Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus often taught in parables. one of the shortest, yet one of the most profound of all his parables was that of the Pharisee and the Publican. the Bible tells us that Jesus "spake this parable unto those who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and who therefore despised and looked down upon others." (Luke 18:9)
Before we read the actual parable, it might be helpful to know exactly what a "Pharisee", and what a "Publican" is. the Pharisees were the most influential of all the Jewish religious sects of Jesus' day. the word "Pharisee" literally means "the separated ones, separatists", which sums up the basic nature of their beliefs. they were the strictest legalists of the day, who pledged themselves to obey and observe all the countless restrictive rules, traditions and ceremonial laws of orthodox Judaism. they considered themselves to be the only true followers of God's laws, and therefore felt that they were much better and holier than anyone else.--thus they separated themselves not only from the non-Jews--whom they absolutely despised and considered pagan "gentile dogs"--but they even set themselves above and apart from their own Jewish brethren.
The Publicans, on the other hand, were considered by their fellow-Jews to be the absolutely worst kind of characters!--for the Publicans were tax collectors for the foreign occupier and ruler of Palestine, imperial Rome. they were officially-appointed Jewish tax collectors for Caesar, and were therefore considered traitors by their brethren. the Romans would instruct the Publicans how much taxes to collect from the people, and then the Publicans could charge whatever they wanted to more than that for their own income. so they were usually extortioners, cheaters and robbers of the Jews, and were therefore absolutely despised by their Jewish brethren who considered them the scum of the earth.
So when Jesus told this parable, comparing a Pharisee and a Publican, he had chosen the two most opposite figures in the entire Jewish community. the one was held to be the best, the most righteous, the most religious, the most holy, the most godly of all men.--whereas the other was looked on as the worst, filthiest, traitorous scoundrel imaginable!
Here is the parable itself in Jesus' own words: Two men went up into the temple to pray. one was a Pharisee, and the other was a Publican. the Pharisee stood up and prayed thus within himself: 'oh God, I thank you that I am not like other men are; robbers, extortioners, unjust, evil-doers, adulterers.--or even as this Publican! I fast twice every week and I faithfully give tithes, one-tenth, of all that I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. he would not even lift up his eyes to look toward heaven, but he beat upon his breast and said, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'
"Then Jesus said to those around him, 'I tell you the truth, 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!'" (Luke 18:9-14)
Which one of these two men did Jesus say was actually justified before God?--the Pharisee who appeared to be so righteous and holy, and who no doubt felt that he was a very righteous and good man?--or the tax collector, the sinner, who was despised by others, and who apparently even despised himself, who felt so ashamed of himself that he wouldn't even lift up his eyes to heaven, but simply begged God to have mercy upon him and forgive him? so often, God's way of looking at things is very different from ours!--he says, "My thoughts are not your thoughts!--neither are your ways my ways!" (Isaiah 55:8,9) although that Publican's sins were undoubtedly many, because of his honest and humble confession and recognition of the fact that he was a sinner--one who needed God's help--Jesus said he was the one who left the temple justified that day!--not the Pharisee who was so proud of his own goodness and his own righteousness, that he didn't even think he needed God's help at all!--if anything, he probably felt that he was doing God a favor by honoring him with his prayers!
But in the sight of God, self-righteous religious pride like this Pharisee manifested is the greatest and worst of all sins!--that hypocritical "holier-than-thou" attitude, that causes people who are selfrighteous to despise and look down on others who they don't consider as holy or pure or faithful or good as they think they are! when people get this way, others usually find them to be the hardest, most narrowminded and intolerant folks they ever met! Because instead of loving, forgiving and understanding others, they're always criticising, judging and condemning folks who don't do all the "good" things that they do!
The Gospels tell us that, "when the Pharisees saw Jesus sitting down and eating a meal with many Publicans and sinners who came and sat with him, they were enraged, and asked his disciples, 'how can your master eat with unclean Publicans and sinners?' but Jesus answered them, 'you need to go and learn what this means; 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice!'" (Matthew 9:10-13)--in other words, what he was saying was, "I would rather see you have love and mercy, and not just your dutiful keeping of the law and making of sacrifices!--I'd rather you'd give love to others than to just be so self-righteous and condemning!"
Let's face it, none of us have any goodness of our own, anything good about us is only the lord, and his goodness! God is the only one who is good! his word says, "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) everybody is bad except those who have faith and have the goodness of God, the love of God, the righteousness of God! even st. paul said, "in me, in my self, there is no good thing!" (Romans 7:18) Jesus got so infuriated by the hypocritical, self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees that he told them that they were worse than the drunks and the prostitutes, the Publicans and the sinners that they despised!--and that there was more chance for such sinners to make it to heaven, than there was for them!
Jesus told them to their faces, "truly I tell you, the Publicans and the harlots will go into the kingdom of God before you!" (Matthew 21:31) he even told his own disciples, "truly I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will certainly not enter into the kingdom of heaven!" (Matthew 5:20)--in other words, unless you are better than they are, you'll never get to heaven!-and the only way that you can be better than they were, is to have Christ's righteousness, because the Pharisees were as good as anyone could possibly be in the natural.
Jesus so hated the Pharisees' hypocritical pretense, pretending to be so righteous and right all the time, that in the most bitter denunciation he ever uttered against anyone, he publicly told them, "woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you make clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but within you are full of extortion and filthiness! you blind Pharisee, clean first that which is within the cup and the plate, then the outside of them may be clean also!
"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like white-washed tombs, which indeed look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean! in the same way, on the outside you appear to others as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity!" (Matthew 23:25-28)
The thing that made the Pharisees so self-righteous and hypocritical was their pride!--they were too proud to confess that they were sinners like everyone else. in fact, they not only couldn't confess their sins, they couldn't even see their sins! they couldn't admit that there was anything that could possibly be wrong with them, and therefore they became "blind leaders of the blind"! (Matthew 15:14) it's almost a relief to know you're bad, to honestly admit that you're not good. after all, God has said so in his word, that nobody is good! that's why the worst kind of people in the sight of God are those who pretend to be good and look down on everybody else. his word says, "there is none righteous, no, not one! therefore, by grace are we saved through faith, and that not of ourselves. it is the gift of God, not of our own works or goodness, lest any man should boast." (Romans 3:10; Ephesians 2:8,9) we just need to be honest and confess, "I'm no good, I'm bad, I'm a sinner, of course I make mistakes!--anything good about me is only Jesus!"
God's idea of righteousness is not the supposedly sinless perfectionist, but the pitiful, hopeless, humble, sinful sinner who knows he needs God!--those are the ones he came to save! "for I came not to call the righteous," Jesus said, "but sinners!" (Matthew 9:13) God's idea of goodness is godliness--a sinner who knows he needs God and depends on him for salvation.--not the self-made, self-righteous, hypocritical Pharisees who think they can save themselves by their own goodness!
God's idea of saintliness is a sinner saved by grace, a sinner who has no perfection, no righteousness of his own at all, but is totally dependent on the grace and the love and the mercy of God!--and believe it or not, those are the only kind of saints there are! there are no others!
So which of the two are you like?--the Pharisee?--or the Publican?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, we know that selfrighteousness is pride, and pride is the opposite of love and humility. so, lord, please give us love today. help us not to condemn others, or ever think or pray, "I thank you, o God, that I am not as this man." if we're critical, lifted up in pride and glad we're not as bad as others, then we are even worse!
You said, "I will have mercy and not sacrifice." we must spend time alone with you to learn what this means! lord, please help us to love and forgive other men's sins as you have forgiven us! and help us to have mercy upon others as you have had mercy upon us.--in Jesus' name we pray, amen.