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A Pharisee or a Publican?

T Rogerson, Muirhead

It is easy to see why this parable in Luke 18.9-14 is used in gospel preaching, for it portrays a self-righteous Pharisee going to the Temple and telling God how great he is compared to others, especially the publican over in the corner. Yes, the Pharisee had his religion; but at the end the Lord tells us that it was not the Pharisee but the publican who was justified because, recognising he was only a poor undeserving sinner, he cast himself on the mercy of God. In essence the passage teaches that we can do nothing to please God but are entirely dependent on His mercy. But the parable is more than a gospel message. As the Lord got closer to the cross He diligently prepared His disciples for His departure with foundational teachings to establish them in their walk.

The parable was spoken because of those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. It could easily be missed at a casual reading, but here one of the great attributes of God shines out. The Lord Jesus was not only a great teacher, as even unbelievers admit, but could read the hearts of those about Him. Having surveyed the crowd, the Lord spoke this parable to those who needed it. He opens by introducing two very different people with a similar purpose - to pray in the temple. However, for one it was really an act of self-gratification, whereas for the other it was a self-humbling experience, ultimately glorifying God.

The two men represent both ends of the social spectrum. The Pharisee likely commanded the respect of those with whom he rubbed shoulders, because of his apparent zeal for the law of God and the traditions of the fathers. The Lord called such men "whited sepulchres" (Mt 23.27) because externally they looked fine. The Pharisee is the type of man who in every aspect of his life has his "i"s dotted and his "t"s crossed. He would never have contemplated carrying his bed on the Sabbath, never eaten a meal without first washing his hands, never plucked and eaten an ear or two of barley on the Sabbath even though he was starving. He was, indeed, a man highly esteemed for well doing, law keeping, and tradition upholding.

And yet the Lord never refers to these people in praise but always in censure. In fact, the disciples were told to "Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees" (Mt 16.6), to scrutinise their teachings and follow only that which was right, rejecting all that was wrong. This is how all believers should respond to teaching. Like the Bereans, we should search the Scriptures daily to see if what we have been taught is true (Acts 17.10-11).

We are not surprised to see such a religious man enter the temple to pray. This was probably his regular routine, perhaps more than once a day. And the daily practice of spending time in the presence of the Lord is good. However, it was the Pharisee’s attitude to others which condemned his soul, and it is easy for us to make the same mistake. We can have all the right externals. We can go to all the meetings and polish up our lives to look exemplary, but it is the inside that really matters before God. Just as the Pharisee looked down on the tax collector, we too may be guilty of wrong attitudes to others. Let us consider four situations.

Our attitude to the local assembly

Every local assembly consists of individuals with radically different personality traits, all with varying degrees of conviction about this and that. Not everyone will be on the same level of spirituality, because Christian growth is a continuing process and we all mature at different rates. There is a danger that, as we read the Word of God and become convicted of certain truths, we tend to look critically at others who do not share our viewpoint. Of course it is vital to read the Word in order to correct personal and corporate failure. However, our first responsibility is to put ourselves right before attempting to adjust others. The words of Matthew 7.3 are so fitting: "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?". To have a crusading zeal for Biblical truth without first applying it to our own hearts is both folly and hypocrisy (1 Cor 8.10-11).

Our attitude to other local assemblies

We can be equally at fault in our attitude to other assemblies. Too often we condemn on the basis of matters where Scripture does not legislate. What makes matters worse is that these judgments are often based on hearsay, and passed on by people who have nothing better to do than gossip. The autonomy of each local assembly is a truth to remember when we look at believers around the world. All genuine saints have the same Lord and the same New Testament blueprint for gathering. Yet assemblies are all slightly different, because the New Testament establishes principles rather than a detailed code of rules for every situation. Legitimate variations may therefore be the result of cultural factors, spiritual maturity, or personal choice. But regardless of minor differences we should never forget that we are one with all saints gathered to the Lord Jesus.

Our attitude to believers in "Christendom"

There are many forms of what the world calls "Christianity". Much is contaminated by false doctrine which, of course, needs to be refuted clearly and graciously from the Scriptures. But there are throughout the many denominations of Christendom genuine, devoted believers in the Lord Jesus whose zeal can put us to shame. Before the writer was saved the general impression he gained of so-called assemblies from the comments of outsiders was that they were marked by insufferable arrogance. And, alas, we can be all too guilty of an attitude of smug superiority towards other believers. We maintain we are the only ones with the truth and this comes across in our treatment of those not meeting in the same way. Again, we must be reminded that all true saints of God have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and hence are all part of the one Body. Let us beware lest we despise our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Our attitude to the lost

While the Lord was on the earth He viewed the lost with compassion, for they were like sheep without a Shepherd. He could look on a field white to harvest and tell His disciples that they should pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers into the field (Mt 9.38; Lk 10.2). When we consider His great love for His sheep, all that He bore for us and the rest of the world also, we should be moved to have an attitude like Paul’s: "Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved" (Rom 10.1). We should desire the salvation of every unbeliever we meet. However, let there not linger a "middle class" disease in any assembly. There may be countless "working class" people, a huge harvest field, all around our Gospel Hall but we may unconsciously view them as too rough, too beyond the pale, as far as the gospel is concerned. Class barriers should have no part to play. Do we have a heart of love for the lost as the Lord Jesus did?

After hearing the Pharisee’s list of good works the focus changes to the publican. He was probably greatly despised for his crookedness as a traitor to Israel, working for the Roman government, associated with sinners (cp. Mt 9.11), a man one would not desire as a close companion (cp. Mt 11.19). However, the Word of God actually has something good to say about publicans. These people, along with harlots, would enter the Kingdom of God before the religious (Mt 21.31). Why was this? The answer is in the parable. The publican did not reel off a list of good works but simply and honestly confessed himself as "a sinner". He understood his depravity before a holy and righteous God, he knew he could not claim to be righteous, he knew he had not come close to meeting God’s standard. Therefore, with much reverence and honesty, he bowed his head to ask for mercy. Humility and reverence should characterise us all. Humility, which means that we esteem others better than ourselves (Phil 2.3), would cause all strife, envy, and gossiping to cease. We would then fulfil the apostle’s command: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2.5). On the other hand, reverence for God would create a healthy awareness of how little we are. All believers are simply sinners saved by grace and must live in a manner that magnifies God’s mercy.



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