Luke’s label on this parable tells us that it was spoken to a group of the very people who were impersonated in it by the Pharisee. One can fancy their faces as they listened, and how they would love the speaker! Their two characteristics are self-righteousness and depreciation of everyone else, which is the natural result of such trust in self. The self-adulation was absolute, the contempt was all-embracing, for the Revised Version rightly renders “set all others at nought.” That might sound exaggerated, but the way to judge of moral characteristics is to take them in their fullest development and to see what they lead to then. The two pictures heighten each other. The one needs many strokes to bring out the features, the other needs but one. Self-righteousness takes many shapes, penitence has but one emotion to express, one cry to utter.
Every word in the Pharisee’s prayer is reeking with self-complacency. Even the expression “prayed with himself” is significant, for it suggests that the prayer was less addressed to God than to himself, and also that his words could scarcely be spoken in the hearing of others, both because of their arrogant self-praise and of their insolent calumnies of “all the rest.” It was not prayer to God, but soliloquy in his own praise and it was, in equal parts, adulation of himself and slander of other men. So, it never went higher than the inner roof of the temple court and was, in a very fatal sense, “to himself.”
God is complimented with being named formally at first and in the first two words, “I thank Thee,” but that is only formal introduction and, in all the rest of his prayer, there is not a trace of praying. Such a self-satisfied gentleman had no need to ask for anything, so he brought no petitions. He uses the conventional language of thanksgiving, but his real meaning is to praise himself to God, not to thank God for Himself. God is named once. All the rest is I, I, I. He had no longing for communion, no aspiration, no emotion.
His concept of righteousness was mean and shallow. And, as St. Bernard notes, he was not so much thankful for being righteous as for being alone in his goodness. No doubt, he was warranted in disclaiming gross sins, but he was glad to be free from them, not because they were sins, but because they were vulgar. He had no right to fling mud either on “all the rest” or on “this publican” and, if he had been really praying or giving thanks, he would have had enough to think of in God and himself without casting sidelong and depreciatory glances at his neighbors. He who truly prays “sees no man any more” or, if he does, sees men only as subjects for intercession, not for contempt. The Pharisee’s notion of righteousness was primarily negative, as consisting in abstinence from flagrant sins and, in so far as it was positive, it dealt entirely with ceremonial acts. Such a starved and surface conception of righteousness is essential to self-righteousness, for no man who sees the law of duty in its depth and inwardness can flatter himself that he has kept it. To fast twice a week and to give tithes of all that one acquired were acts of supererogation, and are proudly recounted as if God should feel much indebted to the doer for paying Him more than was required. The Pharisee makes no petitions. He states his claims and tacitly expects that God will meet them. – Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910), from a meditation on Luke 18.1-14.