The Parables of Jesus
by E.H. ‘Jack’ Sequeira

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Parisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself:  ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance.  He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

In Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the two worshipers, is one of those daring parables that Jesus told.  It is one of those parables that got Him into trouble.  What is this parable doing?  Well, as we look at this parable — this is what we are going to analyze — we will discover that this parable brings out before us three very sharp contrasts.  The first sharp contrast is between the two men who came to pray, the Pharisee and the publican, or tax collector.  Remember, they were both members of the same church.  They both worshipped the same God, but there was a sharp contrast between those two.  The second thing that we notice is a sharp contrast between the two prayers that they offered.  Finally, we have a sharp contrast between the answers they received from God.

Let’s look at each one of these.  First of all the contrast between the two men.  That’s found in verse 10:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector

What is a Pharisee?  The word Pharisee sometimes is given a very negative definition in our day today but the word Pharisee really means, “the separated ones.”

What did this mean?  From what were they separated?  Well, over the years the rabbis of the Jewish religion had added rule after rule to the laws and instructions given by Moses so that, by the time of Christ, we had actually tens of thousands of rules of dos and don’ts.  Some of them were major, some of them minor.  For example, you remember one day the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of eating food without washing their hands?  This had become a requirement for salvation, and all kinds of rules.

If you were to obey all those rules, if you were to follow those blueprints made by these rabbis, it would take you a full-time job.  It would take you from morning to evening.  The Pharisees separated themselves to do this very thing.  They were very meticulous; they were very zealous about obeying those rules, the dos and don’ts.  Because of this, they refused to mingle with the other believers whom they looked down upon because they were not obeying all the rules.  If they were living today they would be the “holy Joes.”  They belonged to the holiness club; they were the ones who followed the blueprint to every detail.  There was nothing wrong with that.  It was the attitude of the Pharisees that was the problem.  This was the Pharisee.

What about the publican?  He was the tax gatherer.  He was what we would call the IRS [Internal Revenue Service] man today and very few of us like the IRS people.  But may I make it clear that tax collecting in the days of Christ was very different from the IRS collecting our tax today because they did not have a fixed rule for collecting tax.

I’ll tell you what Rome did.  Rome divided her country that she was dominating into provinces and then each province was subdivided into areas and in each area they were allowed to make bids as to how much tax they would collect for the Roman government.  So each one gave their bids and the highest bidder would normally get the job of collecting tax for that area.

So the Roman government did not set a fixed amount of tax.  It’s the tax collector who gave his bid and he was required within a year to collect the amount that he had signed the contract for.  Any money he collected above that amount was his.  Now he never told the people how much he bid the Roman government for, so they did not know how much he owed the Roman government.  But he would tell them that what he was charging them was the tax.  Very often he would keep a big chunk of that because he would charge a very high tax so that he could make a lot of money.

So, normally, these tax collectors were quite rich people, but here is their problem.  Number one, they were Jews collecting tax for the Romans and, therefore, they were despised by the Jews because they were traitors to their own people.  I remember during a problem time in Kenya, the policemen and the soldiers who worked for the British government and who killed a lot of the Kikiu were looked upon as traitors to their own country.  These tax collectors were looked upon in the same way.  They were considered extortioners, exploiters; they were looked upon as traitors to God and to their own people.

But, more than this, they were looked upon as sinners who could not be saved.  The Jewish priests and the religious leaders looked upon the publicans and gave them no hope of salvation.  They had reached the point of no return.  So here are two individuals who come to church, one who is very religious and has a very high opinion of himself, the other one who recognizes that he is a downright sinner and comes to God placing himself in the hands of his loving Savior.

Then we go to the contrast of the prayers.  Look at Luke 18:11-12.  Listen to the Pharisee praying:

The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself....

May I, first of all, explain something here.  It was quite common for the people of Christ’s day to pray standing, so when you hear of this Pharisee standing up and the publican does the same thing, this is not unusual; it was quite common for the Pharisees, for the believers of Christ, to stand up praying.  In fact, they didn’t even close their eyes.  They looked up into heaven; they raised their hands, and they talked to God.

This Pharisee was praying, not to God, but telling God about himself.  He said to God:

God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.

“I thank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican (at the back, wretched sinner that he is).  I fast twice in the week.”  Remember, the Old Testament required fasting only one day a year, on the Day of Atonement, but, by the time of Christ, these rabbis had added and added until they were told that if you want to be a real good believer, a real good Jew, you had to fast twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays.  This Pharisee was fasting twice a week.  He was very particular about paying his tithe on everything he possessed.

But in Luke 18:13, in contrast, we have the publican standing far off.  He was afraid to come and mix with the worshipers.  He didn’t feel that he was one of them.  He felt that they were good people but he was a wretched sinner and he struck his breast.  He doesn’t even look up into heaven and he says:

God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Let’s pause a moment and look at these two men praying.  First of all, turn to Psalms 24 because I believe that when the Pharisee was praying he probably may have had these two verses in mind.  Psalms 24:3-4.  The question is asked by David in verse 3:

Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?  Who may stand in his holy place?

Who has the right to come before the Lord?  The answer is in verse 4:

He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.

And the Pharisee may have said to himself, “That is me.  I have never exploited anybody,” even though, in the temple, they were overcharging for the temple offering.  The Pharisee may have had this in mind.  He had a tremendous eye for himself.  He had a terrible eye for his fellow believer.  He was a man who could present himself before God and say, “God, I thank You I am not a sinner like the man behind me.”  The publican was the very opposite.  We do not know how old this publican was, but obviously he was not a young person.  He had been a tax collector for a long time.  We do not know how long he was exploiting the people but there is a text that the chief priests and the scribes were using all the time against these tax collectors.  I want to give you the text.  They were putting them on to guilt trips all the time and maybe even Zacchaeus had this text in mind when he was redeemed by Christ.

The text is found in Leviticus 6.  It was the favorite text that the Pharisees used against the publicans.  They were always hammering them with this text.  Leviticus 6:2-5:

If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving his neighbor about something entrusted to him or left in his care or stolen, or if he cheats him, or if he finds lost property and lies about it, or if he swears falsely, or if he commits any such sin that people may do — when he thus sins and becomes guilty, he must return what he has stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to him, or the lost property he found [and kept, of course, for himself], or whatever it was he swore falsely about.  He must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offering.

In other words, the law of Moses said that if you had been exploiting people, if you had been stealing, it is your duty when you are found guilty to return back and even give them an interest of one fifth because that’s what verse 5 says:  you have to pay interest.

Remember when Zacchaeus found Christ and Christ accepted him even though he was a sinner?  What did Zacchaeus say?  Luke 19:8:

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord!  Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Well, Zacchaeus could do this but this publican obviously could not do it.  He was full of guilt.  He had no way — I don’t know how many years he was exploiting, he may not even remember who he was exploiting — and, of course, he was really concerned.

One day I was holding a worker’s meeting among the pastors out there in Africa.  One of them suddenly got turned on by the gospel.  He realized that there was still hope for him and he came to me.  He said, “You know, pastor, I’ve been a minister for 30 years.  I am about to retire and the tragedy is that I have no hope of salvation.”  And I said, “Why?”  He said, “Well, I have been doing something for 30 years that I have told nobody — not even my wife — and I do not know what to do about it.”  I said, “What’s the problem?”  He said, “For 30 years, I’ve been keeping some of the tithe and putting it into my own pocket.”

You see, out there we don’t have banks in the country and so the pastors who have five, six, eight, 10, 15 churches normally go around collecting the tithes of the churches and they are the ones who bring it to the conference or to the field.  And he said, “I felt that I was underpaid and I read the text in the Bible which said that the workman is worthy of his labor.  I felt it was all right if I kept some, but now, after 30 years, I am feeling guilty.  There is no way I can pay it back.  Even if they were to deduct my salary, the total amount, for the next 10 years, I could never pay back what I have stolen.  Is there hope for me?” he said.

I turned to this parable and I said, “Look, that publican felt the same way.  He had exploited people and he felt that he had no right to come to the church so he stands in the back and he says, “Lord, I am a sinner.  There is no way I can cleanse my guilt.  I am in Your hands.  I am at Your disposal.”  He says, “God, forgive me, a sinner.”  He may have tried to restore all he could but he could never pay back all that he has done.  He comes to God as a sinner putting His hope in a loving merciful God.

This parable says that this publican never claimed to fast twice a week, he never claimed to pay tithe.  He simply came to God and he says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  And Jesus said,

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.

Did Christ condone sin?  No.  But Christ knew that man cannot save himself.

To which group do you belong?  All of us are sinners, I think all of you will agree with that.  But somehow we have gotten the idea that we are not all the same kind of sinners, that I may be a better person than you.  The reason for that is because the Bible defines sin in two ways.  Sin is an act and, as far as the sinful acts are concerned, we may not be guilty of sins that somebody else commits.  But sin is also what we are by nature and, by nature, we all stand on the same platform.  We are all 100 percent sinful.  Paul says in Romans 7:18 there is in me nothing good:

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

The fact that you have not committed gross sins does not mean that you are better than the other person.

But here was this Pharisee who was very meticulous about following the blueprint and he followed it to the very detail.  But in his own eyes he thought that he was better than the others.  He looked down upon this publican.  So we need to look at the answer, the third contrast.  Here was a Pharisee who read his Bible, who prayed four times daily (because the Pharisees were known to pray four times a day:  9 o’clock, 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, and 6 o’clock.  He fasted twice a week.  He paid tithe.  He was very faithful in tithe paying; these are all good things.  In fact, Jesus said, “These you ought to have done.”

But what was wrong with his performance?  He was depending on that performance for his acceptance before God.  That was where he went wrong.  He was not looking at his performance as the fruits of the gospel; he was looking at his performance as that which would qualify him for heaven.  He was telling God, “God, look what a good Christian, what a good believer I am.”  He reminds me of those who will stand in the judgment seat in Matthew 7 and say to God, “I have prophesied in Your name, I have cast out devils in Your name, I have done many wonderful works in Your name.” And do you know what Christ will say?  “I never knew you.”

This publican looked at himself as chief of sinners.  In 1 Timothy 1:15 we read these words:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst.

Remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees?  He said the sick are the ones who need a physician.  The ones that are healthy do not need a physician and then he concludes, “I have come not to save the righteous, but to save the sinners.”  That is why in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins by those words [Matthew 5:3]:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In contrast to this, I would like you to look at a group of people that the true witness rebukes.  Revelation 3.  Here are a group of people.  You know who they are.  This is the message to the Laodicean church and what do these people say about themselves in verse 17?  The very same thing that the Pharisee is saying.  Revelation 3:17:

You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.”  But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

We say to ourselves, “I thank you, God, that I am rich and increased with goods; I thank you God that I don’t need anything.  I keep the Sabbath; I pay my tithe.”  We do not know that we are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.

What do we do?  How do we solve this problem?

[If you have a copy of Christ’s Object Lessons by Ellen G. White, I wish you would read the chapter “The Two Worshipers,” pp. 150-163, because it is dealing with this parable.]  But I want you to notice what is brought out here, because you may look at yourself and you may say, “I am not self-righteous.”

The sin of self-righteousness is a very subtle one.  You know what Jeremiah 17:9 says?

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?

But here is a clue that will help us to understand whether we are suffering from the sin of self-righteousness that may be so deep down in our subconscious that we may not be aware of it.  Ellen G. White says, “Whoever trusts in himself that he is righteous, will despise others.” How do you look at others who are not following the blueprint?  What do you do when you see a lady walk in who may be all decked up?  You may say, “I wonder why she is here.  She doesn’t belong here.”  No, she may belong here more than you do.

“As the Pharisee judges himself by other men, so he judges other men by himself” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 151).  The Pharisee makes his righteousness the measuring stick of righteousness and, when he compares his righteousness with the other person, what does he do?  He gives them the idea that he is a very fine Christian.  But there is only one measuring stick of righteousness — Jesus Christ — and when you and I stand before Jesus Christ, the more we recognize His righteousness, the more sinful we will realize that we are.  There is no way that we could ever reach the righteousness of Christ.  In word, in action, He is absolutely perfect.

When we compare our righteousness with each other, then we have the tendency to look down.  There was a time (I’m glad it’s dying away) when we, as a people, looked down upon other Christians.  We called them Philistines; we looked down upon them.  We may be shocked in heaven to discover there’ll be more Philistines there than Adventists.

Several years ago the General Conference received a letter from a very fine, godly Christian.  When the Communists took over in China the missionaries who were running the show for the denomination had to leave.  They could not stay there.  They had to come back to this country and the church fell into the hands of the nationals.  We had the same thing in Uganda when Idi Amin drove away all the missionaries.  These nationals had to go underground.  They had to try and keep the church alive under tremendous pressures, persecution.  One of them, who was a graduate of Pacific Union College and the MV leader of the China Division, was a national.  He could not run away because he was Chinese.  They put him in prison for several years, mistreated him, and gave him a hard time, but he remained faithful.  He was one of the few who remained faithful.

About 15 years after he was in prison he wrote a letter.  He had become friendly with the jailer and the jailer had promised him to post this letter.  I happened to read the letter some years ago — a very interesting letter with many pages — and in this letter he said, “Brethren, we made a great mistake in our work in China” and he gave about 15 points.

In one of the areas, he said, “The trouble is that the missionaries looked upon the Chinese who said, ‘Yes, yes’ and who followed the blueprint and who looked very holy as the pillars of the church.  But I want you to know that these are the ones who turned against the church.  These were the ones who denied Christ.  It’s the ones who you had no confidence in, the ones who were looked down upon as sinners, who are the ones who are rallying together and holding up your church in spite of persecution.”

It is hard to judge people by the outward appearance.  We do not know what people are going through.  But I’ll tell you one thing, the moment you feel that you are better, the moment you cherish a thought that you are better than your brother, you belong to the Pharisee.  That is the method of finding out.  Please do not look at someone else and say, “Yes, this is what he needs or what she needs.”  Each one of us must examine ourselves.  We must ask ourselves whether we look down upon our fellow believers.  They may not be following the blueprint; they may not be living up to the standards but I’ll tell you, you do not know what is going on in their hearts and minds.  They may be struggling; they may be seeking God; they may be like this publican saying, “Lord, I don’t have a right even to come to church.  Can you please forgive me?  There is no way I can make up for all the damage I have done, for all the money that I have stolen.”

But look at the second half of the second quotation by Ellen White.  “The prayer of the publican was heard because it showed dependence reaching forth to lay hold upon Omnipotence.  Self to the publican appeared nothing but shame.  Thus it must be seen by all who seek God.  By faith [and what is faith?] — faith that renounces all self-trust— the needy suppliant is to lay hold upon infinite power.  No outward performance can take the place of simple faith and entire renunciation of self.”  (Ibid., page 159).  Please, don’t substitute your performance for the righteousness of Christ.  Christ’s righteousness is the only cloak that will stand before the judgment seat of God.  “We can only consent for Christ to accomplish the work”  (Ibid., p. 159).

I look at one Pharisee in the Bible who was exactly like this Pharisee in this parable.  Let me give you his example.  Turn to Philippians 3.  Look at this Pharisee, but thank God this is a converted Pharisee.  In Philippians 3:3 he makes a statement.  He says,

For it is we [that is, we Christians] who are the circumcision [are the ones who are truly circumcised], we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh...

The Jews boasted — the Pharisee boasted — that because he was physically circumcised he was a child of God, but Paul says, “No.  The physical circumcision does not make me righteous.”  We are the true circumcision, “which worship God in the Spirit (from the heart) and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”

Now I suppose if somebody read this text to Peter and John after Stephen was just stoned and said this is the statement made by the man who was responsible for Stephen’s stoning, they would say, “Impossible, impossible for this man to say this.”  But in Philippians 3:4-6, the apostle Paul describes what he was like before his conversion (notice it’s very much like the Pharisee that we read about in Luke 18):

...though I myself have reasons for such confidence.  If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:  circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

“If anyone attained to the self-righteousness [that is what it means, righteousness of the flesh], it was I.“ And I’ll give you the facts, he says:

“Number 1, I was circumcised the eighth day.  Number 2, I’m not a mixture; I’m a pure-blooded Israelite, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews and, touching the law, I am a Pharisee.  I have been among those who were meticulous about every one of those rules.  And concerning zeal, zeal for God, I persecuted the church.”  Remember, Paul did not persecute the church because he thought he was doing wrong.  He thought he was serving God. for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

Can you imagine him praying, “God, I thank you I am not like those miserable Christians.  I am a good fellow.” Philippians 3:7-8:

But [there’s a “but” there] whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things [and by that he means self-righteousness].  I consider them rubbish [literally, “dung”], that I may gain Christ....

Now look at verse 9:

...and be found in him, not having a arighteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

This same man who talks about what he was as a Pharisee at the end of his life, do you know what he calls himself?  “The chief of sinners.”  But remember, God did use him mightily.  As long as you have trust in yourself, God cannot use you.  Look at Peter.  He had tremendous confidence in himself.  “Oh Jesus,” he said, “I can guarantee you that while these other disciples will forsake you, I will not.  I will die for you.”  Did he die for Christ?  He denied Him three times.  And Jesus said, “Peter, when you are converted, then I can use you to feed my flock.”

I want to close with how Jesus ends the parable.  Go back to Luke and please apply this to yourself just like I’m going to apply it to myself.  Luke 18:14 (last part):

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

This is not the only time Christ made this statement.  Go a few pages back to Luke 14 where Jesus talks about the parable of the wedding feast.  One man comes to the feast and sits right in front and the other man sits at the back and when the host comes he says to the man in front, “What are you doing in front?  You don’t belong in the front, go back.”  And to the man in the back he says, “You belong here in front.”  Then in Luke 14:11 Jesus makes the very same statement:

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

One of the hardest things for God to do to us is to humble His people.  Humility is a very difficult thing.  That is why, throughout the lives of His saints, He had to use methods.  If you read 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul says that God allowed him to have a thorn in the flesh lest he be exalted above measure:

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

If you read the life of Ellen G. White, she was told by the angel that God would strike her with sickness to keep her humble.

But I want to close with 1 Corinthians 10 because there the apostle Paul gives us a warning. 1 Corinthians 10:11:

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.

Who is Paul talking about?  Who is our example?  It is the history of the Jewish nation.  Paul is saying that the history of the Jewish nation has been recorded for our admonition upon whom the ends of the world is come.

With that in mind, we read verse 12:

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!

We must apply that both individually and corporately.  My prayer is the closing part of the quotation on page 159 of Christ’s Object Lessons:  “Lord, take my heart; for I cannot give it.  [She’s talking about the fact that we cannot deny self in our own power.]  It is Thy property.  Keep it pure, for I cannot keep it for Thee.  Mold me, fashion me, raise me into a pure and holy atmosphere, where the rich current of Thy love can flow through my soul.”

My dear people, if all of us would have the attitude of the publican, we would no longer point our fingers at each other and condemn each other.  We would not do that.  Why?  Because all of us would recognize that we are 100 percent sinful, saved by grace.  But when people begin pointing fingers and saying that your theology is wrong and you are wrong, as long as we do that, we will have two kinds of worshipers in this church.  But it is my prayer that we will all move to the platform of the publican.  We will recognize that we are 100 percent sinners saved by grace alone.

When we see others go wrong, we will have the attitude that John Wesley had, “There go I but for the grace of God.”  We will try to help them instead of condemning them and, together, we will grow.  It is my prayer that this church will be filled with publicans who can go home justified.

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