘Come unto Me, and I will give you rest;’ towards the Pharisees nothing but scorn.

‘He did indeed censure by implication, in each precept of purity, of charity, of humility, every impure man, every drunkard and glutton, every malignant man and every proud man; but, looking on His attitude towards Jewish society and the different portions and sections of it, we find that when He came to actual classes of men in it, the Pharisee was the only which He cared or thought it appertaining to His work and mission publicly to expose. He singled them out of the whole mixed mass of Jewish society for this purpose.’

He compares the Pharisee with the Publican, everywhere and justly looked down upon as a class, and He says the Publican shall enter the kingdom of God before him. A Publican was a man who practically had no character to lose. He was a social outcast He was looked upon as being so bad that no one expected anything of him. He had acquired a kind of recognized prerogative in dishonesty. A Publican was a man to be avoided, to have as few dealings with as possible.

Who could ever dream of comparing two such classes of men – the most religious and the most immoral – the proverbial type of goodness and of badness? They stood upon two wholly different planes; there seemed to be no point in which they could meet to be compared; men whose whole life and interest gathered round sacred things, and men who had sold their souls for gain. Yet our Lord compares them, and His judgment is in favour of the Publican. ‘The publicans shall enter the kingdom of God before you.’

Now we naturally ask, Why does our Lord use towards this class alone, of all whom He dealt with on earth, words so strangely at variance with His uniform method of gentleness and love? He tells us Himself, or rather He points out enough to enable us to draw our own conclusion.

He allows us to see representative men of these two classes at their prayers, as they speak with God. You can tell pretty well what a man is if you can really see into his soul as he stands before God. We know little about Jacob’s public life that could enable us to understand why one so weak should be called a prince who had power with God. It is only as we are admitted into his inner life of prayer that we understand it. It is hard for us to understand the language that God uses about David, whose character was marred by such grave faults; we cannot find the reason in the record of his history; it is only as we read his Psalms that we see the greatness of his soul. If his history records his terrible fall, the Psalter tells us of the depth of his penitence. In the Magnificat we get for a moment a glimpse into the crystal depths of the almost entirely hidden life of her whom all generations call Blessed.

So if we would really get at the heart of all the good and evil in Pharisee and Publican, we must see into their souls as they stand in the presence of the All Holy God.

What are these Pharisees saying in the Temple courts and in the comers of the streets? What great virtues are they striving after; what lingering remnants of sin are they entreating pardon for? What is the secret of their inner life? All this constant prayer betokens a needy nature looking to God for help. Those who pray most feel most their own sinfulness. As men passed by these Pharisees, so eager in their spiritual longings that they pray anywhere and everywhere, they must have looked with reverence on men who walked with God, and humbly wondered at those who were so far above themselves. And then our Lord discloses the secret This is what these Pharisees are saying and thinking. ‘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.’

That was all. Whatever the lengthened and redundant form of words might be, that was the substance of all his prayers in God’s Presence, in whose sight the heavens are not clean. This Pharisee has no sense of sin, nothing to repent of; he utters no cry for pardon. He accuses himself of no fault, either great or small – nothing left undone which he ought to have done. He is perfectly satisfied with himself, and supposes that he has satisfied all that God could require of him.

When Isaiah saw the vision of God in the Temple, he trembled with fear, and cried, ‘Woe is me, for I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips.’ (Isaiah 6:5) When Peter witnessed the manifestation of our Lord’s power in the miraculous draught of fishes he cried, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ (Luke 5:8) But the Pharisee has no such fear. He is more at his ease with God Almighty than Isaiah or Peter. In the Presence of the All Holy God he can only give expression to the completeness of his smug self-content How could he repent? He was not conscious of having done anything that needed repentance. How could he advance? He was not conscious of any higher standard required of him than he had already reached. What need had he of God’s mercy or of God’s grace? He imagined he was as pleasant an object for the eye of God to behold as he was for his own self-contemplation. How could his mind ever grasp the idea of a Saviour or a Redeemer! He was not conscious of the need of either.

He was indeed incapable of repentance, for he had no self-knowledge, which is the first condition of repentance. And, therefore, our Lord said, ‘The publicans and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you.’ For they at least knew their guilt It is a dangerous state when one has no standard of goodness, when one lives as the publicans and harlots; but it is far more dangerous, it is hopeless, fatal, when one sets one’s self a very low standard, and is content to live up to it, and aim at nothing higher.

Oh! if we draw a circle premature,
Heedless of fair gain.
Greedy of quick returns of profit sure.
Bad is our bargain.

And this was the condition of the Pharisee: he had found some means of keeping down the aspirations of conscience, and teaching it to be content with the very lowest of moral standards. The Pharisee degraded conscience below the place which the heathen gave it The heathen, at any rate, allowed it a protest. ‘There is indeed nothing in all history more remarkable than the wild and fitful voice of the heathen conscience, which would suddenly wake up out of its trance to pierce heaven with its cries. The heathen conscience was an accuser, a tormentor; it brooded over men, it stung them, it haunted them in their dreams; they started out of their sleep with horror in their countenances, wanting to fly from it and not knowing where to fly. Or if they tried to drown its voice in excitement or passion, it still watched its moment, and would be heard poisoning their revelry and awakening them to misery and despair.

‘Compare with this wild, this dreadful, but still this great visitant from another world, the Pharisaic conscience, domesticated, brought into harness. A tame conscience converted into a manageable companion, vulgarized, humiliated and chained, dethroned and deserted by every vestige of rank and majesty.’

As long as there is the sting of conscience, the voice of self-condemnation, there is hope of recovery or advance; but when this has been so dealt with that conscience only echoes the vain approval of self-deceit how can the soul be roused? There is nothing to appeal to; it has already attained its ideal; it is haunted by no sense of incompleteness or dissatisfaction with itself; it can smile approval at the wrath of God against sin, for it is the sin of others, not its own. Spiritually it has nothing to regret, nothing to desire; there are no restless longings within, no aims beyond its reach. It has attained the serenity of an undisturbed peace; it has already reached its goal, and looking down at the restless struggling world beneath it with a smile of dull self-approval it thanks God that it is not as other men are.

There is one other instance on record of man having attained to this same condition of peace and inward contentment, and only one. In all the life of Christ there never once appears the slightest trace of the consciousness of failure to realize His ideal. We are admitted again and again to witness His intimate communion with the Father, yet in no one of His utterances concerning Himself, in none of the records of His temptations, His trials. His fears, His hopes, His most secret and inmost thoughts and prayers to God, do we ever find so much as a hint of His own imperfection. Never once do we hear from Him a prayer for forgiveness or a cry for deliverance from sin; yet none can doubt that His ideal was a lofty one, the loftiest ever conceived of; it was righteousness, perfect, unswerving obedience to the Will of God. Surely, then, we might expect that the soul which in all human history was the highest and had the loftiest ideal of holiness would feel most keenly its own failure to be holy. Yet we find in Him the most calm, serene, unbroken self-approval. Is His love for holiness, then, all hypocrisy or His belief in His own holiness a miserable delusion? No, He is not deluded. He is no hypocrite. There can be but one alternative. He has realized that very ideal of perfect righteousness of which He spoke so often. His conscience, let us say it reverently, and the conscience of the Pharisee are alike in this, that they have both realized their ideals and are at rest

Such, then, was our Lord’s revelation of the inner life of the Pharisee, such were his prayers. This was the emptiness that lay behind all that external show of devotion and communion with God. It was necessary that our Lord should lift the veil and show us this inner blight and stagnation as a warning against the strange possibilities of self-deceit that lie in the human heart and as a justification of His scathing denunciations – ‘How can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ How, indeed, when they had silenced that voice which alone could rebuke them for sin and urge them on to holiness!

But we may ask, further, how could such a condition of things come about; how was it possible so to tamper with conscience and extract its sting?

Conscience is that power which ever warns the soul against evil and urges it on to good. As we watch men advancing in holiness of life we know that every grace that adorns them is the outcome of the conflict between conscience and the lower nature – the law of the mind victorious over the law of the members. (Romans 7:23) The lower nature clings to earth, conscience ever looks heavenward.

But the Pharisees had discovered that there was another force in their nature which could produce apparently the same results as conscience without any of its struggles. For they found this force in the lower nature itself; indeed, it is one of its strongest passions, and coming as it did from the lower nature with which conscience is always at war, its gains were effected without that terrible inner conflict. Self-love, seeking as its reward, not the love of God, but the praise of men, was found to be strong enough to overcome the natural shrinking from sacrifice and discipline which virtue demands, and ended in producing virtues to all appearances as solid and as fair as the product of conscience. Conscience, which was the echo of the approbation of God, was not wanted, and self-love, supported and stimulated by the praise of men, was strong enough to brace the will to action and endurance. Thus they found that they could fast and pray and give tithes and keep from injustice and adultery under the stimulant of the very passion which ordinarily led men to commit these sins and hold them back from prayer. The master passion of our fallen nature was enlisted on the side of what was to all appearance good, and thus the heart was taken out of every virtue, and the springs of all moral action were poisoned. The machinery moved with more ease and rhythm, for the inner conflict was at an end; but the force that set all the machinery of moral life in motion was no longer conscience, but the worst of passions, and consequently the products of this evil were themselves evil though superficially they had the appearance of virtue. Virtue was turned into vice, the good things that the Pharisee boasted of were produced by the passion that was always in the bitterest revolt against conscience and that in other men issued in its natural product of sin. This was the reason of our Lord’s startling words of condemnation of men that seemed so good. All those powers by which men could ordinarily be appealed to, and roused to a sense of sin, were inoperative in them. They were in truth ‘not like other men,’ as the Pharisee boasted in the temple; no, not even as that Publican at the Temple door. They were, in fact, in a more hopelessly irreclaimable position; they had dethroned and emasculated the power by which alone true virtue can be obtained, and put one of the subtlest powers for evil in its place; their whole inner nature was revolutionized. They were thanking God for things that they ought to have been ashamed of, vices, the worst of vices, decked in the stolen garments of virtue. We can understand our Lord’s saying of such men, ‘The publicans and harlots with their flagrant sins and the sting of conscience have more chance of entering the Kingdom of God than you.’

Turn for a moment to the despised Publican whom the Pharisee boasts that he is not like. With all his badness we feel ourselves in a purer atmosphere.

It is true the Pharisee is not like this Publican; he is not probably so bad in the sense that he has never done things in themselves so intrinsically evil. But there is this difference between them, the Publican is capable of rising, the Pharisee is not; the unknown, unrecognized evil in the Pharisee is of a more subtle and fatal kind than the gross and flagrant, and we may add heartbreaking, sins of the Publican, just as the evil which corrupts virtue is worse than the evil which is the outcome of passion and strong temptation.

So our Lord reveals to us the inner life of this despised sinner before God. ‘Standing afar off, he would not lift up so much as his eyes to Heaven, but smote upon his breast saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.’

His life had been very bad. It was deeply branded by one of the most degrading and hardening of vices – dishonesty. He had probably lost the last protection of the evildoer – self respect – and did not care to keep up appearances. From a human point of view his case was hopeless. But as he stands before God we see three redeeming qualities.

1. He knew his condition; there was no self-deception; he called himself by his proper name – a sinner.

2. He desired to be different; unlike the Pharisee he was dissatisfied, miserable in his sins.

3. He turned to God for help.

And from such a cry for mercy God will not turn away; it was for such that our Lord came down to earth, to seek and to save the lost Where conscience is awake, and the sinner in helplessness turns to God, forgiveness and restoration are certain. The Publicans and harlots enter the Kingdom of God before the Pharisee.