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The present parable is a classic text against self-righteousness, and pride. It was addressed directly to certain ones who were filled with these defects. Though the Pharisees are not mentioned, these characteristics infallibly point to them as the ones to whom Christ directed his discourse.
The Temple was situated on Mount Moriah, hence men went up to it from all parts of the city.
The usual Jewish attitude in praying was to stand, but at times they prostrated themselves before the Lord. There was in the Pharisee no disposition to prostrate himself, because he did not acknowledge himself a sinner. There is arrogance in his every word. He has no feelings of mercy for his fellow man. He sees the poor publican down by the door of the temple, and he despises him. He recites before the Lord all his good deeds; and, though he thanks God for his self-reputed righteousness, it is not to give the honor to God, but to express in a forcible manner how well satisfied he is with himself. He fasted every Monday and Thursday, because the Rabbis taught that, when Moses received the tables of the Law the second time, he ascended the mount on Monday, and returned on Thursday.
Year by year the Pharisee gave tithes of his flocks and of the produce of his fields. The external observance was perfect;
but the spirit was wrong, and God rejected it, because the essence of all worship is spiritual. Mere external worship is a
dead body, a ghastly mockery.
The Pharisee saw with a critical eye the defects of all other men; but he saw nothing of his own. We have been commanded to judge no other man but ourselves; and he judged every other man but himself.
Edersheim cites from the tract Berachoth that the Rabbi Simeon ben Jochai declared, that if there were only two righteous men in the world, he and his son were these; and if only one, it was he.
In striking contrast to the Pharisee is the poor publican. We have before in various places explained what manner of men these publicans were. This publican takes the lowest place in the temple, down by the door behind all; while the Pharisee is up in front to be seen by all. The publican cast his eyes down in an attitude of the most sincere repentance, and prays an earnest prayer for mercy. He has all the qualities of true repentance; a humble, sincere acknowledgment of his sins, sorrow for these sins, and trust in God's mercy.
The Pharisee considered everybody a sinner but himself; the publican holds himself to be the only sinner.
We are not left in doubt as to the issue with God: Christ declares that the publican went down to his house justified rather than the other, which, taken with the circumstances, is equivalent to saying that the publican went down justified, and the Pharisee did not. This opinion is confirmed by the closing sentence of the passage. The Pharisee exalted himself, and was humbled in God's judgment of him; the publican humbled himself, and was exalted in righteousness before God. That final sentence is of universal application. Wherever human pride or humility manifest themselves, these words ring out from Heaven, terrible to the proud, comforting to the humble. The parable presents to us two representative men. The pride and arrogance of the Pharisee are so monstrous that they may not often be found in the same degree in men; but any degree of the Pharisee's spirit is displeasing to God. Every manifestation of it is to be avoided. In the other great lines of
Christian duty we have Christ for our model, but in repentance for personal sin we can not have him, for he did no sin. He has supplied the defect by presenting to us in various parables splendid types of true repentance. One of these is the publican at the door of the temple. Very often men come to confession without the proper dispositions of humble repentance. They are haughty in their speech, and often complain of God's law. If the exigency of their case demands a severe admonition, they resent it, as though their honor were attacked. Their hearts are hard and rebellious, even while they kneel for mercy. They may be people of social prominence, and they expect from the minister of God the same respect that the world gives them.
In our own experience we know how disgusting is the man who can never see his own faults. At once he moves our contempt. He combines falsehood with selfishness in the most repulsive manner, He can not discipline his soul and grow in virtue, because his foolish self-love keeps him from seeing his own faults. He is intolerant of any correction or advice. It is not strange that God would repel such a mean-souled individual. Christ here cites an extreme case of this vice to teach men to avoid all things that are of that spirit. The Pharisee is despised by all, but perhaps in some degree we are led by his spirit. There are other ways than praying the Pharisee's prayer in the temple whereby we may imitate him. Every defect of that supreme humility before God is a partaking of the Pharisee's sin.
Now it is impossible that a man should be proud in every other act of his life, and humble in confession. Pride is a habit, and its opposite virtue is a habit: these habits are produced in the souls of men by repeated acts. If a man would be humble in his appeal for forgiveness, let him accustom himself daily to practice humility in the sight of God. Let him judge no man but himself; let him recognize that all the good that is in him is chiefly from God; and all the evil that is in him is his own.
Pride is against truth and justice: against truth, because it seeks for recognition for itself of things that man receives from God; and against justice, because it claims for itself what
belongs to God. Let the repenting publican be our model. We are all sinners, and "it is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed."