Jesus follows up His previous parable on prayer with another parable relating to prayer. Note that both parables are about prayer, but this present parable is directed to a certain group of people: “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18.9). It is very likely that He levelled this parable at the Pharisees, but not necessarily. It would seem he is aiming this at the crowds in general who looked to the Pharisees, the religious elites of the day, and tried to imitate their practices. Jesus uses this parable, then, to say 1) your righteous ought to embarrass you before God and 2) your attitude toward others is wrong.
First, these people trusted in themselves as being righteous before God. They smack with conceit and overconfidence. Their boasting is as great as the Pharisee’s is in the parable. Their ego is great but it is getting in the way of their communication with God. They are ignorant of this, though. Second, these people look down on people. All the other people are despicable. All other people are inherently worthless when compared to them, the spiritual giants. It is these people to whom Jesus speaks this parable.
The Haughty Pharisee
Jesus describes a common scene in the Jewish realm: people going to the temple to pray. The first character we are introduced to in any detail is a Pharisee. Now the details about the Pharisee are interesting: either this man is “standing by himself” and praying or he stands “praying to himself.” Either interpretation is valid and shows the man’s self-righteousness: if he is standing by himself, while standing was a common posture, to be by himself is to sever himself from the “others” (like the tax collector). If he is praying to himself, then his prayer, though addressed to God, is really empty of any true fellowship with God; he has removed God from His proper position in a persons life and has made self God.
The Pharisee’s confidence is self is further highlighted in the prayer. He is not like other men. He is, in his own eyes, blameless. But this is not the result of anything God has done; it is totally the Pharisee’s own effort and commandment keeping which has got him to this place in life. Hence, he thanks God for his own virtues and goodness, and not the mercies God gives to men. The climax of the list of sinners is the tax collector, no doubt standing within distance of the Pharisee’s voice.
But it is not enough to tell God about what he has not done, so he goes on to explain what righteous deeds he has done. He fasts twice a week, a common Pharisee practice usually performed Mondays and Thursdays (second and fifth day of the week). Also he gives the tithe, the common practice of Jews since it was commanded by God. Hmm…nothing real extraordinary in this man’s life. Yet, he is so proud of his deeds. His ego is so loud it is deafening, drowning out the sound of his prayer even in the ears of God. His prayer oozes with self: no less than 5 times he uses the personal pronoun “I”. This is one egotistical Pharisee.
The Humble Publican
Contrast this portrait of the self-righteous with this picture of humility before God. He is not standing for all to see (i.e. by himself) but is far off, hidden, in a corner perhaps. This is the position of embarrassment before God because of what sins he has committed. He is so embarrassed he cannot even lift his eyes to heaven. Ever been here? You do something so terrible in the eyes of God…of course we all have – those hideous deeds are called sins. And every sin is just as weighty as the next. One sin breaks fellowship with God. This tax collector shows us the proper position we sinners need when before God: “God, be merciful on me, a sinner.” We are hurt from our sins because our sins have hurt God.
Two men leave the temple day, but only one goes home justified. Only one goes home with things set right and deemed rigtheous before God: the tax collector. What?! The dreaded tax collector, the vile helper of the Romans?! Yes. He is shown mercy for he has seen his sorry lot before God Almighty. There is no possible way back into fellowship with God except for the mercy of God. If our ego is so loud we drown out our prayers, how can we expect God to show us mercy. Hence, the admonition from our Lord: humble yourselves before God. This lesson is seen elsewhere in the New Testament (James 4.10; 1 Peter 5.6). If we do not humble ourselves, God will not exalt us. If we are exalting ourselves, allowing our ego to run wild, God will humble us. Not may or might; He will! Our duty is to work at keeping God in the proper perspective and ourselves in the proper position: face down before a holy God.