Summary: Christ directed the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican Praying in the Temple to those who trusted in their own righteousness. We are more prone to trust in our own righteousness than we might think. This self-trust can keep us from being merciful.
Over the years, we have all heard preachers address the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the Temple.
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 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. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon 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;...”
All too often, perhaps unintentionally, some preachers emphasize the arrogance and pride of the Pharisee so much that no one listening could ever imagine themselves being like that - these well-meaning ministers so over-caricature the Pharisee’s manner of praying that those listening tend to respond within themselves,
“Ok, I get that, but what has it to do with me?”
Or worse, “Yes, I know lots of people like that. I wish we didn’t have to put up with them!”
But, of course, this parable has everything to do with us, and nothing to do with how we view others. We may sincerely believe these words have nothing to do with us: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or especially as this publican” (St Luke 18:11). After all, Christ was telling this parable to an audience of those who trusted in their own righteousness and despised others. So, that’s not us, right?
We may also sincerely believe we would not even think of praying in such a manner. But I believe we are very much inclined to trust in our own righteousness and despise others. Truly, it is only by the indwelling and inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we avoid this Pharisee’s prayer and embrace the desire to walk humbly with our Lord. It is not by our own ability. For within us lurks a Pharisee yearning to emerge and take control.
Although we desire goodness, we also desire to keep track of our progress (and unwittingly take credit for that progress). A normal human desire. It is that desire that the inner Pharisee seeks to exploit. While we may never be tricked into uttering, either orally or in our conscious thoughts, the Pharisee’s prayer, we delude ourselves if we do not realize that the Pharisee’s prayer is an ongoing litany in the silent secret counsels of our own hearts, that place where we earnestly believe we are not unjust (because we find injustice offensive), we are not extortioners (because we know extortioners are the bad guys), and are not adulterers (because we do not cheat on our spouses). That place where we choose to identify and confess the sins we knowingly do commit, thereby unwittingly taking credit (as does the Pharisee) for avoiding a plethora of other sins.
Wait a minute, you might say. How can we be like the Pharisee, since we are not members of an elite? Ah. It was not the Pharisee, but rather the Publican who was of the elite, an exceedingly despicable elite in the Roman Empire, which elite made itself rich in a most traitorous manner, often exploiting its own people, especially the poor, through false assessments, false promises, false accusations, bribery, blackmail, and extortion. Are you sure you want to identify with the Publican? The Publican represented an apostate impiety that makes the Robber Barons of 19th and early 20th century fame, and modern day corporate evil-doers, such as the slick con men who rob peoples’ pensions and investments, look like choir boys.
Nevertheless, Jesus was saying that such a person who humbly admits his own unworthiness before God, is more justified than a well-behaved man who has assiduously fought for, earned, and trusts in his own respectability; who trusts in his own power to be righteous. That is the point. Are you seeking respectability? Do you evaluate yourself and others using the measure of respectability? Do you trust in respectability? Or rather do you seek a relationship with God, recognizing your own unworthiness, and trust rather the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord?
Matthew was a Publican when Jesus found him. Are you prepared to humbly prostrate yourself in spirit like the Publican, and say, God, be merciful to me, a sinner? Do you fear God enough to pray like the Publican in order to avoid praying like the Pharisee? And are you willing to show mercy to the Publicans in this world in order to avoid despising them in the manner of a Pharisee?
Our souls are at stake. Christ said, “I prefer your mercy to your sacrifice.” Mercy can only exist where there is humility and utter repentance. Only the merciful can expect mercy from God.