Home      Back to Trinity 11




Richard Chenevix Trench, D.D.
Chapter 29 from Notes on the Parables of our Lord.
See original for extensive footnotes.
(First Published 1841.)
LUKE xviii. 9-14.

Some interpreters find in this parable, as in that of Dives and  Lazarus, a prophecy of the rejection of the Jews, with the reception into God’s grace of the Gentiles; the Pharisee representing for them that whole nation which would assuredly have accepted him as embodying its ideal—the publican, the Gentiles, with whom these hated ministers of the Roman denomination were commonly classed. They see in the one the Jew, glorying in his own merits, and proudly extolling himself in these, but through this very pride and self-righteousness failing to become partaker of the righteousness of God; in the other the Gentile, who meekly acknowledging his vileness, and repenting his sins, obtains the grace which the Jew has missed.  So long as no more is claimed by the advocates of this interpretation than that Jew and Gentile illustrated on the largest scale the solemn truths which are here declared, it may very well pass. But the words which introduce the parable, ‘And He spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others,' words which must give the law to its interpretation, refute this when made the primary intention with which it was spoken. For who were these ‘certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous? Assuredly not Pharisees, nor any who avowedly admired Pharisees, as did the great body of the Jews. What profit would it have been to hold up to such the spectacle of a Pharisee praying as this one prays in the parable. They would have seen nothing unseemly in it; they would have counted it the most natural and fittest thing in the world that he should pray exactly in this fashion. But a disciple, one already having made some little progress in the school of Christ, yet in danger, as we are all in danger, of falling back into pharisaic sins, such a one would only need his sin to be plainly shown to him, and he would start back at its deformity; he would recognize the latent Pharisee in himself and tremble and repent.’ It was in some of His own disciples and followers, that the Lord had detected symptoms of spiritual pride and self-exaltation, accompanied, as these will be ever, with a contempt of others; and it is to their needs that He proceeds in the parable to apply a remedy. 

‘Two men went up into the temple to pray,’ at one, no doubt, of the stated hours of devotion (Acts iii. 1), ‘the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican:’ a Brahmin and a Pariah, as one might say, if preaching from this Gospel in India—the Pharisee, representing all those who, having made clean the outside of the platter, have remained ignorant of all the uncleanness within—have never learned to say, ‘Deliver me from mine adversary,’ do not so much as know that they have an adversary; the publican, an example of all those who have found their sins an intolerable burden, and now yearn after One who shall deliver them from these and from the curse of God’s broken law. Christ will make His disciples understand how much nearer the kingdom of God is this man than the self-complacent Pharisee, or than any who share in his spirit and temper; that he may be within that kingdom, while the other is certainly without.” 

‘The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.’ It is a mistake, growing out of forgetfulness of Jewish and early Christian customs, to urge this, that the Pharisee prayed standing, as an evidence already displaying itself of his pride. Even the parable itself contradicts this, for the publican, whose prayer was an humble one stood also (ver. 13). But to pray standing was the manner of the Jews (I Kin. viii. 22; 2 Chron. vi. 12; Matt. vi. 5; Mark xi. 25); however, in moments of a more than ordinary humiliation or emotion of heart, they may have exchanged this attitude for one of kneeling or prostration (Dan. vi. 10; 2 Chron. vi. 13; Acts ix. 40; xx.. 36; xxi. 5).  The Church owes this, as so much in the external features of its worship, to the Synagogue.’ Its stations of prayer were so called because standing the Christian soldier repelled the attacks of his spiritual enemy. At the same time, when we weigh the word of the original, this ‘stood’ may very well be emphatic, indeed we may confidently assert that it is. It implies that he, so to speak, took his stand, planted and put himself in a prominent attitude of prayer; so that all eyes might light on him, all might take note that he was engaged in his devotions (Matt. vi. 5). The words are not always combined as our Translators have combined them, but rather as follows: 'The Pharisee stood by himself, and prayed thus:’separatist in spirit as in name, and now also in outward act, he desired to put a distance between himself and all unclean worshippers (see Isai. lxv. 5). The other construction, however, it is generally agreed, should be adhered to. 

His prayer at first seems to promise well: ‘God, I thank Thee;’ for the Pharisees, as Grotius well observes, ‘did not exclude the divine help. But they who allow it and use this language are frequently ungrateful to it, allotting, as they do, to themselves the first share in virtuous actions, to God the second; or so recognizing common benefits, as to avoid fleeing as suppliants to that peculiar mercy which their own sins require.’  Thus it was with this man; while a due recognition of God’s grace will always be accompanied with deep self-abasement, confessing, as we must, how little true we have been to that grace, how short we have fallen of what we might have been, with such helps at command. And thus the early promise of the Pharisee’s prayer quickly disappears; for under the pretence of thankfulness to God, he does but thinly veil his exaltation of self; and he cannot thank God for the good which he fancies that he finds in himself, without insulting and casting scorn upon others for the evil which he sees, or fancies that he sees, in them. He thanks God, but not aright; thanks Him that he is ‘not as other men are,’ dividing the whole of mankind into two classes, putting himself in a class alone, and thrusting down every one else into the other. And as he cannot think too good things of himself, so neither too bad of others. They do not merely fall a little short of his perfections, but are ‘extortioners, unjust, adulterers,’—and then, his eye alighting on the publican, of whom he may have known nothing but that he was a publican, he drags him into his prayer, making him to furnish the dark background on which the bright colours of his own virtues shall more gloriously be displayed ;—finding, it may be, in the deep heart-earnestness with which the contrite man beat his breast, in the fixedness of his downcast eyes, proofs in confirmation of the judgment which he passes upon him. He, thank God, has no need to beat his breast in that fashion, nor to cast his eyes in that shame upon the ground. 

So perfect is he in the fulfilment of the precepts of the second table. He now returns to the first; in that also he is faultless. ‘I fast twice in the week.’ He has his works of supererogation. Moses appointed but one fast-day in the year, the great day of atonement (Lev. xxvi. 29; Num. xxix. 7); but the devouter Jews, both those who were, and those who would seem such, the Pharisees above all, kept two fasts weekly, on the second day and the fifth. ‘I give tithes of all that I possess;’ or rather, ‘of all that I acquire.’  He, another Jacob, has made the same promise to God as the patriarch of old: ‘Of all that Thou shalt give me, I will surely give the tenth unto Thee’ (Gen. xxviii. 22; cf. xiv. 20). The law commanded only to tithe the fruits of the field and increase of the cattle (Num. xviii. 21; Dent. xiv. 22; Lev. xxvii. 30); but he, no doubt, tithed mint and cummin (Matt. xxiii. 23), all that came into his possession (Tob. 1. 7, 8), down to the trifles about which there was question, even in the Jewish Schools, whether it was obligatory to tithe them or not (Hos. xii. 8). He will thus bring in God as his debtor; misusing those very precepts concerning fasting and paying of tithes, given to men, the first to waken in them the sense of inward poverty and need, the second to remind them that whatever they had was from God, and should therefore be to God, making even these to minister to his arrogance and pride. Acknowledgment of wants, or confession of sin, there is none in his prayer,--if that can be called prayer which has nothing of these.  ‘Had he, then,’ asks Augustine, ‘no sins to confess? Yes, he, too, had sins; but, perverse and knowing not whither he had come, he was like a sufferer on the table of a surgeon, who would show his sound limbs, and cover his hurts. But let God cover thy hurts, and not thou: for if, ashamed, thou seekest to cover them, the physician will not cure them. Let Him cover and cure them; for under the covering of the physician the wound is healed, under the covering of the sufferer it is only concealed; and concealed from whom? from Him to whom all things are known. 

It will aggravate our sense of the moral outrage involved in the Pharisee’s contemptuous reference to his fellow-worshipper, if we keep in mind that in him we behold one who at this very moment was passing into the kingdom of God, who had come, in the fulness of a contrite heart, to make, as seems evidently meant, the first deep confession of his sins past which had ever found utterance from his lips, in whom amid sore pangs the new man was born. How ugly a thing does the Pharisee’s untimely scorn appear, mingling as a harshest discord with the songs of angels, which at this very moment hailed he lost who was found, the sinner who repented. For let us turn now to him. ‘And the publican standing afar off,’ not afar off from God, for the Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart, ‘would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven,’ much less then his hands and his face (I Tim. ii. 8; I Kin. viii. 54; Heb. xii. 12; Ps. xxviii. a), to that dwelling of the Holy One; for, like the prodigal, he had ‘sinned against heaven’ (Luke xv. 18), would have exclaimed like Ezra, ‘O my God, I am ashamed, and blush to lift up my face to Thee, my God; for our iniquities are increased over our heads, and our trespass is grown up into the heavens’ (ix. 6). He stood ‘afar of,’ not that he was a proselyte or a heathen, or had not full right to approach, for he also was a Jew, but in reverent awe, not venturing to press nearer to the holy place; for he felt that his sins had set him at a distance from God, and until he had received the atonement, the propitiation which he asks for, he could not presume to draw nigher. Moreover, he ‘smote upon his breast,’ an outward sign of inward grief or self-accusations (Nah. ii. 7; Luke xxiii. 48), as one judging himself, that he might not be judged of the Lord; acknowledging the far heavier strokes which might justly light upon him; at the same time crying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner,’ or ‘to me, the sinful one;’ for as the Pharisee had singled himself out as the most eminent of saints, or indeed as the one holy in the world, so the publican singles himself out as the chief of sinners, the man in whom all sins have met--a characteristic trait! for who, when first truly convinced of sin, thinks any other man’s sins can equal his own? 

And he found the mercy which he asked. His prayer, like incense, ascended unto heaven, a sacrifice of sweet savour, while the prayer of the Pharisee was blown back like smoke into his own eyes; for ‘God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble:’ ‘I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.’ Not merely was he justified in the secret unsearchable counsels of God, but he ‘went down to his house justified,’ with a sweet sense of forgiveness received shed abroad upon his heart; for God’s justification of the sinner is indeed a transitive act, and passes from Himself to its object. The Pharisee meanwhile went down from the temple, his prayer ended, with the same cold dead heart with which he went up. By that ‘rather than the other’ Christ does not mean that the publican by comparison with the Pharisee was justified, for there are no degrees in justification, but that he absolutely was justified, was contemplated of God as a righteous man, and the other not; that here the words were fulfilled, ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away;’ ‘Though the Lord be high, yet bath He respect unto the lowly; but the proud He knoweth afar off’ (Ps. cxxxviii. 6; Isai. lvii. 15; Job v. 11; xl. 11, 12; 2 Pet. v. 5, 6). And the whole parable fitly concludes with words not now for the first time uttered by the Lord, and which would well bear repetition: ‘For every one that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted (xiv. 11). The saying constitutes a beautiful transition to the bringing of the children to Jesus, the next incident recorded by the Evangelist.