(A) Introduction. Read: Luke18v9to14

Jesus showed considerable courage in telling the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican to a group of men who thought very highly of themselves and very poorly of everyone else. Such a policy is only justifiable if the attitudes of the target group are pernicious and damaging. Jesus obviously considered pride, self-righteousness and legalism deadly sins. Sad to say they still persist in religious circles.

(B) Similarities between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

(1) Both were in God's house.

This is a reminder that all sorts and conditions of men and women attend church. The Pharisee and the Publican could hardly have been more different. The Pharisee was familiar with the Temple, steeped in religion, careful to observe the ceremonial law and held in high esteem by many likeminded acquaintances. The Publican probably attended the Temple very irregularly, had at best a sketchy knowledge of Judaism, considered the ceremonial law an irrelevance and was held in low esteem by all devout Jews. The Pharisee was an insider and the Tax Collector an outsider.

Some years ago now, while I was holidaying in the Vale of Pewsey, I attended the Sunday evening service at Wilcot church. The congregation was small - and diverse! It consisted of a poor old women, her scruffy daughter and grandchild, a solitary, young, well-made woman, a doddering old man of about ninety, a gentleman farmer who came in with two sticks and a prayer mat, a dapper, exquisitely dressed, middle-aged man and me. I wonder what they made of me! As I sat in the pew I conjectured why each member of the congregation was there. What had motivated such a disparate group to attend? Of one thing we can be sure the motivation of each would have been different. This is something of which preachers should be very aware.

(2) Both prayed.

Prayer is important for many reasons as indicated in my previous exposition. It is certainly a sign of a good relationship with God.

Every Tuesday I go the newsagent to pay my weekly paper bill. I always smile broadly at the pretty, dark haired girl behind the counter and ask her how she is. If I am lucky she will give me a wintry grimace and say, "Fine, and how are you?" After five years this remains the limit of our conversation. We have no relationship. How different it was 40 years ago. I would drop into the Brockley village stores every evening on my way home from work to buy a small packet of cigars. Each day the husband and wife who owned the shop would ask me how I had got on with my pupils and listen as I regaled them with the various incidents that occurred. I had known the couple all my life -they were interested in me - they were my friends - so we chatted happily together.

If our prayer life is impoverished so, too, is our relationship with God. I tend to pray out of necessity. I know that if I don't pray my spiritual life will suffer. I wish that I enjoyed praying more.

However, I do enjoy attending the prayer meeting at our church. Sometimes it can be interesting and instructive to overhear a conversation. That is what happens at a prayer meeting - we listen in to the conversations Christians have with God.

I actually think it helps us to concentrate when we pray aloud before others. My public prayers tend to be more focused than my private ones. We can also make someone else's prayer our own by strongly assenting to it and affirming it - so long as the person is talking to God and not like the Pharisee to himself. I believe for this reason that corporate prayer is more powerful than private prayer. It isn't enough to pray at home. We need to meet together for prayer and even if someone is too shy to pray audibly they can assent to and affirm the petitions that are made giving them, as it were, additional weight.

(3) Both revealed the state of their hearts in prayer.

The prayers of the Pharisee and Publican tell us much about them. Jesus told his disciples that it wasn't what went into, but what came out of, the mouth that made a man unclean. See Mt15v11. The Pharisee's prayer revealed a proud spirit and the Publican's a broken heart.

Some folk who attend church keep so quiet about Jesus it is almost impossible to ascertain their feelings toward him. It is hard to know what others think about you if they keep their opinions to themselves. Sometimes I have been surprised by an old pupil telling me that Geography was their favourite subject or even that I was their favourite teacher. There was not always much sign of it at the time I taught him or her!

There are times we need to hear those three words: "I love you." This is what a husband needs to tell his wife, a daughter her father or even a brother his sister. (See my story, 'I love you'.)

It is certainly very important that we express our feelings for God our Father, Jesus our Saviour and the Holy Spirit our Comforter. We could adapt the words of: 'Father, we adore you':

            Father, I adore you,
            Lay my life before you:
            How I love you!

            Jesus, I adore you,
            Lay my life before you:
            How I love you!

            Spirit, I adore you,
            Lay my life before you:
            How I love you!

(C) Crucial differences between the Pharisee and the Publican.

(1) The contrast between a warped judgment and an honest assessment.

The Pharisee thought highly of himself and badly of others. He based his opinion of himself upon his meticulous observance of the ceremonial law. Indeed he went further than the Law demanded because he fasted twice a week rather than once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Pharisee didn't just tithe the fruits of his fields and the offspring of his flocks but also the few herbs he grew in his garden. He was making every effort to put God under an obligation to him. He was a very superior Jew.

The Pharisee's attitude was very foolish because he was nowhere near as good as he thought he was. Jesus said of them as a group: "Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs but you neglect justice and the love of God." Lk11v42. See exposition on Lk11v37to54.

I am afraid that there are Christians who put themselves on a pedestal not so much for their superior conduct but their correct beliefs. There are certain doctrines that go further than the Bible itself: the inerrancy of Scripture, the total depravity of man, the unconditional election of some to salvation, penal substitution and so on. I cannot deal with all of these here but if the natural man was totally depraved he would be unable to tell right from wrong and would be incapable of the smallest act of disinterested kindness. Surely it is enough to say that men are depraved! I cannot believe that a dogmatic devotion to these doctrines makes anyone worthy! If we want to please Jesus we should concentrate on the Beatitudes!

Many of us are inclined to over rate our abilities. I used to coach an under 14 football side at Debenham High School. The boys at that small rural comprehensive had a hugely inflated opinion of themselves as footballers - so much so that they paid little attention to my advice. The true measure of the foot-balling talents of my side was cruelly exposed in cup matches against large urban schools. You might have thought that after losing 13 nil my youngsters would have been suitably chastened. Not a bit of it - they blamed the manager!

I don't suppose I have been a lot better than the Debenham footballers. Ironically the only sphere of life my estimation of my abilities has coincided with others has been in sport. So far as teaching and preaching are concerned I have always tended to value myself more highly than others do. One of the very real downsides of this attitude is a reluctance to learn from others. It makes it difficult to improve. Progress is only made slowly and painfully.

The Pharisee had a low view of his fellow men. He gave the impression that most other men were robbers, evildoers, adulterers or collaborators. One of the surest ways to fail as a teacher is to regularly run your pupils down. If the teacher has no belief in his students they, in the end, will have no belief in themselves.

Several years ago now - after I had given up opening the innings for Brockley Cricket Club first team - I played in an interclub game - the over 40's versus the under 40's. My old friend and the club President insisted I go in first for the over 40's. After I returned to the pavilion having scored 85 he said, "There you are - that's what comes of having faith in someone."

Jesus would have been justified in having a low view of, and little faith in, his disciples. If there was a mistake they could make - they made it. But just before his ascension Jesus said to the eleven: "You are my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (See exposition on Acts1v8.)

The Publican made an honest assessment of himself. In truth, when it comes to our conduct, this is an assessment we are best qualified to make. The tax collector measured himself not by the standards of others, nor even by his own standards but by God's standards. He realised he neither loved God with all his heart nor his neighbour as himself. His life was a mess. It didn't please him so it could hardly please God. The Publican knew that he was a sinner and needed help.

Accurate, honest, self-assessment is very important because without it a man or woman will not take action to remedy their situation. It is only when the drug-addict, compulsive gambler or alcoholic faces up to his problem that he is willing to take action. So long as someone is in denial that they have a problem nothing anyone says will do any good. It was only when the Prodigal came to his senses that he decided to go home, apologise and ask his father for a job. It is only when a man realises that his life without God is in complete disarray that he will pray with the Publican, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

(2) The contrast between a misplaced confidence and genuine repentance.

The Pharisee had a misplaced confidence. He considered that he was righteous. He was in the right place - the Temple. He did the right things - tithing, fasting, straining the flies out of his wine, observing with meticulous care the Sabbath and praying on street corners. He had a good reputation. People greeted him in the market place, he enjoyed the best seats at feasts and rich widows made him generous gifts. For all that God held him in low esteem!

I sometimes chat with my friend Eric about Mr X. Eric will look at me and say, "John, Mr X is a good man." He knows that this is not a view I share. For many years - from the age of 17 - I preached at a small church. I know that my ministry was much appreciated by the folk in the fellowship. Then one day Mr X moved in and took over the leadership of the church and banned me from the pulpit because I sometimes used Snoopy cartoons in my children's addresses. However pious Mr X might be - however correct his doctrine - however seriously he takes the word - whatever his reputation - I do not consider this is the action of a good Christian. It is more like the behaviour of the Pharisees who rejected Jesus because of his unorthodox views and unique style.

It is very foolish to put too much confidence in our own abilities. Half of all drownings happen to adults and kids who can swim.

I can recall watching a TV program many years ago about polar bears. It showed a group of bears in the sea below a cliff where little auks nested. Eventually it was time for the baby auks to leave the nest. Many of them launched themselves off the cliff with great confidence only to crash land in the sea - where the polar bears were waiting!

In John Bunyan's, 'Pilgrim's Progress,' Christian comes across Simple, Sloth and Presumption asleep with fetters on their heels. He offered to remove their irons and warned them of he that goeth about like a roaring lion. Presumption replied, "Every fat (barrel) must stand upon its own bottom." In other words Presumption believed everyone must make their own way in the world; a very foolish notion if in the world our enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1Pet5v8.

The apostle Paul gave the over confident and presumptuous members of the church of Corinth some excellent advice: So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! 1Cor10v12. (See exposition on 1Cor10v1to13.)

The Publican was sincerely sorry for the life he had led. He stood on the outer edge of the court of Israel, with down cast eyes, beat his breast in anguish and cried out, "God, have mercy on me a sinner."

It is possible to beat your breast in public without truly repenting. I think it is to the credit of the Publican that he didn't say too much. He didn't tell God that he was a reformed character and intended to do much better in the future.

Every so often in this country an inquiry is held into the scandalous abuse and subsequent death of a child. The services that are supposed to protect vulnerable children are called to account. Too often a catalogue of failures has led to the ill treatment of a child to go unchecked. At the end of the inquiry representatives of the different departments responsible for child protection are televised apologising for their ineptitude. The people concerned nearly always spend more time assuring the public that new procedures have been put in place to prevent the tragedy occurring again than sincerely repenting of the incompetence that contributed to the tragedy in the first place.

(3) The contrast between unholy ignorance and spiritual enlightenment.

The Pharisee should have known better than to be puffed up and proud. There are many Scriptures that warn against such an attitude. David wrote: The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm51v17.

A lot of people, sadly including some Christians, are so sure of themselves, so right, so critical and disparaging of others and so ignorant. Recently I heard of an itinerant preacher who stood in the pulpit brandishing his Bible and saying, "The Authorised Version is the only one for me. All other versions are Mickey Mouse versions." Who was he to judge? He was hardly an eminent Greek scholar capable of weighing up the merits of the different translations!

The Publican was disgusted with the life he led. He experienced much anguish and distress over his sins but he did not despair. There remained God's mercy - and God's mercy was greater than his sin. David, many hundreds of years earlier, had sinned grievously. He was guilty of adultery, deceit and murder. Yet he was able to write: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Ps51v1. He knew the truth of the words of the hymn:

            Oh teach me what it meaneth
            Thy love beyond compare
            The love that reacheth deeper,
            Than depths of self-despair.

(D) Two outcomes.

"I tell you that this man (the publican), rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." v14.

The Pharisee thought he was righteous but he wasn't. He told God that he was righteous but God knew that he wasn't. The Publican did not ask for mercy because he didn't think he needed it. He justified himself and remained in his sins.

As a schoolteacher I soon discovered that it was impossible to help those who didn't want to be helped. Jesus cannot help anyone who does not recognise their need.

The Publican was no better than the Pharisee. He was far from righteous. The Tax Collector was not guilty of legalism, hypocrisy and self-righteousness but he may well have been greedy, dishonest, self-indulgent and undisciplined. The only real difference between him and the Pharisee was that he knew he was a sinner and that his only hope of forgiveness was to throw himself on God's mercy.

Wouldn't it be a terrible thing if God had no mercy and wouldn't forgive us! Wouldn't it be terrible if God was like Tom Tulliver in George Elliot's, 'Mill on the Floss.' When Maggie, Tom's sister, returns home after a chaste night on a boat with her lover, Stephen Guest, Tom, trembling and white with disgust and indignation, shouts at her, "You will find no home with me ... You have disgraced us ..... I wash my hands of you forever. You don't belong to me." How awful if that was God's reaction to our sin: "You don't belong to me."

But God is not like that! In the words of the great apostle Paul, Praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles ... . 2Cor1v3. Peter reassures by us by writing: Praise be to the God and Father of our |Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 1Pet1v3.

God is merciful and he will justify all those who submit to Jesus and ask him for forgiveness and new life. If we humble ourselves and rely wholly on Jesus to reconcile us to God by his shed blood on the cross we will be exalted.

            No more, my God, I boast no more
            Of all the duties I have done;
            I quit the hopes I held before,
            To trust the merits of Thy Son.