The parable of the Pharisee and the publican provides a stark contrast between the self-effacing and self-righteous among people who appear to be religious by various standards.
The Pharisee, member of Israel’s strictest sect, certainly wore the costume of piety well. Typically, he could be found praying on the street corner with finely honed petitions, fasting with obvious excess, and reveling in the admiration of those who called him Teacher, saved the choicest seat for him at the banquet, and trusted his interpretations of Moses as if they were infallible (see Matthew 6:1-18, 23:1-36).
The publican, on the other hand, probably did not appear to be very religious until Jesus exposed his prayer in the parable. His attire was not marked by fringes and phylactery and his occupation was held in derision among the masses, even if, when done honestly, it was a perfectly reasonable work for someone in the empire’s wild province.
Introduced to these two disparate characters, the listener reflexively expects condemnation of the tax collector and plaudits for the Pharisee. Jesus, however, peered beneath the costumery and discerned the actual character of two men, both sinners, but only one who was aware of it:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
The point of the parable is introduced in its purpose – Jesus was addressing people in his audience who saw no need for a savior, for they trusted in their own achievements, and even went so far as to look down upon others whom they considered both inferior and unworthy. While the Pharisees were infamous for this degree of self-exaltation, they were by no means alone. Today, Pharisee exists only as opprobrium, but the sect lives on in the attitudes of religious people whose trust is more in their own deluded piety than in the grace of a forgiving God. It is they who ignore the beams in their own eyes to draw attention to the specks elsewhere, and who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are on a different planet (see Matthew 7:1-5, 15:1-9).
In an example of life imitating art, Jesus encountered just such a contrast in the house of Levi, also known as Matthew the tax collector cum apostle: “And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners'” (Mark 2:15-17).
The Pharisees asserted their righteousness by listing their works – ascetic fasting, precise tithing, verbose prayers – but came up wanting because they were wed to heartless ritual and weak in the weightier matters of God’s law – “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). This is evident in the conceit with which he disparages the tax collector in the parable, and the real-life way in which Pharisees exploited poor widows and preyed upon the uninitiated in oath-taking.
In the parable, the tax collector’s righteousness was founded elsewhere. Rather than rattle off a litany of good works, he simply smote his chest and pleaded for patience, confessing his role – a convicted, otherwise unworthy, sinner.
Jesus’s conclusion was that the penitent publican trudged home in a just state while the Pharisee pranced away in self-delusion, feeling saved, but awfully lost. Both men were sick with sin, but only one of them had the courage to confront the disease and consult the physician.
It is not necessarily that the Pharisees’ deeds were all bad – fasting, almsgiving, and praying are wholesome acts. It is, however, that an attitude of self-sufficiency, merit, and incomparable superiority, coupled with the complacency of ritual observance, utterly corrupted them. The publican – less articulate and self-promoting – could only fall back on his attitude of remorse and hunger for real righteousness and certain justification. That comes not through the illusion of perfect law-keeping or the imposition of self-imposed regulations on others, but through heartfelt humility. Labeling oneself a sinner in a world where iniquity is hardly acknowledged anymore is a dramatic step (Matthew 3:11, 8:8).
Obedience to the will of God, from the heart rather than as an exercise in adding personal merit to an imaginary ledger of credits and debits, is truer discipleship than the Pharisees’ fatally flawed version any day (Hebrews 5:8-9, Romans 6:16, 16:26; 1 Peter 1:22).