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.
Understanding the culture in which the Pharisee lived is very important. The Pharisee was one of the most respected people in that society. Everyone thought the Pharisees were very righteous.
Pharisees were typically self-righteous and legalistic, flaunting their own "good works" before others to make themselves appear superior. Jesus referred to them many times as hypocrites. In Luke 14:8-11, we read the story of the Pharisee who prayed a prayer filled with self-righteousness and pride. He apparently prayed to himself more to impress others than to talk to God. He did not recognize that he needed God`s forgiveness because he, like all mankind, was a sinner.
The Pharisee compared himself to others and was very condemning of others. He made the wrong conclusion in his comparison between himself and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee was unaware of his own sins, but very aware of others’ sins. This is very characteristic of a self-righteous person. The Pharisee was depending on his works and feeling that they gained him favor with God. He made himself righteous in the sight of men, but God knew his heart.
What did the Pharisee do that would cause him to think he was so righteous? He fasted twice a week. Only one fast per year was dictated by law which was on the day of Atonement, Leviticus 16:31. There were times of sorrow, times of penitence, times of mourning when people fasted and that was something they could choose to do. But there was only one prescribed fast. The Pharisee covered all his bases in tithing. It says in Matthew 23:23, that the Pharisee tithed mint and anise and cumin. Those are tiny little spices. He tithed the tiny little seeds and leaves of the spices as a way to demonstrate virtue, holiness, and law-keeping. All these little twisted things they developed to make a favorable show in the flesh. Righteousness is not the result of self-righteous activities one might perform or the result of the things you don’t do. If you have that attitude it is legalism.
If it is not what I don’t do and it is not what I do, then “what is it?” The publican gives us the answer.
The Publican was probably the least respected member of society. He was a Jew who went to work for Rome collecting taxes. He was viewed as a traitor. He was afraid to approach God, standing at a distance, knowing that he was unworthy to come before God. He was unwilling to lift his eyes which showed his humility. He was beating his breast which in that culture was the outward sign of an inward pain in one’s soul. The day of Atonement was the day when you did this. You fasted and went around beating your breast because of the pain in your soul. Jesus Christ was the answer to this man’s prayer. Casting himself on divine mercy and grace, the publican obtained favor with God.
Justification is that gracious work of God whereby He extends mercy to the repentant sinner who comes to Him in faith.
Thought: The parable concludes with words that Jesus had used before in (Luke 14:11). “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” In His final words, it is the praise of humility that Christ gives––the hall-mark of Christian virtue. One lesson we cannot fail to learn from the publican’s confession which is foundational in ones personal sense of sin. Sin means separation from God, a sinner’s cry for mercy is seen in this parable and a picture of His great mercy is shown–– for only Jesus can save sinners. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;” (Titus 3:5.)