The parable of the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer (see Luke 18: 9–14) is not really about prayer, as is often supposed, but on how a man can be right with God—its purpose is not to teach how to pray, but how to be justified. Read verse 9: “And he” (that is, the Lord) “spoke also to some, who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and made nothing of all the rest [of men], this parable …”. Compare this now with verse 14: “I say unto you, This [man] went down to his house justified rather than that [other]”. Verse 9 describes those who thought they were righteous, verse 14 refers to a man who knew he was a sinner, but who yet came out of the presence of God in the certain knowledge he was justified.
In the verses preceding the parable the Lord Jesus had been speaking about His coming again. He now follows that up by speaking of the only thing which can enable a sinner to stand before Him when He comes. The sinner needs to be justified. It is, therefore, not a question about praying as such, but a question of righteousness. Those that trust in themselves will find that their own righteousness will not suffice in that day. By nature we are all unwilling to look our true condition in the face. Men do not like to hear the whole truth about themselves and try to make out that they are not quite as bad as they really are. In a word, man is ignorant of his true condition and has no desire to be otherwise. It is from this ignorance that arise the two facts described in verse 9, for they go together: self–righteousness and the despising of others.
The truth of God reduces everything to its simplest elements. Presented to us here are two men, two sinners, just like Cain and Abel. It is the same truth here as there, only under a different form. There the form of expression was sacrifice, here it is prayer. Before God there is no difference in sin, “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3: 23) and no difference in grace, “for the same Lord of all [is] rich towards all that call upon him” (Rom. 10: 12). The only difference is whether I recognise what I am as a sinner before God, as did Abel, or whether I presume to approach God on my own terms, as did Cain. We are all reduced to one of these two classes. Here our Lord takes up the subject of prayer instead of sacrifice in order to bring out the same difference between the Pharisee and the tax–gatherer as existed between Cain and Abel. The sons of Adam were alike in that both sought to approach God through sacrifice but what a difference in the offerings they brought! Similarly, the Pharisee and the tax–gatherer were alike in that both needed to pray, but what a contrast in their prayers! This contrast was all the difference between being justified and not. All Pharisees are great at praying. Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee but he never really prayed till after he had seen the Lord (see Acts 9: 11). He had the form of godliness without the power (see 2 Tim. 3: 5). Thus it is not prayer in itself that makes the difference but the state of soul that causes a man to pray. Indeed, if he prays as this Pharisee did, then he is no better than the infidel who never prays—both are equally dead before God.
Here then, we have prayer as the illustration. The Pharisee begins thus: “God, I thank thee” (v11). For what? For ten thousand daily mercies? For the goodness of God toward a poor, lost sinner? No, “I thank thee that I am not as the rest of men”. He has self in view. God is addressed, but the man’s god is really himself. He prayed “to himself”. It is self–laudation accompanied by the deprecation of others. He knew nothing of what he really was as Isaiah did. How did the prophet learn what he was? Isaiah tells us: “I am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips … for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts” (Is. 6: 5). By contrast, the Pharisee had only seen “this tax–gatherer” (Luke 18: 11). The oldest book in the Bible teaches a similar lesson. How did Job learn what he was? He tells us: “mine eye seeth thee: Wherefore I abhor [myself]” (Job. 42: 5, 6). Before this Job could boast like the Pharisee: “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was as a mantle and a turban. I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame” (Job 29: 14, 15). Unlike Job, the Pharisee did not know God and as a consequence did not know himself. The Scripture says of such that “they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own [righteousness], have not submitted to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10: 3). God’s standard is Christ, this Pharisee’s standard was simply that “I am not as the rest of men” (Luke 18: 11). We may not be as other men, we may have a certain standard of righteousness among men, but the question is, are we what we ought to be? Of course not. It is in the presence of God we see what we are. There we learn we are lost sinners and that we need salvation. Salvation is what the tax–gatherer found and what the Pharisee did not find. The Pharisee thought that fasting twice in the week and giving tithes of everything he gained would be a sufficient answer to God’s claims. Indeed, if righteousness lay in abstaining from food, and not from sin, in giving our property and not our hearts, then he was further on the road to righteousness than most others, for God ordained only three fasts in the year and he fasted twice in seven days. However, he entirely missed the point, for instead of comparing himself with God’s standard, he looked only at “the rest of men” and more particularly, at “this tax–gatherer” (Luke 18: 11). One can almost hear the disdain in his voice. What a fatal delusion!
How many have stumbled upon this rock of self–deception! Was he really not an idolater in heart in pretending love for God when he was adoring self? Well did the Lord Jesus say of his ilk “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye are like whited sepulchres, which appear beautiful outwardly, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Thus also ye, outwardly ye appear righteous to men, but within are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23: 27, 28). Such is the Pharisee! No sense of need expressed, no felt unworthiness, no repentance, no confession of sin, no expectation of receiving pardon.
Now turn to the tax–gatherer. Tax–gatherers had much opportunity to exact more than was appointed and to take things by false accusation. They were hated and despised by the populace accordingly. This particular tax–gatherer, however, is not exercised by how he looks in the sight of man (bad as that may be) but by what he is in the sight of God. This is always the work of the Holy Spirit. The Pharisee saw the tax–gatherer, but the tax–gatherer does not notice the Pharisee. He is completely taken up with God. The tax–gatherer knows that it is to the God from whom no secrets are hid that he must give account, and with a trembling step and aching heart he approaches Him. He is bowed down under a sense of his unworthiness and takes his proper place “afar off” (Luke 18: 13). He “would not lift up even his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast” as if acknowledging that there, deep in his heart, lay the source of all his trouble.
Notice his confession. He does not say merely “me” but “me, the sinner”. The tax–gatherer pleads no mitigation and makes no excuses. He has no good deeds to boast of, but simply smites upon his breast in acknowledgement of his wretchedness. He knew and felt what he was, and realised that unless God could righteously forgive he was lost: “O God, have compassion on me, the sinner” (v13). “The sinner”! It was as if there were no others but himself—just the sinner and a holy God. A Pharisee might trust to his fastings and tithes, a convicted sinner can only look to the mercy of God. The Lord does not represent this tax–gatherer as resting in prayer. If he did he would have been like the Pharisee. No, he took refuge in the mercy of God. He brings nothing but a load of sin to be atoned for, a guilty conscience to be cleansed, a sorrowful heart to be comforted, and a needy soul to be filled.
Note the divine verdict. “I say unto you, This [man] went down to his house justified rather than that [other]” (v14). Because he humbled himself, God exalted him. He came as a sinner, and went down to his house cleared of his sins. Of course God must have a righteous basis on which He can forgive sins but that is not explained here. What we have illustrated is the man God can bless, and the man that shuts himself out from God’s blessing. The one sought divine mercy, the other trusted in himself. The one prayed to God, the other prayed to himself. The one was justified, the other remained a sinner.