Summary: Jesus contrasts two men, and two attitudes in prayer.
A PHARISEE AND “THE” SINNER
Jesus had just told His disciples a parable to encourage them to importunity in prayer (Luke 18:1). Now He turned back to the Pharisees (cf. Luke 17:20-21) to warn them, and those like them, against despising others and approaching God in a self-righteous way (Luke 18:9). That is Jesus’ stated purpose in the second parable of this chapter.
We must understand the sharpness of contrast between the two characters in Jesus’ story (Luke 18:10). “Pharisee” was not always the term of reproach that it is today, and in fact many people looked up to the Pharisees because of their scrupulosity in matters pertaining to the law of God. The “tax-gatherer”, however, was the ultimate bad guy – a collaborator with the occupying Romans, and usually not averse to lining his own pockets by defrauding his neighbours (cf. Luke 19:8).
Now these two men went up to the Temple to pray. Nothing wrong with that – until, that is, we are allowed to eavesdrop on their prayers. The time of prayer during the morning and evening services would be just after the sacrifice had been made, and the officiating priest went into the most holy place to offer incense before the ‘mercy-seat’ (cf. Luke 1:9-10).
The Pharisee stands to pray, but his words hardly deserve to be called a prayer. They are full of self-congratulation – and although he does address “God” he is merely “praying thus WITH HIMSELF” (Luke 18:11). Every other word seems to be “I”, as if God owed him rather than vice versa.
There is no confession, no petition, because the wretched man can see nothing wrong in himself. Furthermore, this man’s goodness is only discovered by disparaging his neighbour, making comparisons between his supposed righteousness and the tax-gatherer’s lack thereof. Yet before the LORD, ‘all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6).
Where the law commands just one fast per year, that on the Day of Atonement, the Pharisees would fast twice a week (Luke 18:12). This would be on the market days, on Mondays and Thursdays, so that the hypocrites could strut around with their disfigured faces and draw the maximum amount of attention to themselves (cf. Matthew 6:16). Where the law required the tithing of certain incomes, but not all, this self-styled paragon tithed everything.
Now, since the Pharisee demanded a comparison, so Jesus holds his verdict on this man’s prayer until he has spoken of the other. Possibly the Pharisee stood apart, lest he might be polluted by other men’s lack of holiness. The tax-gatherer stood apart for another reason.
The tax-gatherer felt his unworthiness so acutely that he could not even so much as lift up his eyes to heaven. The awakened sinner smites his breast as one who mourns (cf. Luke 23:48), and throws himself on the mercy of God. In a brief sentence he makes both honest confession and petition, and exercises both repentance and faith (Luke 18:13).
Interestingly, the tax-gatherer does not use the usual word for ‘mercy’, but rather uses the language of propitiation: “God, be propitious to me”. Remember that this petition was probably being made just as the incense was being offered before the mercy-seat. Unlike the Pharisee, who at least noticed the tax-gatherer standing there, the tax-gatherer was oblivious in that moment of anyone there but himself: he calls himself “THE sinner” (as if there was only one!)
Now we have before us, in embryo, Jesus’ teaching on what the Apostle Paul would later call ‘justification by faith, without the works of the law’ (Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16). This was not a doctrine dreamed up by Martin Luther, or Augustine of Hippo, or even by Paul himself, but is contained right here in the teaching of Jesus: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than that other” (Luke 18:14).
The warning for us is not to look down on others (Luke 18:9), but always to recognize our low place before God: “for everyone who exalts himself shall be abased, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14).