Written by: Nico Bougas
Article source: JOY! Magazine

Jesus was a master teacher – as such, He often used parables to explain great truths. One of the shortest, yet one of the most profound of all His parables, was that of the Pharisee and the tax collector. “Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else” – Luke 18:9

What exactly is a Pharisee?
The Pharisees were the most influential of all the Jewish religious sects of Jesus’ day. The word “Pharisee” literally means “the separated ones, separatists”, which sums up the type of people that they were. They were the strictest legalists of the day, who pledged themselves to obey and observe all the countless restrictive rules, traditions, and ceremonial laws of orthodox Judaism. They felt that they had got it right and were the only true followers of God’s laws. They considered themselves to be much better and holier than anyone else. They separated themselves not only from the non-Jews – whom they absolutely despised and considered pagan “gentile dogs” – but they even set themselves above and apart from their own Jewish brethren. They would not allow even the slightest relaxation. Their whole self-confessed purpose was to “build a fence around the law.” Not one regulation would they relax or remove. Ultimately, they made their religion into a burden and contrary to the way of Jesus, which was to set people free.

What is a Publican?
The Publicans, on the other hand, were considered by their fellow Jews to be the absolute lowest class of people and the worst kind of citizens! The Publicans were tax collectors for the foreign occupier and ruler of Palestine, the Romans. They were officially-appointed Jewish tax collectors for Caesar, and were therefore considered traitors by their brethren. The Romans would instruct the Publicans on the amount of tax to collect from the people. Then, the Publicans could charge whatever they wanted to and add extra for their own income. They were usually extortioners, cheaters, and robbers of the Jews, and were absolutely despised by their Jewish brethren who considered them the scum of the earth. 

Extreme opposites
This was a vivid comparison between a Pharisee and a Publican. Jesus had chosen the two most opposite figures in the entire Jewish community. The one was held to be the best, the most righteous, the most religious, the most holy, the most Godly of all men. The other was looked on as the worst, filthiest, traitorous scoundrel imaginable!

The Scripture portion
Here is the parable itself in Jesus’ own words: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14

Which one was justified?
So let’s be real. Which one of these two men do you think was really justified before God? The Pharisee certainly appeared to be the more religious of the two, and he certainly appeared to be a righteous and holy man. And then there was the tax collector. Everybody despised him, he even despised himself, and was so ashamed of himself that he wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but simply begged God to have mercy upon him and forgive him. God’s way of looking at things is very different from ours. “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” – Isaiah 55:8

God judges our intentions
Although that Publican’s sins were undoubtedly many, because of his honest and humble confession and recognition of the fact that he was a sinner and one who needed God’s help, Jesus said that he was the one who left the temple justified that day! Not the Pharisee who was so proud of his own goodness and his own righteousness, that he didn’t even think he needed God’s help at all! If anything, he probably felt that he was doing God a favour by honouring Him with his prayers!

Religious pride
In the sight of God, self-righteous religious pride like this Pharisee demonstrated is the greatest and worst of all sins! That hypocritical “holier-than-thou” attitude, that causes people who are self-righteous to despise and look down on others who they don’t consider as holy, pure, faithful, or as good as they think they are! Sadly, others then find them to be the hardest, most narrow minded, and intolerant folks they ever meet. Instead of loving, forgiving, and understanding others, they’re always criticising, judging, and condemning others.

A friend of publicans and sinners
The Gospels tell us that, “When the Pharisees saw Jesus sitting down and eating a meal with many Publicans and sinners who came and sat with Him, they were enraged, and asked His disciples, ‘How can your Master eat with unclean Publicans and sinners?’ But Jesus answered them, ‘You need to go and learn what this means; ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice!'” – Matthew 9:10-13. Jesus was trying to explain to them that having love, mercy, and compassion for the needy was more important than their compliant and dutiful keeping of the law. Far better to show care and love for others rather than their self-righteous and judgmental attitude. 

No good thing in me
Let’s be honest – even the best of us are short of being really good. And any goodness that we do have comes from God and His goodness. The Bible makes it plain that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” – Romans 3:23. We all have this bias towards sin, and it is only God who is truly good. His Word says that everybody is bad, except those who have faith and have the goodness of God, the love of God, the righteousness of God. Even the apostle Paul said, “In me, in my self, there is no good thing!” – Romans 7:18. Jesus was so angered by the hypocritical, self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees that He called them a “bunch of snakes”. He told them that they were hypocrites and were worse than the drunks, the prostitutes, the Publicans, and the sinners that they despised! And that there was more chance for such sinners to make it to Heaven, than there was for them. He told them that they were keeping people out of the Kingdom because of their actions.

Not good enough
Their world must have really been rocked to hear Jesus say to them, “Truly I tell you, the Publicans and the harlots will go into the kingdom of God before you!” – Matthew 21:31. He even warned His own disciples, “Truly I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will certainly not enter into the kingdom of heaven!” – Matthew 5:20. To put it bluntly, unless you are better than they are, you will never get to Heaven! The only way that you can be better than they were is to have Christ’s righteousness. When it came to fulfilling the law, the Pharisees were as good as you could get – but that wasn’t good enough.

Jesus condemns hypocrisy
Remember that Jesus was not speaking to terrorists, murderers, and adulterers. He was speaking to the religious Pharisees. Jesus was so infuriated by their hypocritical pretense, pretending to be so righteous and right all the time, that He unloaded on them in the harshest terms and publicly warned them. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like white-washed tombs, which indeed look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to others as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity!” – Matthew 23:25-28

 What made the Pharisees so self-righteous?
At the root of their self-righteousness and hypocrisy was their pride. They were too proud to confess that they were sinners, like everyone else. In fact, they not only couldn’t confess their sins, they were completely unaware of their own sins. They couldn’t admit that there was anything that could possibly be wrong with them, and therefore they became “blind leaders of the blind”!

Admit it, you’re a sinner!
It’s almost a relief to know you’re bad, and to honestly admit that you’re a sinner. After all, God has said so in His Word –nobody is good! That’s why the worst kind of people in the sight of God are those who pretend to be good and look down on everybody else. The Bible says, “There is none righteous, no, not one. Therefore, by grace are we saved through faith, and that not of ourselves. it is the gift of God, not of our own works or goodness, lest any man should boast.” (Romans 3:10; Ephesians 2:8,9). We just need to be honest and confess, “I’m no good, I’m a sinner, of course I make mistakes. Anything good about me is only Jesus!”

God’s idea of righteousness
God’s idea of righteousness is not the supposedly sinless perfectionist, but the pitiful, hopeless, humble, sinful sinner who knows he needs God. Those are the ones He came to save! “For I came not to call the righteous,” Jesus said, “but sinners to repentance!” – Matthew 9:13. God’s idea of goodness is Godliness – a sinner who knows he needs God and depends on Him for salvation – not the self-made, self-righteous, hypocritical Pharisees who think they can save themselves by their own goodness!

Which are you?
God’s idea of saintliness is a sinner saved by grace, a sinner who has no perfection, no righteousness of his own at all, but is totally dependent on the grace, the love, and the mercy of God! And believe it or not, those are the only kind of saints there are! There are no others! So which of the two are you like? The Pharisee? Or the Publican?

Nico Bougas is the International Director of Development of  Hellenic Ministries. Email him on Nico@bougas.info, visit hellenicministries.com

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