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The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector


by J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) 

from his Commentary on The Gospel according to St. Luke

This parable is linked to the previous one.  The parable of the persevering widow teaches the value of importunity in prayer; the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector teaches the spirit which should pervade our prayers.  The first parable encourages us to pray and not to faint; the second parable reminds us how and in what manner we should pray.

1. The sin which our Lord warns us against

Let us notice, first, the sin against which our Lord Jesus Christ warns us in these verses.  There is no difficulty in finding this out.  St. Luke tells us that to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable (verse 9).  Our Lord denounces the sin of self-righteousness.

We are all naturally self-righteous; it is the family disease of all the children of Adam.  We secretly flatter ourselves that we are not so bad as some and that we have something to recommend us to God. The cure for self-righteousness is self-knowledge. Once the Spirit has opened the eyes of our understanding, we will never again talk about our own goodness.  We will put our hand to our mouths and cry with the leper, “Unclean! Unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45).

2. Our Lord condemns the Pharisee's prayer

Let us notice, second, in these verses that our Lord condemns the Pharisee’s prayer.  We read that that man said, “God, I thank you that I am not like all other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (verse 11).

This prayer has one great defect—a defect so glaring that even a child would notice it: it contains no confession and no petition.  There is no acknowledgment of guilt and emptiness.  There is no supplication for mercy and grace.  It is merely a recital of supposed merits.  In short, it hardly deserves to be called a prayer at all.

It is hard to imagine a spiritual state as dangerous as the Pharisee’s.  Men’s hearts are never in such a hopeless condition as when they are unaware of their own sins.  Let us remember this.  In all our self-examinations let us not compare ourselves with other people.  Let us only concentrate on God’s requirements.  Then we will not be like this Pharisee.

3. Our Lord commends the tax collector’s prayer

Let us notice, third, in these verses the tax collector’s prayer which our Lord commends.  This prayer was the total opposite to the Pharisee’s prayer.  We read that he stood at a distance.  He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (verse 13).  Our Lord gives this short prayer his seal of approval: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (verse 14).

The tax collector’s prayer had five good things about it.  First, it was a real petition.  A prayer which only contains thanksgiving and profession and asks nothing is essentially defective;  it may be suitable for an angel, but it is not suitable for a sinner. Second, it was a direct, personal prayer.  The tax collector did not talk about his neighbors but about himself.  Vagueness and generality are the great defects of most people’s religion; to get out of “we” and “our” and “us” into “I” and “my” and me” is a great step toward heaven. Third, it was a humble prayer, one which put self in the right place.  The tax collector confessed clearly that he was a sinner.  This is the very ABC of saving Christianity; we never begin to be good until we can feel and say that we are bad.  Fourth, it was a prayer in which mercy was the chief thing desired and in which faith in God’s covenant mercy, however weak, was displayed. Mercy is the first thing we must ask for when we begin to pray; mercy and grace must be the subject of our daily petitions at the throne of grace until we die.  Finally, the tax collector’s prayer was one which came from the heart.  He was deeply moved in uttering it; he “beat his breast” (verse 13) as one who felt more than he could express.  Such prayers are God’s delight; see Psalm 5 1:17.

4. Our Lord praises humility highly

Let us notice, lastly, in these verses the high praise which our Lord bestows on humility.  He says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (verse 14).

This principle is found very frequently in the Bible and should be etched on our memories.  Three times we find our Lord using these words in the Gospels, on different occasions.  Humility, he evidently wants us to realize, is among the first and foremost graces for a Christian’s character.  It was a prominent grace with Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Job, Isaiah, and Daniel; it ought to be a prominent grace with everyone who professes to serve Christ.  All the Lord’s people do not have great gifts or a lot of money, but all are called to be humble.  One grace at least should adorn the poorest believer; that grace is humility.

Notes on 18:9-14

11. “Stood up and prayed about himself.”  It is wrong to think that there was anything wrong in standing to pray.  Standing was as common a position for prayer as kneeling among the Jews; see Matthew 6:5; Mark 11:25;
2 Chronicles 6:12.

12. “‘I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’”  A more miserable and defective righteousness than this Pharisee’s, it is hard to conceive. His negative goodness consisted in not being as bad as some people.  His positive goodness consisted in fasting and paying tithes with excessive scrupulosity.  We do not hear a word about heart-holiness.

13. “‘A sinner.’”  Literally, ‘the sinner.”  That is, “the great sinner.”
“Everyone who exalts himself...” The truth of this great principle is illustrated throughout the Bible.  Pharaoh, Goliath, Haman, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod are all cases in point.