Luke 18:13
And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
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(13) The publican, standing afar off.—The words point to a sense of shame which kept the publican away from the crowd of worshippers who pressed forward to the ark-end of the outer court of the Temple—away, above all, from the devout and respectable Pharisee. So might some “forlorn and desperate castaway” crouch, at some solemn service, in the remote corner of the nave of a cathedral. He, too, stood, for that was the received attitude of prayer, and kneeling, at such a time and in that place, would have been ostentatious.

Would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven.—There is a subtle delineation of what one may call the physiognomy of repentance, which should not pass unnoticed. The downcast look stands in contrast with the supercilious expression (taking the adjective in its most literal sense) of the Pharisee.

But smote upon his breast.—The same act meets us as the expression of extremest sorrow in those who stood by the cross (Luke 23:48). Looked at physiologically, it seems to imply a tension of the vessels of the heart, such as we all feel in deep emotion, to which outward impact seems, in some measure, to minister relief. So men strike their chest, when suffering from cold, to quicken the circulation of the blood. As being spontaneous and involuntary, it attested the reality of the emotion, and contrasted with the calm, fixed attitude of the Pharisee.

God be merciful to me a sinner.—Literally, to me the sinner, as though, like St. Paul, he singled out his own guilt as exceptional, and thought of himself as “the chief of sinners” (1Timothy 1:15).

Luke 18:13-14. And the publican, standing afar off — 1st, Under a sense of his being unworthy to be permitted to draw near to God, or to go up among his people into the court of Israel, though probably a Jew, he stood at a distance in the court of the Gentiles, probably without the stone wall, termed by the apostle, the middle wall of partition, which Gentiles and unclean Israelites were not permitted to pass. Or, if it seem more probable, from the Pharisee’s mentioning him in his prayer, that he was in the same court with him, and within his view, as Salmasius thinks, then, his standing afar off implies, that he came no farther than the gate, being so self-abased that he would not go near the Pharisee, whom he esteemed much more holy than himself. Thus he owned that God might justly behold him afar off, and send him into a state of eternal distance from him, and that it was a great favour that God was pleased to admit him thus nigh. 2d, Standing thus at a distance, he would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven — Much less his hands, as was usual in prayer. He lifted up his heart indeed to God in holy desires; but, through shame and humiliation, did not lift up his eyes in holy confidence and courage. His iniquities were gone over his head as a heavy burden, so that he was not able to look up; and his downcast looks were an indication of the dejection of his mind at the thoughts of his sinfulness and guilt. 3d, He smote upon his breast — In a holy indignation at himself for sin. “The sinner’s heart first smites him in a penitent rebuke, 2 Samuel 24:10; and then he smites his heart with penitent remorse.” — Henry. 4th, His address to God was the very reverse of that of the Pharisee: as full of humility and humiliation, as the Pharisee’s was of pride and ostentation; as full of repentance for sin, and desire toward God, as his was of confidence in himself and his own righteousness and sufficiency. This prayer of the publican was short; fear and shame hindered him from saying much, sighs and groans swallowed up his words: but what he said was to the purpose, God be merciful to me a sinner — Observe, reader, 1st, He owns himself to be a sinner, and guilty before God, which the Pharisee did not, but spoke as if he were pure from sin. 2d, He has no dependance but upon the mercy of God. The Pharisee had insisted upon the merit of his unblameable conduct, his fastings and tithes; but the poor publican disclaims all thought of merit, and flees to mercy as his city of refuge. 3d, He earnestly prays for the benefit of that mercy, O God, be merciful, be propitious, to me, forgive my sins; be reconciled to me, and receive me graciously. And blessed be God that we have his prayer on record as a prayer answered. Our Lord Jesus, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secret is hid, who is perfectly acquainted with all proceedings in the court of heaven, assures us that this poor, broken-hearted penitent went to his house justified rather than the other — And so shall we, if we pray for the same blessing in the same spirit of penitence, humility, and fervour, through Jesus Christ. The Pharisee, doubtless, thought if one of them must be justified, and not the other, certainly it must be he rather than the publican. But Christ affirms the contrary: I tell you, says he, with the utmost assurance, and declare it to you as a most momentous and interesting truth, which it concerns you all to believe and lay to heart, that this publican was justified, and not the Pharisee. The self-righteous Pharisee goes away rejected, his sins are not pardoned, nor is he delivered from condemnation; but the publican, upon his penitent and humble address, obtains what he asked; and him, whom the Pharisee would not have set with the dogs of his flock, God sets with the children of his family! Christ, having finished the parable, made an application of it to the persons for whose sake chiefly it was delivered, by repeating his favourite and well-known maxim, He that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. See on Matthew 23:12.

Upon the whole, “this parable teaches us several important lessons: as, that the generality of men are great strangers to themselves, and ignorant of their own characters; that they oftentimes thank God in words, while their hearts are by no means penetrated with a due sense of them; that a man may be very ready to censure others, without ever forming a thought of reforming himself; and that, in a certain sense, we may be clear of open and scandalous sins, while we are full of inward spiritual wickedness, pride, envy, malice, and hypocrisy. To conclude: by propounding this parable immediately after that of the importunate widow, our Lord has taught us, that although our prayers must be very earnest and frequent, they should always be accompanied with the deepest humility; because no disposition of mind is more proper for such weak and frail beings as men to appear with before the great God, than an absolute self-abasement.” — Macknight.

18:9-14 This parable was to convince some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. God sees with what disposition and design we come to him in holy ordinances. What the Pharisee said, shows that he trusted to himself that he was righteous. We may suppose he was free from gross and scandalous sins. All this was very well and commendable. Miserable is the condition of those who come short of the righteousness of this Pharisee, yet he was not accepted; and why not? He went up to the temple to pray, but was full of himself and his own goodness; the favour and grace of God he did not think worth asking. Let us beware of presenting proud devotions to the Lord, and of despising others. The publican's address to God was full of humility, and of repentance for sin, and desire toward God. His prayer was short, but to the purpose; God be merciful to me a sinner. Blessed be God, that we have this short prayer upon record, as an answered prayer; and that we are sure that he who prayed it, went to his house justified; for so shall we be, if we pray it, as he did, through Jesus Christ. He owned himself a sinner by nature, by practice, guilty before God. He had no dependence but upon the mercy of God; upon that alone he relied. And God's glory is to resist the proud, and give grace to the humble. Justification is of God in Christ; therefore the self-condemned, and not the self-righteous, are justified before God.Standing afar off - Afar off from the "temple." The place where prayer was offered in the temple was the court of women. The Pharisee advanced to the side of the court nearest to the temple, or near as he could; the publican stood on the other side of the same court if he was a Jew, or in the court of the Gentiles if he was a pagan, as far as possible from the temple, being conscious of his unworthiness to approach the sacred place where God had his holy habitation.

So much as his eyes ... - Conscious of his guilt. He felt that he was a sinner, and shame and sorrow prevented his looking up. Men who are conscious of guilt always fix their eyes on the ground.

Smote upon his breast - An expression of grief and anguish in view of his sins. It is a sign of grief among almost all nations.

God be merciful ... - The prayer of the publican was totally different from that of the Pharisee. He made no boast of his own righteousness toward God or man. He felt that he was a sinner, and, feeling it, was willing to acknowledge it. This is the kind of prayer that will be acceptable to God. When we are willing to confess and forsake our sins, we shall find mercy, Proverbs 28:13. The publican was willing to do this in any place; in the presence of any persons; amid the multitudes of the temple, or alone. He felt most that "God" was a witness of his actions, and he was willing, therefore, to confess his sins before him. While we should not "seek" to do this "publicly," yet we should be willing at all times to confess our manifold transgressions, to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same by God's infinite goodness and mercy." It is not dishonorable to make acknowledgment when we have done wrong. No man is so much dishonored as he who is a sinner and is not willing to confess it; as he who has done wrong and yet attempts to "conceal" the fault, thus adding hypocrisy to his other crimes.

13. standing afar off—as unworthy to draw near; but that was the way to get near (Ps 34:18; Isa 57:15).

would not lift up—blushing and ashamed to do so (Ezr 9:6).

smote, &c.—kept smiting; for anguish (Lu 23:48), and self-reproach (Jer 31:19).

be merciful—"be propitiated," a very unusual word in such a sense, only once else used in the New Testament, in the sense of "making reconciliation" by sacrifice (Heb 2:17). There may therefore, be some allusion to this here, though not likely.

a sinner—literally, "the sinner"; that is, "If ever there was one, I am he."

Those who fancy the publican stood afar off from the Pharisee, because the Pharisees would suffer none but those of their sect, at least none that were under such a notoriety of disrepute as the publicans generally were, to come near them, suppose him to have been a Jew (which is not impossible): if he were a Gentile, he must stand so far off as the court of the Gentiles was from the court of Israel. This publican’s humility in his address to God is described,

1. By his posture; he looked upon the earth, as one that thought himself not worthy to look toward heaven.

2. By his action; he smote upon his breast, as one full of sorrow and trouble.

3. By the matter and form of his prayer; he confesseth himself a sinner; he fleeth unto the free grace of God.

Here is not a word of boasting, that he was not such or such, nor yet that he did thus or thus. He confesseth himself a sinner, a miserable sinner, and fleeth to the free grace of God; thereby instructing us how to make our applications to God, disclaiming any goodness or righteousness in ourselves, and fleeing to the alone merits of Christ, and the free grace of God in and through him.

And the publican standing afar off,.... Not at the outermost porch, or at the door: for

"a man might not fix his place at the door of the synagogue, but, "he must go afar off", the space of two doors, and then pray (r);''

it may be in the court of the Gentiles, when the Pharisee was in the court of the Israelites; at least he was afar off from him: and indeed, those who came to humble themselves before the Lord, and confess their sins, were obliged to stand at the distance of four cubits one from another, that one might not hear the prayers and confessions of the other (s): and it might be, that this poor man might stand at a greater distance than was required, that he might not displease the Pharisee, who, he knew, would resent it, should he stand near him; or rather this was done, to testify the sense he had of his state and condition, and of his unworthiness; as that he was afar off from God, and unworthy to draw nigh unto him, and deserved to be kept at a distance from him for ever. So it is said (t) of the Israelites, that they trembled at Mount Sinai, and "stood afar off", , "to show their humility": and under a work of the law, and under such a like dispensation was this publican; and therefore

would not so much as lift up his eyes unto heaven: and which, as it was an humble posture he stood in, agrees with the rules the Jews give (u);

"the order (or posture) of the body, how is it? when a man stands in prayer he ought to set his feet one by the side of the other, and fix his eyes, "below", as if he looked to the earth; and his heart must be open above, as if he stood in the heavens; and lay his hands upon his heart, putting the right hand over the left; and must stand as a servant before his master, with trembling, and fear, and dread, and may not put his hands upon his loins.''

And agreeably to this, it is elsewhere (w) said,

"he that prays, ought to fix his eyes below, and his heart above.''

And the Jews used to look downward, or shut their eyes, for the sake of attention in prayer; and it was even forbidden them to open their eyes to look upon the wall (x). This showed in the publican, that the guilt of his sins lay heavy on him; that he could not look up; that shame filled him with blushing; that sorrow caused his countenance to fall; and that fear of divine wrath, and displeasure, possessed him; and that he looked upon himself as unworthy of the smiles of heaven,

but smote upon his breast: pointing at the fountain of his sin; expressing by this action, his sorrow, and repentance for it; and an aversion and abhorrence of himself on account of it, joined with indignation and revenge; and he did this to arouse and stir up all the powers and faculties of his soul, to call upon God. The Persic version renders it, "he fell on his knees, and beat the earth with his head"; taking a sort of revenge on himself for sin:

saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. This is his prayer; a short, but a very full one, and greatly different from that of the Pharisee: in which is a confession that he was a sinner; a sinner in Adam, who had derived a sinful nature from him, being conceived and born in sin; and a sinner by practice, having committed many actual transgressions, attended with aggravating circumstances; a guilty and filthy sinner, a notorious one, deserving of the wrath of God, and the lowest hell: he speaks of himself, as if he was the only sinner in the world; at least, as if there was none like him: and there is in this prayer also a petition; and the object it is put up to, is "God", against whom he had sinned; with whom there is mercy and forgiveness; and who only can forgive sin; and who has promised that he will: and has proclaimed his name, a God, pardoning iniquity, transgression, and sin; and has given instances of his forgiving grace and mercy; and therefore the publican was right in addressing him by confession: the petition he makes to him is, to be "merciful", or "propitious" to him; that is, to show mercy to him, through the propitiary sacrifice of the Messiah, which was typified by the sacrifices under the law: the first thing a sensible sinner wants, is an application of pardoning grace and mercy; and forgiveness springs from mercy; and because the mercy of God is free and abundant, therefore pardon is so: but this is not to be expected from an absolute God, or God out of Christ. God is only propitious in Christ: hence it may be observed, that God pardons none but those to whom he is propitious in his Son; and that he forgives sin upon the foot of a reconciliation, and satisfaction made to his law, and justice, and so pardon is an act of justice, as well as of mercy; and that there is no pardoning mercy but through Christ. The Arabic version renders it, "spare me, because I am a sinner"; see Psalm 25:11.

(r) Piske Harosh Beracot, c. 1. art. 7. Vid. T. Hieros. Beracot, fol. 9. 1.((s) Jarchi & Bartenora in Pirke Abot. c. 5. sect. 5. (t) Tzeror Hammor, fol. 80. 1.((u) Maimon. Hilch. Tephilla, c. 5. sect. 4. & Moses Kotsensis Mitzvot Tora, pr. affirm. 19. (w) T. Bab. Yebamot, fol. 105. 2.((x) Tzeror Hammor, fol. 25. 3.

And the publican, standing {e} afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

(e) Far from the Pharisee in a lower place.

Luke 18:13-14. Μακρόθεν] comp. Luke 23:49. The context gives as the meaning neither: the forecourt of the Gentiles (the publican was a Jew), nor: far from the sanctuary, but: far away from the Pharisee, of whom hitherto our Lord has been speaking. Behind this bold, self-righteous man the humble one in the diffidence of his consciousness of sin had remained at a distance, not venturing to advance further.

ἑστώς] “Nec σταθείς, nec in genua procumbens, ne spectetur orans,” Bengel.

οὐδὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς] not even his eyes, to say nothing of his whole head and his hands (1 Timothy 2:8; and see, Grotius). Comp. Tacitus, Hist. iv. 72: “Stabant conscientia flagitii moestae fixis in terram oculis.”

The beating of the breast was the outward sign of mourning. See on Luke 8:52. If the Pharisee had only a proud thanksgiving, the publican has only a humble petition.

μοι τῷ ἁμαρτ.] Observe the article. Bengel rightly says: “de nemine alio homine cogitat.”

Luke 18:14. κατέβη κ.τ.λ.] a lively picture of the result, in which the emphasis rests on παρʼ ἐκεῖνον, as is shown by the following on ὅτι πᾶς κ.τ.λ.

δεδικ.] in the Pauline sense: justified, i.e. accepted by God as righteous. The Epistle to the Romans is the most complete commentary on the whole of this doctrinal history, without, however, it being necessary to take the publican as the representative of heathenism, (Schenkel).

The reading παρʼ ἐκεῖνον (see the critical remarks) is in the sense of the comparison (Luke 13:2; Luke 13:4; Bernhardy, p. 258 f.): prae illo, in respect of which the context decides whether what is declared is applicable to the other one in question, only in a lesser degree (as Luke 13:2; Luke 13:4), or not at all (as here; comp. Xen. Mem. i. 4. 14), whether, therefore, the expressed preference is relative or absolute.[228] Comp. Luther’s gloss: “The former went home, not justified, but condemned.” It is similar at Matthew 21:31; John 3:19; 1 Timothy 1:4. The reading: ἢ γὰρ ἐκεῖνος, would have to be explained interrogatively, and that not in the sense of the familiar interrogative form: ἦ γάρ, is it not true? (Klotz, ad Devar. p. 594), but, with Bornemann (and Glöckler): “or did the former one go justified to his house?” But how unsuitable in the connection (it is otherwise at Luke 20:4), since λέγω ὑμῖν leads one to expect, and actually supplies, only a categorical statement! And this use of γάρ after the interrogative is rationally conceivable, it is true, but no instance of it can be produced. The Recepta ἢ ἐκεῖνος, although critically objectionable, is founded on the correct feeling that in this place could only be the usual comparative, but γάρ alongside of it would be meaningless.

ὅτι πᾶς κ.τ.λ.] as Luke 14:11.

[228] See also van Hengel, ad Rom. I. p. 138 f.

Luke 18:13. ὁ τελώνης: the demeanour of the publican is drawn in vivid contrast to that of the Pharisee; he stands aloof, not in pride but in acute consciousness of demerit, does not dare to lift his eyes towards the object of prayer, beats upon his breast in pungent grief for sin.—τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ, the sinner; he thinks of himself only and of himself as the sinner, well known as such, the one fact worth mentioning about him, as one might speak about the drunkard of the village. Koetsveld remarks: “The publican might see his own picture in the prodigal son; no doubt many a son out of a good house took to a publican’s trade as a last resort”.

13. standing afar off] The word for standing is not statheis as in the case of the Pharisee, but merely hestos. It is not certain whether the “afar off” means ‘afar off from the Pharisee,’ or (as is more probable) afar off from the Holy Place to which the Pharisee would thrust himself, as of right, into closest proximity.

would not lift up so much as his eyes] The Jew usually stood with arms outspread, the palms turned upwards, as though to receive the gifts of heaven, and the eyes raised. “Unto Thee lift I up mine eyes,” Psalm 123:1-2; but on the other hand, “Mine iniquities have taken such hold upon me that I am not able to look up,” Psalm 40:12; “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens,” Ezra 9:6.

smote upon his breast] For this custom of expressing grief, see Luke 23:48; Nahum 2:7; Jeremiah 31:19. “Pectus, conscientiae sedem,” Bengel.

God be merciful to me a sinner] Rather, O God, be merciful to me the sinner.The word for ‘be merciful’ means ‘be propitiated’ as in Hebrews 2:17. He speaks of himself as the chief of sinners, 1 Timothy 1:15.

Luke 18:13. Μάκροθεν, from a distance, afar off) not presuming to draw near.—ἑστὼς) Neither σταθεὶς (Luke 18:11), taking his stand (confidently), nor falling on his knees, lest he should be looked at in praying.—οὐρανὸν, heaven) In the case of repentance, either fear is the predominant feeling, or else shame. Shame is a more ingenuous feeling than fear: ch. Luke 15:18; Luke 15:21 (the prodigal son); Ezekiel 16:52.[200] Better it is when the heart is melted and softened, than when it is merely bruised and broken with terror and the fear of punishment. The particles, after the rock has been bruised into sand, retain their previous hardness; whereas the heart of flesh, which has been made out of a heart of stone, pleases God, as being His own work, and in a greater degree gives glory to Him.—ἔτυπτεν, was smiting) [continued smiting] through grief of mind. Where there is grief, there is a hand [to smite one’s self in self-reproach, as Ephraim when repentant, “After that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh”], Jeremiah 31:19.—στῆθος, breast) The scat of the conscience.—ἱλάσθητί μοι, be propitious to me [propitiated towards me]) He does not dare to make mention of God and of himself in immediate connection. His trust was in the Divine mercy. [This same form of expression is used both by true penitents and by hypocrites. In fact, these latter steal from Scripture the services of words; and when they fell upon formulas much noted in Scripture, they seek “refuges of lies” in them, however utterly alien they may be to the very power and spirit of them. It is thus that they make their plea the dying thief (robber) seeking grace at the last hour; as also Paul “glorying in his infirmity.”—V. g.]—τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ) to me, who am the sinner.[201] He thinks of no other man save himself.

[200] And 63, “That thou mayest remember and be confounded, and never open the mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God.”—E. and T.

[201] So Beng. translates it unequivocally in the Vers. Germ.: “Gott, sey versuhnet mir dem sunder.” Alford is rather too rashly dogmatic in denying this force of τῷ. So as to ἱλάσθητι, as if “no doctrinal meaning could be” in it. Had the Jews no idea of propitiation in their sacrifices?—E. and T.

Verse 13. - And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner! Utterly sad and heart-broken, the publican neither recounts nor thinks of good kind deeds done, or special sins committed; no thoughts came into that poor heart, such as, "I have done some fair deeds; I am not altogether vile and sinful." He felt that with him evil so far overbalanced good that he could make no plea for himself, and yet he, too, longed for salvation, so he threw himself wholly upon God's mercy and love in his sad prayer, "God be merciful to me the sinner!" for so the words should be rendered. Different to the Pharisee, who thought himself better than his neighbours, this man, in his sad humility, evidently thought other men better than himself, but still he so trusted in God that he felt even for him, the sinner, there might be mercy. Luke 18:13Standing (ἑστὼς)

In a timid attitude: merely standing not posturing as the Pharisee. See on Luke 18:11.

Afar off.

Some explain, from the sanctuary; others, from the Pharisee.

Lift up his eyes

As worshippers ordinarily.

Be merciful (ἱλάσθητι)

Lit., be propitiated.

A sinner (τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ)

With the definite article, "the sinner." "He thinks about no other man" (Bengel).

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