The Publican and the Pharisee by Mgr. Paul Watson

The Publican and the Pharisee by Mgr. Paul Watson

The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee
Luke 18:9-14
This Sunday’s Gospel reading is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Jerusalem Bible offers two cross-references in the Old Testament: Proverbs 21:2 “A man’s conduct may strike him as upright, Yahweh, however, weighs the heart”, and Proverbs 28:13 “He who conceals his faults will not prosper, he who confesses and renounces them will find mercy”. The Catechism also picks up the same two themes in reference to this parable – paragraph 2559 speaks of the virtue of humility in prayer, while paragraph 2613 focuses on the basic attitude of prayer for God’s mercy.
It is worth noting also some of the elements of the text of the parable itself. We are now in what the Catechism calls the literal sense of the Scripture. Obviously, Jesus is making a contrast between the two people – the Pharisee and the Publican. There is a certain irony in his choice since in the religious culture of Israel at the time, it would have been the Pharisee who would be assumed to be the more righteous. The Publican, on the other hand, was almost by definition, counted as failing in the religious standards of Judaism. However, the contrast makes what must have been an unexpected turn. Both stood and made their prayer – the Publican remaining “some distance away” (quite rightly, everyone would have thought!). And yet the twist comes when Jesus announces that it is the Publican who went home at rights with God not the Pharisee. This is the surprise! Would the hearers have demanded an explanation? Anticipating this, Jesus declares that he who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. In saying this, Jesus is really saying no more than is contained in Proverbs 21:2. In fact, we might conclude that the parable is itself a commentary on or an illustration of this verse from Proverbs. Let’s return to this point in a moment.
One of the characteristics of our modern mind, especially when we approach the Scriptures, is our tendency to look for what I have described as the “moral message”. Consider the way we usually interpret such parables as the Good Samaritan and the Pearl of Great Price. We immediately conclude that there is something we must “do”. So, for example, the lesson of the Good Samaritan is that we should “help those in need” and the moral of the parable of the pearl is that we make some effort in our taking hold of the Kingdom in this life. This tendency only to find the moral message seems to have the effect also of obscuring our minds to the fuller sense of the Gospel message, which may also be found in the parables. Previous articles in the Sower have explored the Gospel message in both of these parables.
There seems to be an issue about the way that we “see”. Actually Jesus himself mentions this very issue when he explains why he teaches in parables – “… so that men may see and not perceive”. It appears that this very problem still obtains today. We see the moral message, but often fail to “perceive” the Gospel message. Interestingly, this issue of seeing but not seeing seems to be the very matter at stake between the two persons in the parable. We might ask the question in this way: What are the two characters actually seeing? The Publican is seeing his own sinfulness, while the Pharisee is seeing his own virtue. But that is not quite the whole picture. The deeper question is how are they both seeing God? Remember they both went to the Temple to pray!

Clearly, the Publican is glimpsing something of God’s transcendent holiness. The Temple is a holy place and the Publican knows it. He remains a respectful distance, knowing that he can only approach on the basis of God’s mercy. By contrast, the Pharisee is barely seeing God at all. Although he begins his prayer “I thank you, God …” the rest could hardly be described as a prayer. Perhaps there is a bit of irony in the previous verse when Jesus says that the man “said this prayer to himself”! He is not focussing on God but on himself.

The truth is that it is only when we look to see God that we also see the truth about ourselves. Only when our prayer acknowledges the awesome holiness and transcendence of God that we also realise, as the psalmist records, “the great abyss between the God of holiness and man”. And now we reach the heart of things. This abyss is only crossed through the saving mercy of God himself – “He has reconciled us to Himself”. This is what the Publican was seeking. The Pharisee did not even realise his need for it. In his mind he has reconciled himself by his fasting and his tithes. His pride and his arrogance, far from reconciling him, only reveal the breadth of the abyss.

As Proverbs teaches: man may count himself upright, but God judges the heart. At this point I want to return to the suggestion made earlier that Jesus’ parable might be considered as a commentary or illustration of the verses from Proverbs. If this is so, then one amazing conclusion follows! When Jesus makes the statement “This man, I tell you, went home at rights with God, the other did not”, he is actually saying something far more significant. He is saying that He, Jesus, is exercising the judgement of God. Note the connection – Proverbs says “God judges the heart” and in the parable, Jesus judges the heart. In Jesus, the judgement of God, especially the saving mercy of God, have become incarnate.

It appears that the very literal sense of this parable is Christological. It is Jesus who puts the Publican at rights with God. It is Jesus who also puts us right with God, but only when our prayer acknowledges the abyss between our sinful state and God’s holiness. It really has little to do with whether we sit at the front or the back of Church and everything to do with the Cross!