“And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
When I was young in the faith and read the prayer of the Pharisee, I wondered how he could have been condemned if he really did all those things he claimed to do. I did not understand the heart behind the prayer. Jesus’ parable does not seem to apply to everyone-certainly not to those who genuinely follow God’s commandments. It was given especially to those self-confident souls who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others. Such were the Pharisees who made up their own righteousness (Rom 10:1-3) thereby making up their own commandments (Mt 15:1-3:8-9). The Pharisees despised others, trusting that they alone followed the “traditions” of the fathers. They despised others who did not (John 7:47-49).
The Pharisees were hypocrites (Luke 12:1) who pretended to serve God (Mt 23:23) but who in fact served men (Mt 23:3, 5). This Pharisee would have been justified for turning from extortion, unrighteousness, adultery, etc., if he had done those things for the Lord (Mt 6:1-5). He probably did give tithes of all that he possessed, but it was for the wrong motive (Mt 23:5). Therefore, all of his righteousness was as a filthy rag to God, for he did not love God (1 Cor 13:1-3).
Jesus gave the parable for the Pharisee and gave him a solution to his problem. The heart of the publican was his solution. The publican was genuinely sorry for his sin and begged God for mercy. He did not exalt himself for any reason, but sought God’s help to change. The Lord promised mercy for those who confessed and forsook their sins (Pro 28:13). The Pharisee, on the other hand, was genuinely proud that he only was “walking in the light” and had no intention of changing. There was no hope for the Pharisee. He was right in his own eyes and planned to stand in the same position forever.
Jesus pointed to the hearts behind both men. The Pharisee sought to exalt and justify himself (Luke 15:15), while the publican humbled himself before God. God intentionally abases the proud and promises to punish them (Pro 16:5). God promises to exalt those who humble themselves before Him (1 Pe 5:5-6). Let us confess our sins to Him and trust His promise to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). If we trust Him, He will do that for us.