The Pharisee and the Publican: a mixture of good and bad sorts

Published on 13 February 2022 at 13:00

[Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others]:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The scope of the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax collector is introduced forthwith in the verse prior to today’s lesson. There is no room left for doubt, and we are unambiguously told from the onset to whom this parable was directed and intended.

For Jesus “spoke this parable [as a censure] to some [namely, the Pharisees] who [believed and] trusted in themselves [and their own abilities and merits], and [who were convinced of] their own righteousness [or moral uprightness] — and [who consequently] [in arrogance, thoughtlessly] despised others [and looked upon others with disgust] [Luke 18:9]. 


Mosaic depicting the humbled publican to the left and the self-righteous pharisee to the right.


External expression of religion

In terms of background, the word ‘Pharisee’ [from the Hebrew, pāraš] referred to one who was ostensibly and ostentatiously set apart or separated for a life of ritual purity vs. ritual impurity — which also involved ‘ritual separatism’ in order to avoid contamination from both Gentiles and irreligious Jews.

The historical party of the Pharisees -as such- ceased to exist after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 73 CE. Notwithstanding, the Pharisees laid the foundation for present-day rabbinical Judaism with its emphasis on the Mitzvot, or 613 obligatory rules for Jews regarding the external expression of religion. Of these external rules, 365 are negatively-framed prohibitions —which are equal in number to the days of the year.

The remaining 248 are supposedly positive mandates —each one corresponding in number to a particular bone or organ in the male Jewish body.

Without a doubt, the mediations of such a system were -and are- overwhelmingly oppressive, tedious, and interminable. The Lord Jesus Christ came to save mankind from such pharisaical and halakhic systems — and indeed from all other legal and legalistic systemic schemes. For such systems proceed from, and are driven by, the ‘passions that wage war’ in man’s flesh [James 4:1].

Now, upon examination of the parable, it becomes evident that the man with a pharisaical disposition is marked by sanctimonious, hypocritical, and censorious self-righteousness. Therefore, like unto his ancient prototype from among the Jews, the modern-day ‘pharisee’, as it were, is “laden [down] with sin and led away by diverse passions” [II Timothy 3:6]. He is possessed with self-conceit and pride —possessing a hypertrophic sense of self-esteem and an overweening opinion of his own person, qualities, and accomplishments.

Moreover, he is convinced of his own inherent goodness, and if he be religious, of his own inherent holiness. He regards himself as the ‘better man’, and indeed, if religious —holier than other men. He sees himself as one who might serve as an example in any scenario. Such a man possesses an arbitrary sense of self-reliance vs. reliance upon God. He not only has a high opinion of his own righteousness —but depends upon the merit of it.

Therefore, whenever he addresses God, he blatantly, and in an unashamed manner, trusts in himself and in his own acts of feigned righteousness, and approaches God in overconfidence bias —which is the most significant and injurious of all cognitive biases.

His subjective confidence in his own ability and merits, in which he puts his trust, is great. Notwithstanding, his actual performance is deplorable and deserving of censure. Notwithstanding his condition, he is convinced in his evil heart that he has made God his debtor, and therefore, may well demand anything he wants from God. This, of course, leads him to despise others, and to look upon them with contempt —as not worthy to be compared with him. Thus, he embodies the traits that are characteristic of modern man.

The self-righteous pharisee embodies the traits that are characteristic of modern man.


Now Christ, by this poignant parable, displays the heedlessness, imprudence, and folly of the Pharisees, for He elsewhere has said: “You are the offspring of your father the devil [and belong to him], and you enjoy doing your father’s will [and therefore you serve him well, passionately carrying out and implementing his will, desires, and plans]. He was a murderer from the beginning [and start], and does not stand in [or with] the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks, he lies, for he speaks from his own resources and in his own native language [thereby revealing his nature], for he is [the master of deception] and the father of lies” [John 8:44].

By way of satanic delusion, the Pharisees therefore cut themselves and their prayers off from being favorably accepted and received by God.

This is, of course, called a parable, and there is nothing of similitude in it to any given or actual event. It is rather a description of those of the Pharisaic and malformed state of mind —expressed in thought, word, and deed by those who proudly justify themselves. These are contrasted with those that humbly denounce themselves and their station, or sinful status, before God. This imprudent and foolhardy state of affairs —which also evokes impudence and audacity— is a matter of fact everywhere today.  


icon depicting Jesus Christ with his disciples in the foreground and the pharisee and the publican in the background.

The parable

Now the parable begins as follows: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” [Luke 18:10]. Both of these men addressed themselves to the duty of prayer at the same place and time. It was not the hour of public prayer but they went to offer their personal devotions as was the practice at that time — and moreover, still is throughout the Orthodox world. For the temple was then, and now still is, not only the place of worship, but also the medium of worship.

God had promised, in answer to Solomon’s request, that, whatsoever prayer was made in a right manner in or towards that house or temple —it should therefore be accepted. For then the Lord appeared to Solomon by night, and said to him: “I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for Myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up heaven and there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among My people, if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to prayer made in this place. For now I have chosen and sanctified this house [and temple], that My name may be there forever; and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually” [II Chronicles 7:12–16].

The Pharisee and the tax collector both went to the temple, and so it is that among the worshippers of God even today in any Christian temple, there is a mixture of good and bad sorts, of which there are some that are accepted of God, and some that are not accepted.

This has been the case ever since Cain and Abel brought their offerings to the same altar. “For in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain [or accept] his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell” [Genesis 4:3–5].

One might suppose that the Pharisee, proud as he was, could not think himself above prayer; nor could the tax collector, humble as he was, think himself shut out from the benefit of it. Notwithstanding, there is good reason to think that both of these two men went with different views and motives. The Pharisee went to the temple to pray because it was a public place —even more public than the corners of the streets. Therefore, he should have many eyes upon him, who would applaud his devotion, which perhaps was more than was currently expected.

The character that Christ attributed to the Pharisees —that all their works they did to be seen of men— gives us occasion for this conclusion. For Jesus said: “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites [or play-actors]. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets [and indeed in any public place], that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” [Matthew 6:5]. 

Hypocrites keep up the external performances of religion

Hypocrites keep up the external performances of religion only to set aside or gain worldly benefits. There are many whom we see every day at the temple, whom it is to be feared we shall not see rewarded on the Great Day at Christ’s right hand. “For all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand: Come, you blessed of My Father [for you have a special place in My Father’s heart], inherit [and experience the full inheritance of] the Kingdom [that has been prepared and destined for you] from [before] the foundation of the world: for I was hungry [and you saw me], and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger [and had no place to stay], and you took Me in; I was [poorly clothed, and even] naked and you clothed [and covered] Me; I was sick and you visited [and tenderly cared for] Me; I was in prison and you came to [visit and comfort] Me” [Matthew 25:32–36].   

The tax collector went to the temple because it was appointed to be a house of prayer for all people. For it is written: “Also the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants — everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and holds fast My covenant, even them I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says: Yet I will gather to him others besides those who are gathered to him” [Isaiah 56:6–8]. The Pharisee came to the temple upon an accolade, that is, awaiting an award, reward, or privilege granted as a special honor or as an acknowledgment of merit, but the tax collector came upon concern for his salvation.

The Pharisee came to make his appearance, the tax collector came to make his request. But in the words of the poet and hymnographer Sir Isaac Watts: 


“The Lord their different language knows,

And different answers he bestows;

The humble soul with grace he crowns,

Whilst on the proud his anger frowns.”


For God sees with what disposition and design we come to wait upon Him in the Divine Services —and will judge us accordingly. “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” [I Samuel 16:7].  

“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus within himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men [and everyone else] —extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes [one-tenth] of all that I possess' ” [Luke 18:11–12]. He was in every respect self-absorbed, or ‘full of himself’.

According to St. Isaac the Syrian, the Pharisee here makes manifest his proper prelest [in Greek, pláni —spiritual self-deception and delusion]. He had no other awareness save that of his own broken, fallen, and distorted self-awareness. His praise was not of God’s glory —but of the self, or more precisely, himself. His words manifest that he believed himself to be righteous, or inherently good.


The Pharisee

A great many good things the Pharisee said of himself — which we may suppose to be partially true. He was free from gross and scandalous sins. He was not an extortioner, not a usurer, not oppressive to debtors or tenants —but fair to those who had dependence upon him. He was not unjust in his dealings. He did no man any wrong. He could say, as did the Prophet Samuel: “Here I am. Witness against me before the Lord and before His anointed: Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken, or whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed, or from whose hand have I received any bribe with which to blind my eyes? I will restore it to you” [Samuel 12:3].

The Pharisee was no adulterer —but had possessed his vessel in sanctification and honor. Yet this was not all. For he fasted twice a week. on Monday and Thursday, as was the custom of the Pharisees and their disciples. Thus, he outwardly glorified God with his body. Moreover, he gave tithes of all that he possessed, according to the Law —and so, outwardly glorified God with his worldly estate. Now all this was very well done and commendable.    

Miserable indeed is the condition of those who come short of the outward righteousness of this Pharisee. “For if the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?” [I Peter 4:18]. Notwithstanding, the Pharisee was not accepted —but why?

The Pharisee’s inner disposition manifested in the Pharisee’s supposed thank-offering was diametrically opposed to that of the Apostle Paul, who said: “But by the [amazing] grace of God I am what I am [and have been made what I am], and His grace toward me was not in vain [or fruitless]; but I labored more abundantly than they all [and worked harder than the other Apostles], yet not I [in my own strength], but [by] the [empowering] grace of God which was [poured out upon me and] with me” [I Corinthians 15:10].

Conversely, the Pharisee’s prayer is but a mere formality. For although he says: “God, I thank Thee,” this is intended but for a plausible introduction to a proud and vainglorious ostentation of himself. He makes his boast of this, and dwells with delight upon this subject, as if all of his business in the temple were to inform God of his own moral and other excellences. He is furthermore ready to say, with the hypocrites of old: “Why have we fasted, they say, and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?” [Isaiah 58:3]. 

This parable proclaims the very essence of the Gospel.

The Pharisee assumed that he was righteous  — inherently good— and not only mentions it, but declares it as if he were entitled for God to be pleased with him. There is not one word of prayer in all that he said. He went up to the temple to pray, but forgot his task, and was so full of himself and his own inherent goodness that he thought he had need of nothing —not even of the favor and grace of God, of which, he did not even think to ask.  

The Pharisee despised others. He thought contemptibly of all mankind save himself. For he said: “I thank You that I am not like other men” [Luke 18:11]. He speaks indiscriminately, as if he were better than all or even most men. We may have reason to thank God that we are not as some men in particular —especially those who are notoriously wicked and vile —but to speak at random, as if we only were good, and all, or most, besides us were reprobates, is to judge by wholesale. He thought meanly (or disparagingly) in a particular manner of the tax collector —whom he had probably left behind in the section of the temple called the Court of the Gentiles, and whose company he had fallen into as he came to the temple. He knew that he was a tax collector, and therefore very uncharitably concluded that he was an extortioner, unjust, and, in all, a nonentity.

Suppose it had been so, and that the Pharisee had known it. What business had he to take notice of it? Could not the Pharisee say his prayers without reproaching his neighbor? “But the hypocrite with his mouth destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous will be delivered” [Proverbs 11:9]. And was the Pharisee as much pleased with the tax collector’s imagined unscrupulousness as with his own respectability? There could not be a plainer evidence, not only of the want of humility and charity, but of the reigning pride and malice in the heart of the Pharisee.  


Icon depicting the pharisee praying upright and the publican, bent in prayer. The hand of God shines upon the publican.

The tax collector

The tax collector’s address to God was the reverse to that of the Pharisee. The tax collector’s prayer was full of shame and humility vs. the Pharisee’s pride and brazenness. The tax collector’s prayer was full of repentance for sin and desire towards God vs. the Pharisee’s self-confidence, self-righteousness, and self-sufficiency. The tax collector expressed his repentance and humility both in what he did and in his very gesture. For when he addressed himself to his devotions, he was expressive of the need for great seriousness and humility —and the proper clothing of a broken, penitent, and obedient heart. Therefore, he stood afar off.

The Pharisee stood, to the upper end of the court. The tax collector kept at a distance under a sense of his unworthiness to draw near to God, and to avoid the Pharisee, whom he observed to look scornfully upon him, and of disturbing his devotions. Hereby he owned that God might justly behold him afar off, and that it was a great favor that God was pleased to admit him thus nigh. “For when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher [to a better and more prominent place].’ Then you will have glory, [respect, and honor] in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whosoever exalts himself [and has a lofty opinion of himself], and whosoever seeks to raise himself up will be publicly humbled, and he who [has a modest opinion of himself, and chooses to] humble himself] will be exalted [and raised up] before all” [Luke 14:10–11].

The tax collector would not lift up so much as his eyes to Heaven — much less his hands, as was usual in prayer. He did lift up his heart to God in the Heavens, in holy longing but, through prevailing shame and humility, he did not lift up his eyes in holy confidence and courage. His iniquities are gone over his head, as a heavy burden, so that he is not able to look up, for as it is written: “For innumerable evils have surrounded me; my iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head; therefore, my heart fails me” [Psalms 40:12]. The dejection of his looks is an indication of the dejection of his mind and heart at the thought of his sin.

“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” -we have this prayer upon record as an answered prayer.

The tax collector smote, or beat, his chest in a holy indignation at himself for sin. In the words of Matthew Henry: “Thus would I smite this wicked heart of mine, the poisoned fountain out of which flow all the streams of sin, if I could [only] come at it” [Commentary on the Whole Bible, Volume V, 1710].

King David’s heart smote and condemned him. The sinner’s heart first smites him in a penitent rebuke. For it is written: “And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people [by taking a census]. So David said to the Lord: 'I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O Lord, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly' ” [II Samuel 24:10].

Therefore, sinner, I ask you today: What have you done? “Surely, after my turning [from You], I repented; and after I was instructed, I struck myself on the thigh [in remorse] and beat my breast; I was ashamed, yes, even humiliated, because I bore the reproach of my youth” [Jeremiah 31:19]. And then the tax collector smites his heart with penitent remorse: “O wretchèd man that I am! [What an agonizing situation I am in!] [Roman 7:24]. And as a great mourner, he beats upon his breast [Nahum 2:7].  

The tax collector expressed his repentance in his short prayer. Shame and humility hindered him from saying much —but what he said was with the intent: “O God, [please] be merciful to me a sinner” [Luke 18:13]. And blessed be God that we have this prayer upon record as an answered prayer, and that we are sure that he who prayed it went to his house justified [Luke 18:14]. And so shall we have our prayer answered, if we pray, as the tax collector did, through the Lord Jesus Christ: “O God, [please] be merciful to me a sinner!”

The tax collector gives himself no other character than that of a sinner, a convicted delinquent in God’s presence. He owns himself a sinner by nature, by practice, by speech, and by thought —guilty before God. On the other hand, the Pharisee denies himself to be a sinner; none of his neighbors can denunciate or denounce him, and he sees no reason to reproach himself, with anything amiss. He considers himself to be clean. He considers himself to be free from sin. The tax collector has no dependence but upon the mercy of God —that, and that only, does he rely upon. On the other hand, the Pharisee insists upon the merit of his fasting and tithes. The tax collector earnestly prays for the benefit of God’s great mercy. He comes as a beggar for alms, praying with affection, and waiting upon God, crying: “O God, [please] be merciful to me a sinner!"  

The Prayer of St. John Chrysostom—under the title the Collect for Purity in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer encapsulates the tax collector’s disposition and plea: 


Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen. 


“For there is nothing hidden which will not be [disclosed and] revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light” [Mark 4:22]. Jesus Himself, Who is perfectly acquainted with all of the proceedings in the court of Heaven, assures us that because of his inner disposition and corresponding outward plea that came from the depths of his heart, this poor, repentant, broken-hearted tax collector went to his house justified [Luke 18:14]. This is the key to the tax collector’s acceptance with God.


The recompense answers the duty

The Pharisee, in his prelest —spiritual self-deception and delusion— thought that if one of them must be justified, and not the other, certainly it must be he rather than the tax collector. However, the proud Pharisee goes away, rejected of God. Like Cain, his offering is an abomination. The Pharisee is not justified, his sins are not pardoned, nor is he delivered from condemnation. The Pharisee is not accepted as righteous in God’s sight, because he is excessively righteous in his own sight.

With and upon his humble address to Heaven — the tax collector obtains the remission of his sins. “For God resists the proud, [arrogant, and haughty], but gives [and multiplies] grace to the humble” [James 4:6; I Peter 5:5]. And the Lord said to Job: “Look on everyone who is proud, and bring him low; tread down the wicked in their place” [Job 40:12]. “For whosoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” [Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11].

See then how the punishment answers the sin —for he that exalts himself shall be abased. See how the recompense answers the duty —for he that humbles himself shall be exalted. See also the power of God’s grace in bringing good out of evil —for the tax collector had been a great sinner, and out of the greatness of his sin was brought the greatness of his repentance. See, on the contrary, the power of Satan’s malice in bringing evil out of good, for although it was good that the Pharisee was no extortioner, nor unjust, Lucifer made the Pharisee proud of this, to the latter’s utter ruin. 

This parable proclaims the very essence of the Gospel. Jesus directed this parable to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others” [Luke 18:9]. But we have no righteousness of our own for “we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousness is like [disgustingly] filthy [menstrual] rags; We all fade [and shrivel up] as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, [our misdeeds] have taken [or blown] us away” [Isaiah 64:6]. Consequently, without the Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot enter the Empire, or Kingdom, of Heaven. Therefore, in the words of the vesperal Doxastikonor Glory-verse, from the Triodion for this day:


Almighty Lord, I know how great is the power of tears.

For [such tears] led Hezekiah from the gates of death;

[Such tears] delivered the sinful woman from the transgressions of many years;

[Such tears] justified the Tax collector more than the Pharisee.

And together with all these, I also pray [with such tears]: ‘Have mercy on me.’


For if we are truly broken-hearted over our sins, and repent from the bottom of our heart, we can be assured of God’s boundless love and forgiveness in Christ. For “You, being [spiritually] dead in your trespasses [and living in the realm of the dead] and the uncircumcision of your flesh [and being held in sin’s grasp], He has made [through genuine repentance] alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses” [Colossians 2:13]. Therefore, in the words of today’s Kontakion:


Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee!

And learn humility from the Tax collector’s tears!

Let us cry to our Savior,

Have mercy on us —O only merciful One!


A call to action

Now if you have not believed in the Lord Jesus Christ unto salvation, cry out now [together with the tax collector in repentance]: “O God, [please] be merciful to me a sinner!” Repent! Submit to Him, and receive Him, and He will save and deliver you —for He is tenderhearted, compassionate, gracious, plenteous in mercy, and the only lover of mankind [Psalm 103:8].

Or otherwise, if you have believed in Christ, but have fallen short of your calling as a true disciple —come now and likewise repent. Come one and all —draw near, and respond to His invitation. For now is indeed the acceptable time [II Corinthians 6:2].

Now to that same Christ Who is able to save to the uttermost, belong glory, might, honor, and worship, together with His Father Who is without beginning, and with the Holy, Good, and Life-giving Spirit, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages.