The traveller who climbs the Alps soon begins to notice how the beauties expand as he ascends. When one height is reached, his feeling may be that the gorgeous scene which is outspread below cannot be surpassed, and he lingers on his way to gaze. But another height, another and another, reveal still other beauties, until the mind of the traveller passes into the region where thoughts lie too deep for words.
It is even so in the study of the parables. One is exquisite, it can scarcely be surpassed; but the next, and the next again, appear more lovely still. And hence the mind rejoices amid beauties which at once fascinate and instruct. The next parable is one of singular point and power. Against no tendency in man was the Saviour’s teaching more directed than our self-righteousness. While that rules in any mind, the Lord Jesus must be rejected; and this parable was spoken to root it out.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. The one was a Pharisee, a very proverb for self-righteousness; the other was a publican, a very pariah, as much despised as the other was admired – or at least as he admired himself. In the temple, the difference between them speedily appeared. The prayer of the Pharisee, here held up as a beacon to all, was a boast, not a supplication – the dictate of inflated pride, not of lowly humility. In comparison with other men he was pure, at least in his own eyes. Sin after sin he disowned. Twice a week did he fast. All that he possessed was tithed. In short, there he stood before the holy God a proud boaster of his goodness, not conscious of a single sin – at least not confessing one – ignorant entirely of the plague of his heart, a man who deserved heaven, who could climb to it by his own deeds, and seemed to need neither mercy nor pardon. He even dared to revile his fellow-men to his God and made his prayer a mockery and a sin.
That worshipper did not know he was a sinner, and there was therefore no abasement. He felt no need of mercy. Nay, he had done more than was required – two fasts for one, and tithes of all instead of only a part. The cobwebs of his own righteousness were deemed sufficient for a covering. In brief, he knew neither the holy God nor His law. And O how many are like him! How many have never felt, even for a moment, that they are sinners against God, and must either get the righteousness of another or perish!
But that Pharisee had a companion on the temple floor, a publican, who was scarcely to be named in the same breath with a Pharisee. And that humbled man knew what worship was; he knew God; he knew himself; and with downcast eye, for he was ashamed to look up – and contrite heart, for he beat on his breast to show that the plague was there – his cry was, “God be merciful to me a sinner”. There was penitence in his heart, and therefore humility in his deportment. And Jesus points to him as a model, as much as to the other for a warning beacon. The publican went down justified, for he cast himself upon mercy, while the Pharisee asked God’s favour on the ground of right; he was encased in self-righteousness, and his prayer was one more sin, or many sins in one. In his spirit our services are sins; in that of the humbled penitent the cry is heard, the blessing is granted, and humility, the darling grace of the Saviour, clothes the soul in beauty. It is a maxim: “He that would be great must begin by being little”; it is not less a maxim: “God resisteth the proud”. And both are verified in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The great swelling words of the one, the lowliness of the other, render them exemplary for all time.
On a journey made about 200 years ago a man, whose fame then filled the world, was overtaken by his death’s disease. He had written not a little to explain the truth of God, and though often far astray in his explanations, he was sometimes successful – at least he was learned. When the hand of death was on him, a minister of religion was called, who dealt faithfully with the dying man, as he should have done. On the one side his sins were set forth in outline; on the other the grace of God that bringeth salvation was displayed; and the whole was pressed home by an appeal to the case of the publican in this parable. “I am that publican”, said the dying philosopher, statesman, and scholar – and he died.
Now it is when we thus take home the lessons of the Word of God that we begin truly to profit: Lord, is it I to whom that warning is given, to whom that promise is made, in whom that grace is triumphing? When the Bible is read in that spirit, we are not far from the kingdom of heaven. And when the young thus apply their hearts to the wisdom which is all divine, they will assuredly tread the path of pleasantness and peace.
1. This article is taken, slightly edited, from Tweedie’s book, Parables of Our Lord, published in 1865. It is based on Luke 17:9-14.