Flip the Coin: Pharisee or Publican?
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
11th Sunday after Trinity, 2012
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord draws a perfect contrast “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” by drawing a wonderful word picture of a Pharisee and a Publican. This parable is a short, but pithy picture of human nature. It might even be said that it represents two sides of one coin.
Here we see two diametrically opposed classes of society; the Pharisees and the Publican. We know that the Pharisees were often the objects of Christ’s scorn and usually were the example of what “not” to be. There were also notable examples of righteous Pharisees, such as Nicodemus and certain unnamed others, who secretly believed on Christ. Yet, recall the origin of the Pharisees, how they arose to defend
Judah and from the gross idolatry that
had brought so much suffering. Remember
how the Jews fell into such a state of “mixed” belief that even their pagan
statues populated the very Temple itself.
Recall how God, in His longsuffering and mercy, sent prophet after
prophet to call His People back into repentance, yet they would not. After
literally hundreds of years of warning, God finally executed judgment on Judah,
when the Jews rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, as we discussed last week. Recall that even in this last state, Jeremiah
warned the people to submit to the yoke of Babylon and live, even if it meant a
state of servitude. Had Israel
done this, even Nebuchadnezzar would have turned his fierce wrath and accepted
their repentance. Instead the Jews under
Zedekiah refused, even trying to flee the siege of Judah through a break in the city
wall. This, of course, failed, and
Zedekiah saw his sons slain before him.
He was blinded and taken to Jerusalem
as one of many captive kings. The
Babylonians then proceeded to destroy Babylon Jerusalem,
including the fabulous , which was
considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Temple
God, however, was not done with His People. Far from it. Much later, under the reign of Artaxerxes the Persian and then Darius the Mede, Jerusalem’s wall and Temple would be rebuilt, as related in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. Although it was indeed glorious to have the Temple in Jerusalem again, it had nowhere near the grandeur of the former temple, nor could it be. Many of the ‘old hands’, those who had seen the original Temple, actually wept openly when they saw the “new” one. Later, Jerusalem would be savaged again by the Greeks, until Judas Maccabeus and his sons led a successful revolt against the Hellenization of Judah. It was during this period that the Pharisees arose, men so zealous for the Law and for the purity of Jewish belief. Their calling was to safeguard Jewish society from the evils of heterodoxy, so that the suffering brought on by idolatry could never happen again.
This was a most worthy goal. Yet, like all things human, absent the guiding Spirit of God, Phariseeism virtually became its own religion. It became twisted and self-centered. They Jews sought righteousness through their own deeds and their interpretation of the Law, thus ensuring, even requiring God’s favor towards the nation of
religion became show without substance, mere mechanistic practice without faith
or belief. Hypocrisy and outward show
became the norm, to a large extent. Israel
That brings us to the Gospel selection for the day. Christ clearly draws a contrast between the self-righteous Pharisee and the humble, penitent publican. Thus, Our Lord draws a fascinating parallel between appearances versus reality. Those of you who took college-level English literature courses will recall that as a major theme in literature, and in life.
Imagine the scene. Here is the Temple, glorious, large and impressive. It must have seemed like acres of smooth stone. Now we see the Pharisee, dressed in his long robe, no doubt with flowing phylacteries and all, standing and praying to himself. It is highly likely that he presented himself to be received by the Temple, as one who truly belonged there. In short, he probably walked in like he owned the place.
Now, considering his “prayer”, some commentators have observed that this “prayer” is not really a prayer at all, but rather an “address” to God The Pharisee proceeds to list his righteous acts and behavior before God, rehearsing them, if you will, almost to demand God’s favor and justification. He gives tithes of all that he possesses, he fasts twice weekly; he is, by all accounts, a righteous man. There is a problem, however; he knows it. Just as a person who is aware of their good looks, nothing “poisons the well” more than self-knowledge about one’s own virtues. While he does do good deeds, actions worthy of praise, his attitude of self-righteousness undoes all his good deeds. Thus, he parades his righteousness before man and God, fully confident that he is seen as such before both.
Our Lord then tells us of the publican. Here is a man who was universally despised as both a tool of the Roman occupiers and as an extortioner. Recall that publicans, or tax collectors, as the NKJ version translates it, were Jews employed the Roman state to levy and collect Roman taxes. Often, they asked for and received more than what was due, in a fraudulent manner. No wonder they were hated, not only as symbols of the occupation, but also as taking advantage of their position to wring as much money as possible out of the population.
This may be why another Publican, ”short of stature” Zacchaeus, in Luke 19:8, said that he would restore four-fold to anyone from whom he had over-collected when Christ told him that He must stay with him that day. This act of repentance on Zacchaeus’ part prompted this wonderful statement from Jesus: Luke 19:9-10 9 And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; "for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."
Similarly, let’s examine the publican’s behavior in the temple from today’s Gospel. He stood “afar off”, not even daring to lift up his eyes to heaven. Instead, he looked down and “smote upon his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” The contrast couldn’t be clearer.
What really drives home the point of the parable is Christ’s last statement: (Luke 18:14) “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." We know this by conventional wisdom, in sayings such as “Pride goeth before a fall”, which is actually taken from Proverbs 16:18-19: ”Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. 19 Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.”
Thus, the humble publican was justified before God, while the Pharisee was rejected. His supposed righteousness meant nothing, while the penitent publican, despised by men, was favored by God. Of course, there is a great lesson in this for us.
We think that it is not far-fetched to think that this picture, both the Pharisee and the Publican, reflects all of us from time to time. Certainly not in these extremes, but it essence this may be very accurate.
For example, there are days that all of us, in some degree or another, play the part of the Pharisee. Not that we dress up in long robes and seek the greetings in the marketplace, as Christ once said, but rather that we might get a bit of self-righteousness. Something has gone well, or we have exalted ourselves in some manner because of some event. Or, we have read some Scripture and think, “Yea, that might be me!” In short, we enjoy some sort of self-exaltation that is not godly.
On the other hand, at other times, we get a truer sense of our own self-worth. That is, we realize that we are what we are: sinners desperately in need of a Savior. Like the publican, we hardly dare to lift up our eyes to heaven.
It is at this point that we are the closest to our salvation, in this priest’s humble opinion. That is, rather than trying to fly on the rotten wings of supposed self-worth, we realize that we need the wings of the angelic host to carry us to Heaven. Not that angels can save us, but they can carry out the commands of Jesus, their Lord, and bring us into His presence. This is salvation, and not the other.
The lesson to us is plain: we rely, not on our own righteousness, but that of Jesus Christ. As Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
When we, like the Pharisee, depend on our own works for justification, or feel pride in our goodness, or indulge in self-righteousness, we run the risk of being rejected by God. Yet, when like the publican, we approach God in a lowly and humble spirit, relying only on the merits of Jesus Christ, we have eternal justification and redemption.
Yes, it may be that we are like two sides of one coin: Pharisee one day and Publican the next. Yet, as we grow in Christ, the Pharisee will fade and the Publican will flower. That is, our dependence on self will lessen and our need for God will grow stronger every day. It is at this point that our salvation is closer than we thought.
Thanks be to God!
Luke 18:14 4 "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." AMEN.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.