(The following account is a narrative of the parable told by Jesus in Luke 18:9-14 KJV).
The Pharisees were one of the largest and wealthiest sects among the Jews. They adhered strictly to many of the laws of Moses and felt just as bound to the oral Mosaic traditions. The word Pharisee means separatist. They separated themselves from the pollution of the Jewish worship and stood apart as holy and undefiled. They observed the rules of their institution and felt justified by their conformity to the law. While in the beginning they were acceptable to God, most of the Pharisees eventually lost the spirit and purpose of the law as they focused on outward cleanliness rather than the heart. Their worship tended to be ostentatious as they sought for public recognition. They were left with a form of godliness and many of them became haughty and self-righteous, looking on others with disdain.
Publicans were tax collectors. They were usually Jews and they worked for the Roman government who ruled the Jewish people. Publicans were despised by their fellow countrymen and seen as traitors because they collected tribute for the oppressor. The publicans were often corrupt and dishonest in their financial work.
A Pharisee strode boldly into the temple. His long robes swished as he rudely brushed by a publican who was walking into the temple to pray with his head bowed low. The Pharisee gave the publican a scornful look as he stepped away so as not to be polluted by the sinner’s presence.
Standing apart, the Pharisee raised his hands in worship and lifted his eyes heavenward. His voice echoed through the temple as he prayed.
“God! I thank you that I am not as other men are—corrupt, dishonest, unclean, adulterers. Thank you God that I am not like this publican. I fast twice in the week and I give tithes of all that I possess.”
The Pharisee prayed on. While acknowledging God and giving thanks, he extolled his own virtues and righteousness. In a distant corner, the publican fixed his eyes to the ground in distress and grief because of his sin. As was a common practice to express overwhelming grief, he beat upon his chest. Voice quivering in anguish of heart, the prayer of the publican could scarcely be heard.
“God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”
Jesus spoke this parable to those who trusted in their own righteousness and despised others. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “the publican went to his house justified rather than the Pharisee. Every one that exalteth himself shall be brought low, but he that humbles himself shall be exalted.”
The Pharisee had a form of religion and followed many good principles, but his heart was proud. He was self-righteous and saw himself as spiritually superior to others. His good works and sacrifice to God did not save him. The publican, in humility of heart, asked God for mercy. He was the one that was forgiven of his sin and saved that day.
Salvation is a gift of God to those who humble themselves and acknowledge their sin and neediness. Morality, religion, and good works do not justify the heart of man. The church today is called to be separate from the sin of the world. While separate, may every child of God worship and live in humility of heart and not fall prey to a pharisaical, self-righteous spirit. All true righteousness is not of ourselves but is of the Lord.