The publican's is the language of the poor in spirit. We do not belong anywhere except alongside the publican, crying out with downcast eyes, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" John Calvin, the sixteenth-century theologian whose teachings form the basis of Reformed Protestantism, wrote, "He only who is reduced to nothing in himself, and relies on the mercy of God is poor in spirit" (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, p. 261).
Notice how Jesus brought out that the underlying attitude of the Pharisee was reliance in self. He boasted before God of all his "excellent" qualities and works, things he evidently thought would earn him God's respect. His vanity about these things then motivated him to regard others as less than himself. So we see that self-exaltation is the opposite of poor in spirit.
Poor in spirit is contrary to that haughty, self-assertive, and self-sufficient disposition that the world so much admires and praises. It is the reverse of an independent and defiant attitude that refuses to bow to God—that determines to brave things out against His will like Pharaoh, who said, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice . . .?" (Exodus 5:2). A person who is poor in spirit realizes that he is nothing, has nothing, can do nothing—and needs everything, as Jesus said in John 15:5, "Without Me you can do nothing."
In his commentary, The Sermon on the Mount, Emmett Fox provides a practical description of what "poor in spirit" means:
To be poor in spirit means to have emptied yourself of all desire to exercise personal self-will, and, what is just as important, to have renounced all preconceived opinions in the whole-hearted search for God. It means to be willing to set aside your present habits of thought, your present views and prejudices, your present way of life if necessary; to jettison, in fact, anything and everything that can stand in the way of your finding God. (p. 22)
Poverty of spirit blooms as God reveals Himself to us and we become aware of His incredible holiness and towering mercy in even calling us to be forgiven and invited to be in His Family—to be like Him! This understanding awakens us to the painful discovery that all our righteousness truly is like filthy rags by comparison (Isaiah 64:6); our best performances are unacceptable. It brings us down to the dust before God. This realization corresponds to the Prodigal Son's experience in Luke 15:14 when "he began to be in want." Soon thereafter, Jesus says, he "came to himself" (verse 17), beginning the humbling journey back to his father, repentance, and acceptance.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Beatitudes, Part Two: Poor in Spirit
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) contrasts two different attitudes: self-righteousness and humility. The two men who go to the Temple to pray contrast in character, belief, and self-examination, representing opposite sides of the law. The Pharisee corresponds to the self-righteous, merciless worshipper of the law, and the tax collector exemplifies the humiliated lawbreaker. Both are sinners, although the outward form of their sins differs. Both men allow the judgment that they had already formed about themselves to determine the form and wording of their prayers.
As Luke comments, the parable's purpose is to expose those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others." Despised, which literally means "to count as nothing," describes the religious egotism the Pharisees repulsively personified. Jesus' intention is to rebuke this self-righteous trust in the self, as well as self-righteous loathing of others. Not only do the self-righteous think they are safe from God's judgment, but they also habitually disdain others as not being as righteous as they are and therefore deserving of God's judgment. Although it involves prayer, this parable is not one about how to pray as much as it is on how to be justified before God.
Martin G. Collins
Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
The Pharisee's prayer manifests his mindset (II Peter 2:3). People like him trust in their own works to gain salvation and eternal life, not trusting in Jesus Christ for them. They do not really think they need His sacrifice or help because they think they are good enough in themselves. So, they toot their own horns, making sure God knows how righteous they are. While kneeling before Him, they tell Him all the good things they are always doing, and believe that He is impressed. They act as if God owes them salvation because of their good works.
This attitude shows how little they understand of the true holiness of God and the lowliness of our spiritual state. While on earth, Jesus worked more easily with tax collectors and sinners than with the Pharisees, though the latter were more dedicated to adhering strictly to the letter of the law. The Pharisees, knowing they were more righteous, made sure others knew it. In their self-delusion and self-righteousness, they could learn little from Christ.
The Pharisee, considering others as nothing, treats them accordingly. It is typical of human nature to elevate itself while putting down others, and some believe that this is the only way to elevate themselves above their peers. Isaiah writes about such people: ". . . who say, 'Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!' These are smoke in [God's] nostrils, a fire that burns all the day" (Isaiah 65:5).
The Pharisee compares his own flaws, not with God's infinite perfections, but with the imagined greater flaws of others. His pride has made him bankrupt of genuine compassion and concern (James 2:13). He presumptuously errs in his prayer in that it is neither his duty nor his right as a sinner to point out another's sins. In trusting in Christ for righteousness, our inadequacies and guilt are revealed, and we become willing to admit that others may be much better than we are.
Martin G. Collins
Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Consider "trusted in themselves" in relation to the instruction concerning enduring, persevering faith in the previous parable. It concluded, "When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on earth?" He is speaking about people who trust in themselves rather than God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Faith (Part Six)
Notice Jesus' teaching in verse 9: "Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others." This specific problem is religious egotism; the Pharisee despised others. Despised means "to count as nothing" or "to be contemptuous of." Can one have a good relationship with someone he despises? Pride finds fertile ground in our process of evaluation and begins to produce corrupt fruit.
This parable reveals the Pharisee to possess a misguided confidence that caused him to magnify himself by comparing himself against someone he felt to be inferior. It fed his own opinion of himself, causing separation from his fellow man. While that was happening, it also brought him into war with God! The Pharisee became separated from God because, as the parable says, he was not justified.
We need to take warning because, if we begin to feel contaminated in the presence of a brother—if we begin to withdraw from him or are constantly finding fault with him and being offended by almost everything he does—we may well be in very great trouble! The sin of pride may be producing its evil fruit, and the division is strong evidence of it.
This parable features a self-applauding lawkeeper and an abased publican. One is not simply good and the other evil; both are equally sinners but in different areas. Both had sinned, but the outward form of their sins differed. Paul taught Timothy that some men's sins precede them and others follow later (I Timothy 5:24). The publican's sins were obvious, the Pharisee's generally better hidden.
The Pharisee's pride deluded him into thinking he had a righteousness he did not really possess. His prayer is full of self-congratulation, and like a circle, it keeps him firmly at its center (notice all the I's in Luke 18:11-12). He makes no lowly expression of obligation to God; he voices no thanksgiving for what God had given him; he gives no praise to God's glory. He asks for nothing, confesses nothing, and receives nothing! But very pronouncedly, he compares himself with others. He is filled with conceit and is totally unaware of it because his pride has deceived him into concentrating his judgment on the publicans—sinners who were contaminating his world!
The humble publican did not delude himself into thinking he was righteous. What made the difference? It was a true evaluation and recognition of the self in relation to God, not other men. The basis of their evaluations—pride or humility—made a startling difference in their conclusions, revealing each man's attitudes about himself and his motivations.
The one finds himself only good, the other only lacking. One flatters himself, full of self-commendation. The other seeks mercy, full of self-condemnation. Their approach and attitude toward God and self are poles apart! One stands apart because he is not the kind of man to mingle with inferiors. The other stands apart because he considers himself unworthy to associate himself with others. One haughtily lifts his eyes to heaven; the other will not even look up! How different their spirits! Anyone who, like the Pharisee, thinks he can supply anything of great worth to the salvation process is deluding himself!
Against whom do we evaluate ourselves? Pride usually chooses to evaluate the self against those considered inferior. It must do this so as not to lose its sense of worth. To preserve itself, it will search until it finds a flaw.
If it chooses to evaluate the self against a superior, its own quality diminishes because the result of the evaluation changes markedly. In such a case, pride will often drive the person to compete against—and attempt to defeat—the superior one to preserve his status (Proverbs 13:10). Pride's power is in deceit, and the ground it plows to produce evil is in faulty evaluation.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Pride, Humility, and the Day of Atonement
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Luke 18:9: