Sermon for Sunday, October 23rd, 2022, the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

The Lessons: Psalm 84; Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Luke 18:9-14

The Text: Luke 18:9-14

The Topic: The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican


In Guideposts, Ronald Pinkerton describes a near accident he had while hang gliding. He had launched his hang glider and been forcefully lifted 4,200 feet into the air. As he was descending, he was suddenly hit by a powerful new blast of air that sent his hang glider plummeting toward the ground.

‘I was falling at an alarming rate. Trapped in an airborne riptide, I was going to crash! Then I saw him – a red-tailed hawk. He was six feet off my right wingtip, fighting the same gust I was….

I looked down: 300 feet from the ground and still falling. The trees below seemed like menacing pikes.

I looked at the hawk again. Suddenly he banked and flew straight downwind. Downwind! If the right air is anywhere, it’s upwind! The hawk was committing suicide.

Two hundred feet. From nowhere the thought entered my mind: Follow the hawk. it went against everything I knew about flying. But now all my knowledge was useless. I was at the mercy of the wind. I followed the hawk.

One hundred feet. Suddenly the hawk gained altitude. For a split second I seemed to be suspended motionless in space. Then a warm surge of air started pushing the glider upward. Nothing I knew as a pilot could explain this phenomenon. But it was true: I was rising.’

On occasion we all have similar “downdrafts” in our lives, reversals in our fortunes, humiliating experiences. We want to lift ourselves up, but God’s Word, like that red-tailed hawk, tells us to do just the opposite. God’s Word tells us to dive – to humble ourselves under the hand of God. If we humble ourselves, God will send us a thermal wind that will lift us up.[1]

Today’s Collect underlines the truth that without God we cannot please Him and petitions God for the Holy Spirit to direct and rule our hearts in all things. For us to practice humility effectively, our will must be directed by God’s Holy Spirit. God and not sinful ego must rule our attitudes to others. Today’s Gospel Lesson highlights the humility that lies at the heart of effective prayer, contrasting it to the hypocritical pride that God despises.

Of course, there is the danger of a false humility, in which one is so conscious of one’s humility, that it has become a form of pride, as is shown by C.S. Lewis  from advice  he has Screwtape, a high-ranking demon, give to his nephew Wormwood on how to trip up a young Christian:

Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is especially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit, and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, “…I’m being humble,” and almost immediately pride – pride at his own humility will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt – and so on, through as many stages as you please.[2]


The purpose of this parable is stated at the outset. It is intended as a warning to those who trust in themselves that they are righteous and despise others.  Someone may object that God wills all people to be righteous, and that living a righteous life is a noble and laudable goal. While many passages in Holy Scripture teach the necessity of righteous living, there is also abundant testimony to man’s sinfulness, and the exhortation to trust in God and not in man. For example, the prophet Jeremiah writes, “Thus saith the LORD: Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the LORD….Blessed is the man that trusteth in the LORD, and whose hope the LORD is.”[3]  Why should a man not trust in man? The answer is given also in Jeremiah 17: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”[4]  The testimony of all of the Bible is that human beings are sinful and unrighteous. Therefore, it is foolish to trust in one’s own righteousness, since all the righteousness we have is in Christ alone through whom it is imputed to us who have believed in Him. The stated intention of our Lord Jesus Christ at the beginning of this parable warns against two dangers: firstly, the danger of replacing our trust in God with trust in ourselves because we think that we are righteous; secondly, the danger of despising all others because of their sins. Both dangers must be avoided.

The picture of contrasts shows the Pharisee and the Publican in the temple at the hour of prayer. The Pharisee’s attitude is apparent from his “standing by himself” – conspicuously, apart from others – to pray. His prayer takes the form of thanksgiving that he is not like other people, who are sinful. To him, people fall into four categories: rogues, swindlers and adulterers and publicans.[5] Having thanked God that he is different from these sinful people, he tells God the good things he does even more than the Law required. He fasts voluntarily twice a week, whereas the Law prescribed only an annual Fast on the Day of Atonement.[6]  Secondly, he gives tithes of everything he buys, so ensuring that he uses nothing that has not been tithed.

On the other hand, the Publican stands at a distance from the Pharisee. He knows that he is regarded as a robber and shunned by the Pharisees and law-abiding Jews. Beating the breast was a sign of deep sorrow for sin. For him, repentance would involve restoring what he had defrauded others of and adding a fifth[7]  of that to the amount he restored.[8]  His situation is hopeless, and so he cries out to God for mercy.

Even though the Publican is not shown to have made amends by restoring money fraudulently extorted by over-taxing people, nor the Pharisee to have done anything wrong, the former is shown to be justified by God, and not the latter. This would have been a great shock to those who heard our Lord tell this parable.

But the point of the parable is God’s forgiveness of the penitent, even when his penitence has been expressed, even before the stage of restitution is reached. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, the father sees his son returning in the distance, and immediately goes out to meet him to assure him of his forgiveness. The same willingness of God to hear the prayer of the penitent and to forgive and justify the sinner who seeks him is evident here. But the Publican’s action of humbling himself before God was essential to God’s forgiveness of him. Our Lord states this principle at the end of the parable by saying, “For everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” This is a paradox, contrary to ordinary logic, but revealing an important spiritual truth. Everyone who follows Jesus must get rid of pride and humble himself before God, so that God may lift him up. This paradox Jesus also stated after his instruction to guests at a dinner not to choose the best seats for themselves in case others more honorable than themselves had been invited by the host (Luke 14:11). St. Peter gave us a similar maxim: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6, KJV), and St. James affirmed the same principle in the command, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:10, KJV).


How do you approach God in prayer? Do you show pride like the Pharisee in this parable, or do you express the penitence and humility of the Publican?

[1] pp. 254-255, 750 Engaging Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers and Writers from Craig Brian Larson and Leadership Journal. Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerBooks, 2002. Second Printing, 2008.

[2] pp. 71-75, C.S. Lewis: The Screwtape Letters. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961. Quoted on p. 462, Robert J. Morgan: Preacher’s Sourcebook of Creative Sermon Illustrations. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2007.

[3] Jeremiah 17: 5 & 7

[4] Jer. 17:9

[5] p. 111, S.H. Hooke (transl.): J. Jeremias: The Parables of Jesus. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1954, Reprinted 1955.

[6] Leviticus 16:31; 23:26-27.

[7] Lev. 6:5

[8] p. 114, S.H. Hooke (transl.): op. cit.

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