Publican and Pharisee

Luke 18:10-14



During the Civil War, at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, General John Sedgwick was directing Union Artillery. Confederate snipers were about 1,000 yards away and their shots caused members of his staff and artillerymen to duck for cover. Sedgwick strode around in the open and said, "What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." His men continued to flinch and he repeated, "I'm ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Moments later, General Sedgwick was shot in the head and killed instantly.

Now I do not wish to revisit the Civil War, nor the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. But we can learn something from the Union General’s attitude. He was absolutely certain that he was safe, and he was cut down in the midst of his certainty.

Sometimes people are absolutely certain about their spiritual safety. They have fulfilled all the requirements of religion, so they think, and they are all right, but they are wrong, dead wrong.

This is what the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is about. It is a simple parable, located in Luke 18, containing only 4 verses. Two men went up to the temple to pray.

One was a Pharisee, one was a publican. The Pharisee represents all the good religious people. He was a good citizen and he was a good church member and everybody knew it. He made sure everybody knew it. He even made sure God knew it. He prays: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” There is much good that we can say of the Pharisee. He is not dishonest, he is not unjust, he is not unfaithful to his marriage. He performs religious observances like fasting. He gives a tenth of his income to the synagogue. This is a decent, law-abiding citizen we are talking about here who was probably universally admired by his community as a man of God.

On the other hand, we have the publican, the tax collector. No one admired publicans. Palestine was occupied by a Roman Army, and that meant that the Jews paid taxes to Roman state. The Roman system of taxation could have been designed by the Mafia. They hired tax collectors in various towns and villages, and they told each publican how much he had to collect for Rome, anything over that was his salary. Hence, the more he could squeeze out of the people, the more he had for himself. It was a system made for corruption and exploitation, and the people regarded publicans as little better than thieves and traitors.

So, as soon as Jesus names these two characters, first century Palestinian Jews can tell you which one God is going to hear. Obviously, God is going to hear the prayer of the God-fearing Pharisee. God is not going to hear the prayer of this damned sinner of a publican.

But Jesus, as he always does, turns everything upside down. Jesus said God heard the prayer of the publican, not the Pharisee. What is going on here?

This parable is teaching us an important lesson about God’s dealings with humankind. If we do not understand this parable, there is no possibility that we can understand Christ. We cannot understand the cross; we cannot hear the gospel. The first step in getting into Christianity is to understand that we are all damned sinners. I mean that literally. We are all sinners and we are all damned.

But here is the good news, God’s forgiveness is not dependent upon human virtue. Now this is the exact opposite to what most religion teaches. Most religion says, be good and God will be good to you. Most religion is like the Santa Claus story. He knows who has been naughty and who has been nice, and the nice kids get the good stuff and the naughty kids get the whips and chains.

But understand that Christianity is not like this at all. In Christianity, salvation is not based on our action, our naughtiness or niceness, but on God’s action, on God’s free gift of love in Jesus Christ.

In the letters of the Apostle Paul, this is the central issue that Paul, a former Pharisee, is wrestling with. As a Pharisee, Paul would have prayed the exact same prayer as the Pharisee in the parable. But through the revelation of Jesus Christ, Paul has come to realize that we are all the publican. As a Pharisee, Paul thought he was all right. Now he has realized that none of us are all right.

But the Pharisee in the parable does not realize that at all. In his prayer, he says I thank God that I am not like other people and especially that I am not like this tax collector here.

This is one of the sins of religion. Religion is often used to separate and divide, and to put down and despise. The very concept of a chosen people is a way of saying, I’m better than you are. I am chosen, you are not.

All primitive people thought that their tribe was the chosen people. The Jews thought they were the chosen people. The Greeks thought they were the chosen people. To the Greeks, anyone who did not speak Greek was obviously beneath contempt. They spoke some kind of strange gibberish, they said “bar bar” all the time, hence they were barbarians—which incidentally is where we get our word “barbarian.” Among American Indians, the name of the tribe is just “people” in the local language, in that particular Indian language. If you belong to the tribe, you are people. If you are outside the tribe, you are not people. And if you are in the group, that makes you feel good because you are better than all those outside your group.

Racism works the same way. If I think my race is superior to all others, then I am better than they are.

You find the same thing in religion. I am a Hindu Brahman, I am so far above you that I will not even drink from the same well that you do. Or, I am an orthodox Jewish Rabbi, If one of you gentile ladies touched me, I would be made so unclean that I would have to purify myself for a week. Now you can see that way of thinking is basically, I am better than you are. I am the Pharisee, you are the publican.

And some Christians are not free from this way of thinking. There are plenty of people in church that do not understand Christianity. They are religious, they are not Christian. I have often thought that the tongues-speaking movement is an exercise in one-up-man-ship. Most Christians would say, “I believe in Jesus, I go to church, I worship the Lord.” The tongues-speaker would say, “I believer in Jesus, I go to church, I worship the Lord, and I speak in unknown tongues.” I am better than you are. I am a super-Christian and you are just a peon Christian. But that kind of thinking is not Christian at all.

The essential insight of Jesus in this parable is that people everywhere are pretty much the same. I was listening to a program on TV the other day about the emerging power of China. They were interviewing various authorities on Chinese society. They asked one scholar this question: “What does the average Chinese want?” The scholar laughed, and she replied, “The average Chinese wants the same thing you do, because he or she is just like you.” And I thought, wow, wisdom from a TV program. Who would have expected it? The average Chinese, the average Iraqi, the average New Guinea aborigine is just like you and me. We all want pretty much the same things. We have pretty much the same motives and attitudes. and nobody is better than anybody else.

That is why the Pharisee’s prayer was not heard. He thought he was better than other people. He was not. None of us are.

So the first insight is that people everywhere are much the same. The second insight is that we are all sinners. The publican’s prayer was heard because he knew this. He knew that he was a sinner who did not deserve anything at all from God.

Again, you cannot understand Christ until you get this down. Because I am a sinner, nothing I can do can ever merit any kind for reward from God. It is only when I realize this and depend entirely upon God’s grace and love that I have any possibility of salvation.

That is what the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is saying. This parable shows us how much of a gulf there is between Jesus and what we might call ordinary religion. No wonder the Pharisees were so angry at Jesus. What Jesus is teaching is not a variant of Judaism or any other religion. This is so radical and so revolutionary—no wonder they killed him. This parable is opposed to everything that the Pharisees believed, and to everything most people believe to this day about religion. This is dangerous doctrine.

The Apostle Paul spent most of the book of Romans expounding this doctrine. Romans is one of the most influential books every written. It had profound and life-changing effect on such people as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin and more recently Karl Barth. It seems that every few generations Christians rediscover Romans and try to deal with its explosive theology.

Romans expounds the doctrine which is called Original Sin. It is the same doctrine we find in the parable of the Publican and Pharisee. God is good and righteous and just. God’s righteousness is expressed in what we call the Law, the Torah. But human beings are neither righteous nor just, so the Law points out human unrighteousness and human injustice. The Law does not save us; The Law spells out our sins.

If God were to ignore our sins or if God were to pretend that sin does not exist, God would in effect belittle his own righteousness, he would demean his own holiness. God is not going to do that. A price must be paid for sin. That price is death. Thus, the entire human race was condemned to death because of its own sinfulness. Everyone was condemned, no one was excepted. How can we be saved then? Only by faith. It is faith in the mercy of God, which enables us to approach God and call God Father, as Jesus taught us. But we could not approach God at all, unless a heavy price had been paid. The price has been paid, Jesus died on the cross for our sins.

We did not do anything about our sins. Indeed, if we are like the publican in the parable, we realize that there is nothing we can do about our sins. Jesus did it all, and when Jesus died for sinners a tremendous hope came into the world. The love of God is poured out unconditionally through the cross of Jesus (Romans 5:8 “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”) God cancels out sin through love.

So it comes down to this. I am the publican, the damned sinner, who had no hope at all of salvation. No religion could offer me any way out. God offered me a way out—through Christ.

Major difference here. In the parable, the Pharisee thinks that religion offers him a way to please God. The Pharisee would say that I can live in a certain way and do certain things and God accepts me. So the Pharisee works out his own salvation. The Publican knows that he has no chance at all of working out his own salvation. Salvation comes from God. Salvation is what God is doing not what I am doing. My part is to have faith in what God is doing and depend entirely on God’s mercy.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last Modified: 01/14/08