The Pharisee and the Publican Luke 18. 9–14

What or whom we trust is a question of immense importance, for the answer to it will determine our current actions and future destiny. In this chapter, Luke brings together teaching and incidents that challenge his reader as to the focus and object of our trust. Faith in God should result in persistence in prayer, vv. 1-8; the disciples needed to learn that childlike trust was required to enter the kingdom of God, vv. 15-17; riches are a barrier to the kingdom, for it is so hard to give up reliance upon them, vv. 18-27; but for those who are prepared to give up everything to follow Christ, there is promise of abundant recompense, vv. 28-30; following Christ, however, will not be easy, for suffering must come before glory in the purposes of God, vv. 31-33; a blind beggar provides a fitting conclusion to the chapter as he displays simple trust in the Lord, leading to persistence in ‘prayer’, an abundant blessing, and a heart to follow, vv. 35-43.

In our section, the context is clear, ‘he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others’, v. 9. A solemn section dealing with the need to weigh carefully whom our trust is in, for the answer to this will result in either justification before God or simply self-justification.

What kind of righteousness do we crave? Job asked, ‘how should man be just with God?’ Job 9. 2, and scripture is blunt in its verdict upon humanity, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’, Rom. 3. 10, so it is evident that righteousness before God is outside of our efforts. Humanity, however, can be fooled by the outward veneer of a seemingly pious life and, sadly, selfjustification and the praise of man can be a tempting substitute for that righteousness which we ought to seek.

The word ‘trust’ in verse 9 has the idea of persuade. The Lord speaks to those who had managed to reason themselves to the point that they believed they had a right standing before God, as well as to those who considered that these were indeed the ones God considered righteous. He shatters this illusion by considering the outcome of the attitude and prayers of two men.

Two men

The Pharisees were a Jewish sect formed after the return from the Babylonian captivity as a reaction against those who sought to compromise the law. ‘They were extremely accurate and minute in all matters pertaining to the law of Moses’, cp Acts 26. 5.1 Thus, outwardly they appeared to men to live righteously, and Paul’s statement in Philippians chapter 3 verse 6 sums up what seems to have been their self-evaluation, ‘touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless’.

In contrast, the publicans were a byword for the very lowest in society. The word describes those who collected taxes on behalf of the Romans. The Jews hated the occupation of Rome, and those of their own number who collected taxes locally were despised, ‘to be spoiled by foreigners was bad, but to be plundered by their own countrymen was far worse’.2 Linked with others of low repute, Matt. 21. 32, and often guilty of extortion, Luke 3. 13; 19. 8, the term became synonymous with sinner and pagan, Luke 15. 1, 2; Matt. 18. 17.

Two attitudes

‘The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself’, v. 11. The Lord had previously condemned some for loving to pray in public places, Matt. 6. 5, but here the suggestion is that this man is so well satisfied with himself that he doesn’t even require that public recognition. The same reasoning that led him to trust that he was righteous, also led him to despise others, Luke 18. 9. This is an attitude seen in Herod’s soldiers when they ‘set him [Jesus] at nought’, 23. 11, an utter disregard for the worth of others.

Such is the danger of trusting oneself. A genuine desire to follow God’s word can quickly degenerate into selfrighteousness, as we add extra rules to the word of God. Judgement of others who do not follow the same rules can result. From there, it is a small step to despising others. May the warning of Romans chapter 14 verses 1 to 12 ever guard our attitude.3

The posture and actions of the publican demonstrate the marked difference in attitude. Although he came to pray, he stood ‘afar off’, and ‘would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast’, v. 13. Perhaps the words of Ezra convey the feelings of this man, ‘O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens’, Ezra 9. 6. It is challenging to consider that self-righteousness led the Pharisee to be content to pray to himself, but the sense of his unworthiness drove the tax gatherer to the presence of God to seek mercy, recognizing that there was no hope to be found in self. Which describes our attitude as we come to pray?

Two prayers

The prayers were expressions of the hearts of both men and reveal something of their inner reasonings.

While both prayers begin by addressing ‘God’, A. T. Robertson suggests that, for the Pharisee, it was ‘a soliloquy with his own soul … for his own satisfaction’ and W. Hendriksen writes, ‘the man was actually talking to himself, congratulating himself’.4 His thankfulness was without the humility found in the expression ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. Those marked out for comparison were such as the majority of the population would have hoped not to be like. How easy it is to find those to whom we can feel morally superior! ‘His religious merits complete his grounds for congratulation’.5 Going beyond the inspired law, this man introduced more fasts and more tithing to his life. In light of this he could not imagine how God could fail to declare him righteous. How sad to read of the Saviour’s condemnation of those who reasoned in such a way, Matt. 23. 23, 24. May we never fall into the trap of thinking that keeping the rules we make, guarantes acceptance and favour with God.

How different the publican, whose self-description ‘the sinner’, v. 13 JND,6 matches Paul’s attitude in 1 Timothy chapter 1 verse 15. Understanding that there is no merit in him at all but rather one who was ‘devoted to sin’,7 he came casting himself upon the mercy of God alone.

‘God be merciful’, v. 13; ‘God be propitious’ YLT. In using this expression, the publican demonstrated his understanding that God must have a righteous basis if his sins were to be removed. It is lovely to consider that, at that very moment, there may have been an animal being sacrificed upon the temple altar. It is as though the sinner in all his guilt asks God to place the value of that blood to his account, that his sins and guilt might be covered. Romans chapter 3 verse 25 tells us that such sacrifices were presented in light of the coming propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. Verses 26 and 27 remind us that this is the only basis by which God can remain just and yet be ‘the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus’. The result: boasting (selfrighteousness based on works) is excluded, righteousness can only be gained through faith, and upon the ground of a propitiatory sacrifice.

The outcome

‘This man went down to his house justified rather than the other’, v. 14. The shocking conclusion to the story is that the despised character is the one declared righteous in the sight of God. If we stop for a moment and try to enter into the horror the original listeners would have had, then we will have a fresh glimpse into the wonder of what God has done - and is able to do. Dare we, with the self-righteousness of the Pharisee, ever consider any section of society beyond the redeeming effect of the value of the precious blood of Christ? What grace has been displayed that ever the sinner can approach God in faith one moment, and the next be able to confidently say, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation’, Rom. 8. 1, or, ‘Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect?’, 8. v. 33. Such confidence can never be in self, but rather for those who ‘are in Christ Jesus’, and resting in the ‘God that justifieth’.

The principle

The Lord sums up the point of the story by comparing the reasoning of man with the logic of God, ‘for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted’, v. 14. In whom should we place our trust? In the economy of God, there is only one reasonable answer, for ‘God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble’, Jas. 4. 6. May we remember the beautiful words of Isaiah chapter 57 verse 15 so that both personally, and in the proclamation of the gospel, we may be encouraged that ‘the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy … [dwells] in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones’.



M. G. Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, e-Sword resource.


A. R. Fausset, Fausset’s Bible Dictionary, e-Sword resource.


Cp. the word for ‘despised’, Luke 18. 9, and ‘set at nought’, Rom. 14. 10.


Both quoted by N. Crawford, What the Bible teaches, Luke, John Ritchie Ltd, pg. 294.


R. Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and D. Brown, Whole Bible Commentary, e-Sword resource, italics original.


‘It is curious how modern scholars ignore this Greek article. The main point in the contrast lies in this article. The Pharisee thought of others as sinners. The publican thinks of himself alone as the sinner, not of others at all’, A. T. Robertson, Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword resource. J. H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, e-Sword resource.


J. H. THAYER, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, e-Sword resource.


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