The Pharisee and the Publican: Platitudes and Attitudes

“He addressed this parable to those who were self-righteous and looked down on everyone else. Two men went to the temple to pray, one was a Pharisee and the other was a publican. Standing erect, the Pharisee prayed this self-centered prayer: ‘God, I thank you I am not like the rest of mankind. I am neither greedy, dishonest, an adulterer nor am I like this publican. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

But the publican, standing at a distance, would not venture to raise his eyes to heaven and kept smiting his breast with a gesture of despair, saying, ‘God be propitious to me the sinner.’ I tell you this man went home forgiven, acquitted of his sins and accepted by God, and not the other man. For every one who honors himself with be abased, but he that humbles himself will be exalted.”  ( Luke 18:9-14 – paraphrased)

In order to understand the stark contrast Jesus makes between these two men, a brief overview of the group each represents will prove helpful.

The Pharisees

Although the exact origin of this sect is unknown, the word Pharisee evolved from an Aramaic term meaning “the separated ones.” They set themselves apart from other Jews by their scrupulous observance of the Mosaic laws. Pharisaism was based on their traditions and their own interpretation of these laws.

In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the most popular religious party. They had more influence over the people than even the high priest. Fanatical concerning dietary laws, tithing, and ritual purity, they labeled all who did not belong to their sect as “sinners.” Their strict lifestyle caused them to be regarded as model Jews and they were generally respected by the Jewish nation. Although they held no official political power, they were zealous in recruiting new members and promoting their views. They expected a Messiah to arrive, but believed they would be the ones to rule His kingdom.

The esoteric, exclusivist worldview of the Pharisees was extremely narrow.  The Pharisees twisted and distorted God’s laws into an exhaustive list of hundreds of minute regulations. But Jesus dismissed their vain traditions as trivialities (Mk. 7:7-8). Although ceremoniously clean, they were vexed with internal corruption and filthiness. He denounced them as whitewashed graves, sons of serpents, evil, adulterous and blind (v. 24-28). While the publicans and harlots could enter God’s Kingdom, the Pharisees would be denied entrance (Mt. 21:31). He exposed their hypocrisy through His teachings, warning people not to follow their egocentric ways (23:2-3). 

The Pharisees sought to discredit Jesus because His theology differed from theirs. Because they considered themselves experts regarding religious matters, they led the opposition against Him. They asked Him leading questions concerning eternal life and the law of divorce (Lk. 10:25 & Mt. 19:3). Attempting to entrap Him, they asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (Mt. 22:17). Although among the Pharisees themselves there were frequent disagreements, many of them united in their determination to destroy Jesus (Mk. 3:6). Mark makes it clear that they were motivated by envy (Mk. 15:10).

But not all Pharisees opposed Christ. Nicodemus came to Jesus asking honest questions (Jn. 3:4-9). He urged other Pharisees not to judge Jesus prematurely (7:50-51). Nicodemus also helped to anoint Jesus body and place Him in the tomb (19:39). Another notable Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, maintained a misdirected zeal that drove him to persecute Christians (Phil. 3:6). A great irony of Christianity is the conversion of this Pharisee we know as Paul the Apostle.

The Publicans

In the broadest sense, the Latin word publicanus refers to anyone who has business connections with the government. The Gospel writers use the term to refer to Jewish tax collectors employed by the Roman government as “Internal Revenue Service” agents. Money wrestled from the hands of the Jews helped build the imperial treasury. Tax collectors were backed by military force when necessary. Taxes were collected on everything that was bought and sold. Imports, exports, land, bridges, roads, ships and harbors were taxed. There were taxes on mules, carts, pedestrians, and even the use of the Temple. 

The deep-seated resentment of Jews toward the Romans caused all publicans to be despised. Because the job of a tax collector was an unpopular one, the work did not attract quality people. As a result, those thus employed were mostly men of dubious reputation. Corrupt publicans frequently overtaxed people and pocketed the profits. Other Jews viewed them as traitors, defiled by their contact with the heathen Romans. In Rabbinical literature, publicans are commonly regarded as thieves.

However, Luke reminds us of the grace the Lord extended to publicans.

<> Jesus is accused of being the friend of publicans (Lk. 7:34).
<> Matthew, the disciple, was a former publican (Lk. 5:27).
<> The Pharisees asked Jesus why He ate with them (Lk. 5:29-30).
<> The publicans believed John the Baptist’s ministry was God ordained, whereas the Pharisees did not (Lk. 7:29-30).
<> When publicans are baptized, John admonishes them to be honest when they collect taxes (Lk. 3:12-13).
<> Anxious crowds of publicans gathered to hear Jesus teach (Lk. 15:1).
<> Jesus invited Himself to the home of a repentant publican named Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:2-8).

v. 9
Jesus immediately specifies His target audience. The phrase is in the present tense: He spoke “to those who continue to trust in their own righteousness and continue to regard others as nothing.” Self-righteous men always compare themselves to the rest of the populace. Despising others is a by-product of trusting in good deeds in order to obtain salvation. This parable serves as a warning to all who believe the cumulative total of their works will save them.

v. 10
The Pharisee and the publican represent two extremes in Judaism. One was regarded as the epitome of holiness and the other as an unpatriotic mercenary. Two men went to the Jerusalem temple to pray, but each had a different motive. Both begin their prayers by addressing God, but spending time in prayer does not prove one has truly communicated with Him. Those listening to Jesus’ parable that day might well have imagined the religious Pharisee would have prayed effectively and the despised publican been smug and unrepentant. But Jesus reverses their roles to reveal their hearts and teach the proper attitude when communing with God.

v. 11
The scene Jesus describes is typical, for He said such men love to pray conspicuously in public (Mt. 6:5). The Pharisee took up a position as close as possible to the court of the priests. He does not actually pray, but rather lists accolades which bespeak self-vindication. Five times the Pharisee uses the word “I”. He paraded his merits, rather than his deficiencies. Charles Spurgeon said, “The Pharisee was so full of himself there was no room for God.” He neither confesses sins nor admits guilt.

Having addressed God, the Pharisee never mentions Him again. The rest of his prayer is a liturgy of self-aggrandizement. The Pharisee only expresses gratitude for his superiority to other men. Members of this sect recited daily racist and sexist prayers such as, “Blessed are you, Lord God, who has not made me a Gentile, a servant or a woman.” The Pharisee was proud of what he did right and what he refused to do wrong. He expects God to bless him for sins he refuses to commit. Although the Pharisee is right to abstain from the sins he listed, he is wrongly motivated. Pride is often subtle and all the more deceptive when disguised in the robes of self-righteousness.

Because publicans were infamous for extorting more taxes than were due, the Pharisee is quick to mention he is not an extortioner. The Pharisee mentions the publican in his prayer, but not because he cares about him. A proper spirit in worship includes a burden for others. But as far as he is concerned, the publican is useful only for comparison. His contemptuous reference to this man praying nearby shows he does not view him as a fellow worshipper. Comparing ourselves to others is unwise (II Cor. 10:12). Although many will brag about their superior works on judgment day, Jesus will say “I never knew you” (Mt. 7:23).

The Pharisee did not comprehend that the essential element of prayer is confession of sin. Instead, he lauds his alleged virtues. Although he claims he is not unjust, he is quick to judge the publican. Although blind to his own faults, he felt he could clearly see the faults of others. To focus on the failings of another is a well-known psychological ploy to get the focus off oneself.

The prayer of the Pharisee was four times longer than the prayer of the publican. But the amount of time spent in prayer is not a factor in true communication with God. Prayer time is a time for repentance, not boasting. He expresses no gratitude for anything God has done for him. The Pharisee asks nothing from God confesses nothing to God and receives nothing from God.

v. 12
The Mosaic Law mandated only the annual fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29). Two optional weekly fast days, Monday and Thursday, were later established. This was based on the supposition Moses climbed Mt. Sinai on a Thursday and came back down forty days later on a Monday. Therefore, to fast twice a week was to fast more than a hundred times what the Law actually required. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns about fasting only to impress others (Mt. 6:16).

Tithing was originally established for the support of the Levites (Num. 18:21). The law also required a tithe on yearly gains in one’s crops and flocks (Deut. 14:22).The Pharisees considered tithing on any additional income to be meritorious. The word “possess” (ptaomai) refers to all that one might acquire. Jesus condemned those who tithed meticulously on trivial things, yet disregarded more important aspects of the law, such as judgment, mercy and faith (Mt. 23:23). The Pharisee sought to make God indebted to him, but his prayer revealed his true heart condition.

v. 13
In stark contrast to the Pharisee, the publican deliberately chose a position in the temple grounds far from the Holiest of All – the place of propitiation. He also stood as he prayed, but felt he was unworthy to come nearer. The publican approaches God rather than the Pharisee for answers to eternal questions. A Pharisaic attitude helps no one.

With his head bowed low in sorrow, he acknowledges God’s holiness. He does not choose a prominent position to pray. He dares not look toward heaven, boast, consider himself worthy, or compare himself to anyone. His sincerity guides his words and actions. He admits his own heart is wicked by smiting his breast repeatedly. To do so is an Eastern mannerism that says, “I deserve death for this wicked heart.” It was a sign of self-abasement and repentance.

The publican does not pray, “I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee” or “I thank you that I am better than other publicans.” Unlike the Pharisee who distains him, the publican faults only himself. The more keenly a man is aware of his own sinfulness, the more likely he is to pray earnestly and the less likely to list his own virtues. The truly penitent man makes no excuses.

The extreme brevity of his prayer suggests it was in the form of a sharp outcry. The word “mercy” (halaskomai) is a reference to the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. Because the halaskomai represented expiation for sin, so the publican asks God to forgive him and be appeased. Although we are not told how much he comprehended the doctrine of atonement, he prays the expiation God has provided will blot out his personal sins.

Asking God to have a propitious attitude toward him is the pivotal phrase of the parable. His prayer consists of the three things necessary for salvation: an admission of sin, an acknowledgement that punishment for sin is just, and a request for mercy. For prayer to be effective, it must be based on propitiatory sacrifice. After Jesus died on the cross, the New Testament writers fully expand the key doctrine of justification by faith.

Rather than “a sinner,” the more correct translation is “me the sinner.” When one is convicted of his sins, he sees no other man’s sins as equal to his own. Paul refers to himself as “the chief of sinners” (I Tim. 1:15). Only those who confess and forsake their sins will find mercy (Pv. 28:13).

v. 14
The clause “I tell you” is authoritative. “Justified” (dakio) is the single most important word in the Bible, for we can only be justified through Christ’s redemptive blood (Rom. 3:24; 5:9). The sins of the publican are instantly and permanently forgiven. In order to enter heaven, Jesus taught true righteousness must exceed the type the Pharisees touted (Mt. 5:20). Jesus does not name the Pharisee, but refers to him simply as “the other.” This is appropriate, considering the low estimate the Pharisee held regarding “this publican” (v. 11). The Pharisee proclaimed he was not unjust, but Jesus said he was not justified. God heard both men and knew their hearts.

Jesus does not finish His parable without pronouncing a verdict: “Everyone that exalts himself will be abased and he that humbles himself will be exalted.” It is a phrase Jesus uses more than once (Lk. 14:11 & Mt. 23:12). Not self-commendation, but self-condemnation, is a prerequisite for God’s mercy.

The Pharisee considers himself the saint; the publican considers himself the sinner. One focuses on himself while the other focuses on God. The Pharisee was concerned with external works; the publican with internal guilt. One claimed righteousness; the other claimed none. But the point of the parable is not how either the Pharisee or the publican viewed himself, but how God viewed them both. Saving grace is freely available from God only when we realize it cannot be earned and is totally unmerited.



1. To whom is this parable specifically addressed?

2. From Matthew 23, list the transgressions of the Pharisees and the punishments attached to their sins.

3. To enter heaven, what type of righteousness is required?  (Matthew 5:20)

4. List ways in which Believers seek to gain prominence and notoriety in the Church today.

5. According to Proverbs 28:13, what is required in order to obtain mercy?

6. In order to be justified before God, what is required?  (Romans 5:9)

7. What phrase in this parable does Jesus also mention in Luke 14:11?

8. According to Matthew 6:5, what did the hypocrites love to do – and why?

9. What did Paul say was “unwise”? ( II Corinthians 10:12)


Maxim of the Moment

Rare is the one you can long hold dear.