Pharisee and the Publican

The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or the Pharisee and the Tax Collector) is a parable of Jesus that appears in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 18:9-14,[1] a self-righteous Pharisee, obsessed by his own virtue, is contrasted with a tax collector who humbly asks God for mercy.

The Pharisee and the Publican, baroque fresco in Ottobeuren Basilica.

This parable primarily shows Jesus teaching that justification can be given by the mercy of God irrespective of the receiver's prior life and that conversely self-righteousness can prohibit being justified. Further coming as it does in a section of teaching on prayer it demonstrates the need to pray humbly. It immediately follows the Parable of the Unjust Judge, which is also about prayer.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee commemorates the parable and begins the three-week pre-Lenten Season.


To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other one a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—thieves, adulterers—or this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man went home justified before God rather than the other. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Context and interpretationEdit

The New Testament often depicts Pharisees as displaying a punctilious adherence to Jewish law. The Pharisee depicted in this parable went beyond his fellows, fasting more often than was required, and giving a tithe on all he received, even in cases where the religious rules did not require it.[2] Confident in his religiosity, the Pharisee asks God for nothing, and thus receives nothing.[2]

Detail of stained glass window of the parable, Janskerk (Gouda).

On the other hand, publicans were despised Jews who collaborated with the Roman Empire. Because they were best known for collecting tolls or taxes (see tax farming), they are commonly described as tax collectors. The parable, however, does not condemn the publican's occupation (cf Luke 3:12–13), but describes the publican as one who "recognizes his state of unworthiness before God and confesses his need for reconciliation".[2] Coming to God in humility, the publican receives the mercy and reconciliation he asks for.[2]


In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the parable is read as part of the preparatory period leading up to Great Lent. It provides an example of the humility which should be practised during the Lenten period. The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee begins the three-week pre-Lenten Season and the first use of the liturgical Triodion (although the week following this Sunday is fast-free).[3] This Sunday includes a hymn inspired by the parable:

Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee!
And learn humility from the Publican's tears!
Let us cry to our Savior,
Have mercy on us,
Only merciful One![4]

The English writer and preacher John Bunyan wrote a book on the parable in 1685.[5]

Depiction in artEdit

The Pharisee and the Publican by John Everett Millais, published 1864, from "Illustrations to 'The parables of our Lord'"

The parable has been depicted in a variety of religious art, being especially significant in Eastern Orthodox iconography. There are works on the parable by artists such as James Tissot, John Everett Millais, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Gustave Doré.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Luke 18:9–14
  2. ^ a b c d Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, Eerdmans, 1997, ISBN 0-8028-2315-7, pp. 643-649.
  3. ^ Georges Augustin Barrois, Scripture Readings in Orthodox Worship, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977, ISBN 0-913836-41-9, p. 21.
  4. ^ Triodion prayers at
  5. ^ The Pharisee and Publican by John Bunyan at Project Gutenberg.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit