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The Publican

Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

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OUR Lord was teaching and healing daily in the temple. And among the multitudes who came and went while He was so employed He paid special attention to a Pharisee and a publican. The Pharisee came up to the temple not caring who saw him or who heard him when he was at his prayers. He had nothing to say in his prayers of which he had any reason to be ashamed. Whereas the publican stood afar off, and would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven. But all the same, there was One teaching and healing in the temple that day who not only saw both the Pharisee and the publican, but who, without listening, heard them both pray, and read all that was in both their hearts. He needed not to leave His seat where He was teaching and healing, because at all that distance, and notwithstanding all that surging multitude, He knew in Himself what those two men were thinking and what they were saying. For,-I am He that searcheth the reins and the hearts. And I will give to every one of you according to your works.

The Pharisee need not detain us long. He is no deep study to us. He is familiar to us. We have him among ourselves. There are multitudes like him among ourselves. At the same time, would that there were more men like him among ourselves. For he was a blameless man. He was a man of a spotless life. He was an upright man in all his dealings with other men. He was a cornerstone of the city. He was a pillar of the temple. There was no one in the temple that day who did not do him obeisance as he passed by. He was admired, and honoured, and praised, of all men. Yes. Would that there were more men like him in all our cities and in all our temples also.

It is the publican who is here brought forward by our Lord for our special learning. The publican is discovered to us for our very closest study. His name is familiar to us, but not his state of mind. There were few men of his state of mind in his day, and they are not many in our day. God be merciful to me a sinner! was what the publican beat his breast and said. The sinner! that was, in exact terms, what he felt and what he said. The sinner,-as if there was no other sinner in existence but himself. The publican was as possessed with his sinfulness as the Pharisee was possessed with his righteousness. The Pharisee thought that no other man in all the world was at all his equal in his righteousness, and that was exactly what the publican thought about himself in his sinfulness. The publican felt utterly alone in the temple that day. He felt utterly alone in the whole world every day. And the definiteness of the word that he instinctively used about himself-the sinner, is to this day the best possible test of the state of mind of all who either read this parable or speak about it. Coleridge, when he is writing in one place about Santa Teresa, lapses for once into a stupidity that is unaccountable in a man of such spiritual insight and such spiritual sympathy. The saint had been speaking to herself about herself in her Journal, and that in the very same terms in which the publican spoke about himself in the temple, and in the very same terms in which Paul speaks about himself in his first Epistle to Timothy, when the great critic breaks out upon her for her insincerity and her extravagant language in a way very distressing to his admirers to read, and very unlike himself. Were it not such an exception to his usual insight and sympathy, I would be tempted to say that such a censure of such a saint is, to my mind, and I think I have the mind of Christ, a far worse sign of Coleridge than all the opium he ever ate, and all the procrastinated work he died and left unfinished. It was not that the publican was, speaking coarsely, the absolutely most immoral man in all the city. It was not that Paul was, stupidly speaking, actually the chiefest of all the actual sinners of his day. It was not that Santa Teresa was the very worst and wickedest woman in all Spain in her day. But to put this truth about them all in a somewhat homely way, it was something not unlike this. I have good reason to believe that other men than myself have suffered from toothache and rheumatism. Only, I have never had the actual and personal experience of any man's excruciating pain but my own. And indwelling and secret sinfulness is the toothache, and the neuralgia, and the cancer, and the accumulated and exasperated agony, of each spiritual man's own soul. It was not what the publican had actually and openly done that festered like hell-fire in his heart and conscience, it was what he himself inwardly was, and inwardly was to himself alone. The heart knoweth its own bitterness, he would have said to Coleridge writing far too flippantly about Teresa. It was because Solomon's prayer, offered long ago at the dedication of the temple, was fulfilled in the publican. Which, said Solomon, shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and shall spread forth his hands toward this house. The whole of the publican's case is explained beforehand in that one profound petition of Solomon's prayer. O poor publican! O publican to be pitied both of God and man! God be merciful to all men everywhere and in every day who know the plague of their own heart!

Why did our Lord not say sanctified? Or, still better, why did He not say both justified and sanctified? Why did He confine Himself to justified? It was sanctification that the publican needed even more than justification, and our Lord knew that quite well. Whereas, He only said that this man went down to his house justified. Justification was but the half of the publican's prayer, and it was not the most poignant and most pressing half. For, if he is only justified today he will be back to the temple tomorrow nothing better of having been justified but rather worse. If our Lord in His great mercy to the publican's misery had only said sanctified what a happy worshipper the publican would have been from that day! And what a happy house he would have had at home from that day! Now, why did our Lord not say the word? Why did He not both say it and do it to this poor wretch on the spot? He would need to have a good reason to show why He did not say sanctified. And no doubt He will have a good reason to show when He is judged. Though it is not always easy for us to see what His reason can be. Perhaps He tried to say sanctified that day in the temple and could not. Who can tell but that He was so carried away with pity for the poor publican that He said Father, if it be possible, let us send this miserable man to his house sanctified? And perhaps He had to submit and say, Thy will be done. For justification is an immediate act of the Father's free and sovereign grace. An act, on the spot, of God's own mind and heart and holy will. And therefore the publican went down to his house only justified. Whereas, sanctification is "an exceedingly complex work," as John Wesley used to call it. God is sending sinful men down to their own houses justified every day, but not sanctified. It takes a long lifetime, in most cases, to sanctify a sinner; and at the end it is the miracle of all miracles to the old sinner himself that he is ever sanctified. Both are miracles. Both justification and sanctification. Samuel Rutherford used to pose the saints of his day with this dilemma, which of the two miracles they will wonder most at to all eternity, their justification or their sanctification? For what is justification? Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone. And what is sanctification? Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. And, as many of yourselves know, it takes many a visit to the temple, and many a far-off stand in the temple, and many a penitent prayer both in the temple and in your own house, and many a beat of the breast everywhere, before the exceedingly complex work of sanctification can be safely said to be begun in you, not to say finished in you.

Now, on this whole scene I will make this one more observation, and so close. You are not to suppose that this was the first time, much less the one and the only time, those two men had come up in that way to the temple to pray. You may depend upon it the Pharisee never neglected public worship, and by this time neither did the publican. And the oftener the Pharisee went up to the temple the more he went down to his house despising others. Whereas, on the other hand, the oftener the publican went up the more poignant was the pain in his breast. For if he went down every Sabbath day justified, as he did, the more all the next week he loathed himself in his own sight for his iniquities and for his abominations. And that went on till at last God was merciful to him, and took him up to the heavenly temple where he was at last both sanctified and glorified as well as justified. He had often fallen back in the agony of his heart on such Scriptures as this: "As for me, I will behold Thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake with Thy likeness." But with that, and with many more Scriptures like that, to alleviate his agony, he had often charged God foolishly for the length and the depth of his misery. But when the shore was won at last, no more he grudged the billows past. For by that time he was like the prisoner in Plutarch who received a chain of gold with as many links in it, and each link as heavy, as had been that chain of iron, bound with which he had lain so long in prison for his exiled sovereign's sake. And you must learn not to grudge or repine at your lifelong visits to this temple in search or sanctification. The thing you so unceasingly seek is not here. At the same time, this is the way to it. And, meantime, you will every Sabbath day go down to your house at any rate justified. And while falling infinitely far short of a finished sanctification, you will find here many incidental blessings that will help to keep your heart from wholly fainting, till to you also it will be said, O thou sinner of all sinners, be it unto thee in this matter of sanctification also, even as thou wilt. And then for all your shame you shall have double, and for confusion you shall rejoice in your portion, therefore in that land you shall possess the double, everlasting joy shall be unto you.

Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'The Publican'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​t/the-publican.html. 1901.
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