It almost sounds like the beginning of a contemporary joke. “Two men went up into the temple to pray…” However, rather than being a joke, it is a very poignant teaching on one of the most important issues we face as individuals…our attitude. Luke prefaces this parable of our Lord with the observation that it was about those that “trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9). In other words, this parable is about those who have an attitude of superiority and self-righteousness.
Most of the time, the New Testament presents the Pharisees in a rather unflattering light. Jesus blasted them with a series of woes as He described the scribes and Pharisees as “hypocrites” (Matt. 23:13-33). There were exceptions, of course, but generally that was true. This parable is another example in which Jesus contrasts the Pharisees with a publican or other known sinner and the Pharisees again come up short.
Besides the fact that Jesus spoke it, two things make this parable powerful. First, the description Jesus gives of the Pharisee and the publican ring true. Everyone must have recognized its truth or the parable would fail to make it’s point. Second, generally speaking, everyone would expect that the Pharisee would be the one who was supposed to be truly righteous and the publican the one who was supposed to lack any sense of sin. But this was turned upside down by Jesus’ parable.
Notice, please, that the Pharisee prayed “with himself” but addressed God (18:11). It is almost as if he felt that he was taking God’s place! In his “prayer,” he mentions himself five times and God only once. He not only mentions himself but praises himself as he enumerates all his good deeds. The facts he lists about himself are good. It is good not to be an extortioner, or an adulterer or unjust. These things are good and Jesus does not condemn these things about the Pharisee (if they are true).
The problem with the Pharisee was that he exalted himself. He contrasted himself with the publican and assumed that he was better than the publican. Contrast him now, yourself, to the publican. The publican acknowledged the fact he was a sinner while the Pharisee boasted that he was not a sinner. The publican did not think himself worthy even to approach near to God while the Pharisee hardly mentioned God. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven while the Pharisee was looking everywhere but to heaven. He smote his own breast with his fists and asked God to be merciful to him while the Pharisee said I am not as other men are.
Jesus also contrasted the publican with the Pharisee and found that the publican went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee. He went justified because he did not exalt himself. The Bible is clear that God cannot use one that is full of himself. In fact, “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6). God wants only to use the weak and foolish things of the world, and the things which are despised so that no flesh should glory in His presence (I Cor. 1:27-29).
On a couple of occasions Jesus made clear that we are to be genuine, not hypocrites. Jesus warned against doing things just to be seen of men (Matt. 6:1-18). He again warned that the Pharisees did everything just to be seen of men (Matt. 23:5). And then, just before going on to describe the woes placed upon the Pharisees, He said that “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). God wants us to be genuine, sincere, unvarnished servants.
Even though the Pharisee was correct that it was good not to be an extortioner or and adulterer or unjust, and even though he may have done well in doing more than required, his sense of self-worth or a sense of self-righteousness hurt his fellowship with God. He exalted himself instead of letting God exalt him. We should heed the admonition that he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord (I Cor. 1:31).
Eric L. Padgett