by J. C. Ryle
And he spoke this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank you, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto Heaven, but smote upon 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 every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.
The parable we have now read, is closely connected with the one which immediately precedes it. The parable of the persevering widow — teaches the value of importunity in prayer. The parable of the Pharisee and tax-collector — teaches the spirit which should pervade our prayers. The first parable encourages us to pray and never give up. The second parable reminds us how and in what manner we ought to pray. Both parables should be often pondered by every true Christian.
Let us notice, firstly — the sin against which our Lord Jesus Christ warns us in these verses. There is no difficulty in finding this out. Luke tells us expressly, that "He spoke this parable to some who were confident of their own righteousness, and looked down on everybody else." The sin which our Lord denounces, is "self-righteousness."
We are all naturally self-righteous. It is the family-disease of all the children of Adam. From the highest to the lowest — we think more highly of ourselves than we ought to. We secretly flatter ourselves, that we are not as bad as some, and that we have something to merit the favor of God.
We forget the plain testimony of Scripture, "We all stumble in many ways." "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins." "What is man — that he could be pure; or one born of woman — that he could be righteous?" "There is no one righteous — not even one!" (James 3:2, Ecclesiastes 7:20, Job 15:14, Romans 3:10)
The true cure for self-righteousness, is self-knowledge. Once let the eyes of our understanding be opened by the Spirit, and we will no longer talk of our own goodness. Once let us see what there is in our own hearts, and what the holy law of God requires — and self-conceit will die. We shall lay our hand on our mouths, and cry with the leper, "Unclean, unclean!" (Leviticus 13:45.)
Let us notice, secondly, in these verses — the prayer of the Pharisee, which our Lord condemns. We read that he said, "God, I thank you that I am not as other men are — extortioners, unjust, adulterers — or even as this tax-collector. I fast twice in the week. I give tithes of all I possess."
One great defect stands out on the face of this prayer — a defect so glaring that even a child might mark it. It exhibits no sense of sin and need. It contains no confession and no petition — no acknowledgment of guilt and emptiness — no supplication for mercy and grace. It is a mere boasting recital of imagined merits, accompanied by an uncharitable reflection on a brother sinner. It is a proud, high-minded profession — destitute alike of penitence, humility, and love. In short, it hardly deserves to be called a prayer at all.
No state of soul can be conceived so dangerous as that of the Pharisee. Never are men's bodies in such desperate plight — as when disease and insensibility set in. In the same way, never are men's hearts in such a hopeless condition — as when they are not sensible of their own sins.
He who would not make shipwreck on this rock, must beware of measuring himself by his neighbors. What does it signify that we are more moral than "other men?" We are all vile and imperfect in the sight of God. "If we contend with Him — we cannot answer him one in a thousand." (Job 9:3.) Let us remember this.
In all our self-examination, let us not test ourselves by comparisons with other men. Let us look at nothing but the requirements of God. He who acts on this principle, will never be a Pharisee.
Let us notice, thirdly, in these verses — the prayer of the tax-collector, which our Lord commends. His prayer was in every respect, the very opposite of that of the Pharisee. We read that he "stood afar off, and smote upon his bosom, and said: God be merciful to me, a sinner!" Our Lord Himself stamps this short prayer with the seal of His approbation. He says, "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other."
The excellence of the Tax-collector's prayer consists in five points, each of which deserves attention.
1. For one thing, it was a real petition. A prayer which only contains thanksgiving and profession, and asks nothing — is essentially defective. It may be suitable for an angel — but it is not suitable for a sinner.
2. For another thing, it was a personal prayer. The tax-collector did not speak of his neighbors — but himself. Vagueness and generality are the great defects of most men's religion. To get out of "we," and "our," and "us" — into "I," and "my," and "me" — is a great step toward Heaven.
3. For another thing, it was a humble prayer — a prayer which put self in the right place. The tax-collector confessed plainly that he was a sinner. This is the very starting point of saving Christianity. We never begin to be good — until we can feel and confess that we are bad.
4. For another thing, it was a prayer in which mercy was the chief thing desired — and faith in God's covenant mercy, however weak, was displayed. Mercy is the first thing we must ask for, in the day we begin to pray. Mercy and grace must be the subject of our daily petitions at the throne of grace, until the day we die.
5. Finally, the Tax-collector's prayer was one which came from his heart. He was deeply moved in uttering it. He smote upon his bosom, like one who felt more than he could express. Such prayers are the prayers which are God's delight. A broken and a contrite heart, He will not despise. (Psalm 51:17.)
Let these things sink down into our hearts. He who has learned to feel his sins — has great reason to be thankful. We are never in the way of salvation — until we know that we are lost, ruined, guilty, and helpless sinners. Happy indeed is he who is not ashamed to sit by the side of the tax-collector! When our experience tallies with his — we may hope that we have found a place in the family of God.
Let us notice, lastly, in these verses — the high praise which our Lord bestows on humility. He says, "Everyone who exalts himself — shall be abased; and he who humbles himself — shall be exalted."
The principle here laid down is so frequently found in the Bible, that it ought to be deeply engraved in our memories. Three times we find our Lord using the words before us in the Gospels — and on three distinct occasions.
Humility, He would evidently impress upon us — is among the first and foremost graces of the Christian character. It was a leading grace in Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Job, Isaiah, and Daniel. It ought to be a leading grace in all who profess to serve Christ. Not all the Lord's people have money to give. Not all are called to preach, or write, or fill a prominent place in the church. But all are called to be humble. One grace at least, should adorn the poorest and most unlearned believer. That grace is humility.
Let us leave the whole passage with a deep sense of the great encouragement it affords to all who feel their sins, and cry to God for mercy in Christ's name. Their sins may have been many and great. Their prayers may seem weak, faltering, unconnected, and poor. But let them remember the tax-collector — and take courage. That same Jesus who commended his prayer — is now sitting at the right hand of God to receive sinners. Then let them hope and pray on.
From Expository Thoughts oni the Gospels by J. C. Ryle