THE PUBLICAN AND PHARISEE
Dr. Donald D. Moore
Mount Carmel Baptist Church
The parable identifies individuals from two groups, a Pharisee and a publican, a tax collector. The Pharisees were a pious group of organized Jews with religious, cultural, and social influence. They followed the Old Testament laws. They often went beyond the requirements of the law to demonstrate the depth of their piety. Pharisees were completely separated from non-Jewish segments of society. To some observers, it seemed Pharisees were more concerned with following the law literally than with complying with its intent.
The tax collectors were local Jewish men hired by the Roman government to collect annual taxes from the people. They were often regarded as traitors because they worked for Rome and mistreated their own people to make a profit, collecting more money than required for actual taxes. As such, the people despised them and considered them sinners.
Because of the geography of the temple, individuals would “go up” to the temple to pray. There were designated times—9 a.m. and 3 p.m.—when corporate prayer was offered. Individuals could also bring sacrificial offerings and offer prayers privately. Although private, such prayers were often prayed for all to see (see Matthew 6:5–6).
Both the Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus’ parable offered prayers, and the intent of each prayer is manifested in their individual expressions and posture. Culturally and historically, among the Pharisees, it was considered appropriate to thank God for their piety. The Pharisee stands with a posture of boldness in the temple and identifies all of the criteria, as established by the law (fasting and tithing) that he has not only met but exceeded. As such, the Pharisee in his own eyes was grateful that he was not unjust and despised. He was confident in himself that all of his interactions were just, based on his own interpretation of the laws.
In contrast, the publican—a known sinner— stood in a posture of humility and offered a prayer of contrite repentance. His attitude is made evident by the fact that he stood far off and held his head down, suggesting a personal sense of dejection regarding the sinful nature of his actions.
Culturally, the beating of one’s chest was a ritualized act intended to express earnest grief or remorse. In this parable the gesture conveys the depth of sorrow expressed by the tax collector in the presence of God. Although the tax collector is repentant, he does not appear to offer any intentional acts of restitution for the wrongs committed. For the Pharisees, that brings the authenticity of his prayer into question.
The conclusion of this parable speaks to the mercy and grace of God. The parable indicates that it is the heart of a humble person that draws near to the ears of God to be heard. The Pharisee believed that justification was based on merit. However, through this parable, Jesus revealed that justification as determined by God is connected to one’s sincerity of heart in recognizing one’s unworthiness to receive God’s mercy.
• Have you allowed religious practices to impede your connection with God? How?
• How have you discounted individuals based on your interpretation of their shortcomings or issues?
• How can leaders in religious institutions better serve those who feel unworthy of God’s mercy and grace?
• What is the relationship between self-examination and the spirit in which you pray? • How can you practice entering into the presence of God?