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An Exposition Of The Gospels by The Most Rev. John Macevilly D.D.

In this chapter, our Lord proposes the parable of the unjust judge and the importunate widow, to show the necessity and advantages of continuous persevering prayer, offered up with confidence (1–8). He illustrates the vices of pride and the virtue of humility by the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (9–14). After blessing the little children who were presented to Him, and having given salutary instructions on the subject of detachment from earthly possessions, to a ruler who would fain become His follower, but was prevented from doing so by his riches (15–30), He foretells His future Passion and Resurrection (31–34). He cures a blind man at Jericho (35–43).

From verse 8, it would appear, that the following was spoken at the same time and in connexion with the preceding teaching respecting the final coming of our Lord. “And He spoke to them,” viz., His disciples, “a parable.” He adduced a proof, a fortiori, or indeed, rather, a dissimili, as St. Augustine says (Sermo 36, de Verbo Domini), namely, from an example the very opposite of the subject to which it is applied, to show the necessity of continuous persevering prayer, full of confident assurance, that in His own good time, God will come to our relief.

“That we ought always to pray.” The Greek will mean, He spoke a parable “for this,” that is, a parable showing this. “That it is necessary always to pray.” The word “always,” does not of course convey, that men should be ever on their knees engaged in vocal prayer. This would be unreasonable and incompatible with the duties of life, and the wants of human society. It only means, that we should be always ready for prayer, frequent and attentive in its exercise, particularly at stated times, and in seasons of temptation and trial, persevering, and “not fainting,” till we obtain our requests; that we should always walk in the Divine presence, by a spirit of prayer, love, and sorrow for sin; that we should refer our actions to God’s glory, and by frequent aspirations, be constantly in communication with Him. This every fervent Christian can and ought to do, without any interference with other duties. Thus, it is said of David, “Semper baculum in manibus,” &c. (1 Kings 17); our Redeemer, “Semper decui in synagoga.” Even the widow in question did not always worry the judge; but, “often.”

“And not to faint.” The Greek, μη εκκακειν, means, to become faint-hearted, or desponding in difficulties and trials of life, owing to human infirmity, particularly, if we fail to obtain at once the object of our petitions. We should not, on that account, give up, but rather persevere, until even our importunity and perseverance succeed in obtaining our requests, as was the case with the importunate widow in the subjoined parable.

2. The example of a judge, who was cruel and inexorable, and who had a character for impiety and impudence, adds greatly to the force of the argument. If such a man could be prevailed upon by importunity, how much more, will not a just and merciful God be influenced by the persistent entreaties of His beloved children (v. 7), (Matthew 7:11; Luke 11:13).

“Feared not God.” An impious atheist. “Neither regarded man.” An impudent scoffer of his fellow-men, reckless of public opinion, who had neither conscience nor character. Sometimes impious, wicked men, are deterred from evil by fear of human opinion. This man had not even that redeeming quality—a man of the most defiant effrontery. Such a character is still fresh in the memory of men. For a true portrait, see Matthew 26:62.

3. The helpless condition of the “widow,” whom he was, in virtue of his office, bound to protect, adds force to the parable. “Avenge me.” The Greek word, εκδικησον, means, not to take vengeance, but to do justice, to rescue her by a just judgment from the unjust prosecution of her “adversary”—αντιδικου—her powerful legal opponent, who sought, by his influence and wealth, to crush her, in a suit at law.

4. “And he would not for a long time.” Likely, owing to his innate perversity, and hope of receiving a bribe.

“Although I fear not God, nor regard man.” I am dead to all stings of remorse of conscience, and deaf to the reproaches of men, utterly reckless, as regards character.

5. “I will avenge her.” I will render her justice, in the suit in which she is involved, against her powerful opponent.

“Lest continually coming she weary me.” The Greek word for “weary,” υπωπιαζη, means, literally, as happens pugilists, to bruise one under the eyes, and leave livid marks—υπωπιον—to render them black and livid from hard fists and severe blows. The same as the Latin, obtundo (as 1 Cor. 9:27). Here, it means, “to worry him to death.” The unjust judge now takes action, from a selfish feeling of consulting for his own ease, by being freed from the discomfort of constant worry. Similar are the conduct and sentiments of the man importuned at midnight (11:8). The judge might pretend to apprehend, from her continuous reproaches and injurious language, that she would at last assault him personally.

6. Our Lord wishes to direct their attention to the parable and its several circumstances and features, in order to see the contrast in its application more clearly.

7. “God,” a just and merciful Judge, a beneficent Father, contrasted with an impious, impudent, heartless judge.

“Avenge.” Vindicate the cause of “His elect,” His chosen children, whom He loves with an infinite love; whom He loved from eternity; to whose good He makes everything else subservient; who, moreover, cease not, “day and night, to cry unto Him,” offering Him a holy violence. Will He not be moved by their pious importunity, their filial confidence, their unceasing, persevering entreaties?

“And have patience”—μακροθυμων—which means, “long suffering”—“in their regard,” referring to the elect. The meaning is, will God patiently permit them to be afflicted, or will He defer too long to vindicate and right His chosen servants? According to the Greek reading, the word “and,” will signify even. Will God not avenge His elect … even when He is patient, or long-suffering in allowing them to be harassed and persecuted? St. Chrysostom reads, και μακρωθυμεὶ. The Vulgate reading better suits the assertion in next verse, “I say to you, He will quickly avenge them.”

8. “Quickly.” When, after bearing long, and showing long-suffering in their regard, according to the decrees of His providence, He sees it expedient, not “quickly,” or immediately, on our petitioning Him. He often defers listening to our petitions, in order to try our patience and perseverance in prayer. For, it is to inculcate perseverance in prayer that the present parable is introduced.

“Nevertheless,” nothwithstanding My unfailing promise to succour My faithful followers, who, believing in My words and confiding in My promise, should persevere in prayer as a condition of obtaining relief and their liberation in due time; how few are there, comparatively, who, at My last coming, and during the preceding ages, when men should be ever ready for My coming, will be found to retain, under the pressure of persecution and suffering, the faith, which alone can insure persevering prayer, as well as the hope and firm confidence of being rescued by Me in due time. How few, therefore, who entitle themselves and have a claim to be delivered. The fault will be theirs, and not Mine; since they did not fulfil the conditions on which I promised to relieve them. This is understood by many interpreters of the general defection which, under the persecuting reign of Antichrist, shall take place at the end of the world (Matthew 24:12–24; 2 Peter 3:3). It may also be said to refer to the several defections which, at all intervening periods of time, shall take place, owing to the pressure of temporal evils, in consequence of which persevering and hopeful appeals to God will be given up by a comparatively large number of Christians. All this shall proceed from a want of firm faith in God’s words, and of unhesitating reliance on His promises. For, from faith proceeds prayer, and from the magnitude and constancy of faith, proceeds perseverance in prayer. If we look to the present state of the world, the prevailing infidelity, the indifference even of professing Christians, in regard to their religious duties, and especially prayer, have we not grave reasons to apprehend that we are approaching, nay, almost surrounded on all sides, by that general apostasy referred to here by our Blessed Lord?

9. It is likely, the following parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, addressed not, like the foregoing, to His disciples, but to those whom He meant to reprove and correct, was introduced by our Lord, not only to repress the pride and boasting of the Pharisees, and others such, and to inculcate the virtue of humility in general (v. 14), but also to point out its necessity as a condition of prayer, no less than perseverance, as inculcated in the preceding parable.

“Those who trusted in themselves,” or, as the Greek has it, “were persuaded regarding themselves,” would seem, from the parable, to refer to the Pharisees in a special manner, whilst including haughty men of every class at all times, who taking a vain complacency in themselves as possessing virtues of which they were in reality destitute, despised all others as devoid of such virtues.

“He spoke also this parable.” It may be a history of a real occurrence; or, it may be a mere imaginary occurrence—as seems most probable—intended by our Lord for the illustration of His subject. Whether real or imaginary, it is called a “Parable;” because, it serves to illustrate the general truth referred to by our Lord at the close.

“Every one that exalteth himself,” &c. The Greek for “despised,” means, made nothing, or, thought nothing, of others.

10. “Went up,” in allusion to the position of the Temple built on a hill. This is symbolical of the elevation of the soul, when addressing God in prayer. They went to pray; for, His “house is the house of prayer.” “Pharisee” (see Matthew 3:7). “Publican” (see Matthew 9:11).

11. “The Pharisee standing prayed thus with himself.” The word, “standing,” according to some Expositors (Maldonatus, &c.), who hold that the Jews usually observed a kneeling posture at prayer, means, being present or placed in the Temple. These interpreters adduce in proof of their opinion the case of Solomon, who prayed on bended knees (3 Kings 8:54; 2 Paralip. 6), of Daniel (6:10), Micheas (6:6), the Apostles and disciples (Acts 7:59; 9:40; 20:36), from whom the Christian custom of praying on bended knees was borrowed or derived. Others, however, maintain that whilst on certain solemn and exceptional occasions, such as those referred to, the Jews knelt at prayer, the rule usually practised was, to pray in a standing posture (Matthew 6:5; Genesis 18:22; Job 30:20; Jeremias 16; 18:20, 2 Esdras 9:2–5; 1 Kings 1:26). This latter seems to be the opinion generally adopted, which is corroborated by the word, “standing,” taken here in its literal signification. For the King alone, and the High Priests, had their seats in the Temple; they alone could sit; all others, generally stood at prayer and sacrifice, at which it would be very fatiguing to assist, during the long time spent at, on bended knees.

The Pharisee took his position in a prominent place, high up in the Court of the Temple, near the Court of the Priests, the Altar of Incense and the Sanctum Sanctorum, while the Publican stood afar off (v. 13) from the Court of the Priests, in some private place, from an humble sense of his unworthiness. The word, “standing,” conveys a different idea determined by the language used in both cases. As regards the Pharisee, it conveys—as appears from the language employed—that he stood with head erect and lofty mien, and boastful, as if to discuss with God, the question of His justice and personal merits.

“Prayed thus with himself.” The word, “prayed,” may refer to, “I give thee thanks,” thanksgiving being a form of prayer, as the Canticle of Anna is called (1 Kings 2:1, 2, &c.), although St. Augustine would regard the words as spoken ironically. “He went up to pray;” he would ask nothing of God, but only praise himself.

“With himself,” is understood by some, thus: he prayed with himself, since he did not pray to God, who neither heard nor approved of his address; others thus: he prayed with himself, because it was not inspired by God, but proceeded from himself; others, because it was an act of self-complacency, in every respect selfish.

“I give Thee thanks, O God,” &c. “Superbe gratias egit” (St. Augustine, Psalm cxlvi). If this were a sincere act of thanksgiving to God, referring to Him as to its source, all that He possessed, an humble acknowledgment, that every good comes from Him—our Lord would not hold up the act of the Pharisee, as a subject for reproach and condemnation; but, it is because, it was a mere hollow expression of his lips, not a sincere act, proceeding from his heart, as his haughty language, condemning the rest of men, and the Publican, in particular, implies; it is because he gloried in his supposed good acts, and in his avoidance of gross sins, as if his fancied superiority over others were attributable to himself, to his own personal deserts, to his own industry, and not to God, “per meus justitias, quibus iniquus non sum” (St. Augustine), that our Redeemer condemns him. It is clear, from his contempt of others, his scornful allusion to the Publican, and rash judgment regarding him; his considering himself so perfect, as to ask nothing further of God, that this unnecessary allusion to his own good works, was the result of pride, and of his attributing all to his own merits only. Owing to the subtlety of pride, we often thank God, in order to praise ourselves. Had he a particle of humility, a knowledge that all he possessed was a gratuitous gift emanating from God, he would not unnecessarily boast of the gratuitous gift of another; nor would he despise others on whom the Author of every good gift did not think well to bestow so many blessings. How often do we find men speculatively declare they are utterly unworthy of the gifts God has bestowed upon them; but, in almost the same breath, they begin to boast of their superiority over their less favoured brethren, whose faults they at once proclaim. When subjected to humiliation, they practically deny what they asserted before, regarding their own unworthiness and the gratuitousness of God’s gifts; thus in act belying their professions.

“Touch the mountains,” subject those haughty men to the slightest humiliation, and at once “they shall smoke” (Ps. 143). Then, indeed, the emptiness of their hollow professions becomes publicly manifest. We sometimes read of great saints—St. Paul and others—recounting their works and labours in the cause of God; but they did so from necessity, in order to protect the faith, and advance the cause of God against wicked impostors. In every case, they ascribed all the merit to God, and not to themselves.

“The rest of men.” This is qualified by the following, as if he were not so foolish as to prefer himself to all mankind, but to “extortioners,” who use violence; to the “unjust,” who employ fraud and deceit in order to take away one’s property, &c. He thus takes a vain complacency in himself, compared with the greater part of mankind, though St. Augustine (Serm. 36), thinks he refers to the whole mass of mankind. “Quid est, “cæteri homines,” nisi omnes præter ipsum? ego justus sum, cæteri peccatores.”

“As also is this Publican.” He not only blindly expressed his opinion of the rest of men, but he descends to particulars, and rashly condemns the poor Publican, whom God justifies. This shows his pride, and makes it clear that, while thanking God in words, he was really, and in his heart, only boasting of his own superiority. If he were just, and the Publican, a sinner, should he not have acknowledged that his justice would be the gratuitous gift of God? And why despise or condemn any one else whom God might not have treated so bountifully? It was the effect of pride, attributing his fancied superiority to his own industry and innate excellence. It is likely, that these words were not heard by the Publican, who “stood afar off” (v. 13).

Having boasted of his having “avoided evil,” the Pharisee, in next verse, boasts of the other quality of justice, viz., that “he did good.”

12. He not only fasted on the days appointed, but he boasted of having gone further; he, unlike these adulterers, “fasted twice in the week.” “I give tithes,” not only of corn, wine, and oil, as enjoined in the law, but of “all that I possess,” even to the smallest herbs, “mint, anise, and cummin” (Matt. 23:23), unlike these “unjust extortioners.”

13. “Standing afar off,” in the furthermost part of the court of the people, without venturing to approach where the Pharisee stood, near the Court of the Priests and the Altar of Holocausts. The Publicans were prohibited by no law to enter the Temple, unless they were Pagans, in which case, they stood in the Court of the Gentiles. The Publican referred to here would seem to have been a Jew.

“Standing,” conveys a different posture here, from that in the case of the Pharisee. There, as the context shows, it denoted haughty demeanour; here, humble, downcast humility.

“Would not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven.” With these eyes, that had been hitherto wholly intent on the things of earth, he considers himself unworthy of looking up to heaven, to God, whom he had hitherto so grievously offended, much less of raising up his hands, like the Pharisee, who, probably, raised up his hands and eyes, from a proud consciousness of his deserts in the sight of heaven. By this, the Publican conveyed, that he sinned against the whole host of heaven. St. Augustine remarks, “Ut aspiceretur, non aspiciebat, sursum respicere non audebat; premebat conscientia, spes sublevabat.”

“But, struck his breast,” to show his sorrow of heart; to confess, and punish sin which proceeds from the will. He thus showed outward marks of penance, of his internal sorrow, and his resolve to chasten himself for his sins. The striking of the breast, at all times, with Jews and Christians, denoted sorrow for sin, humility of heart, and resolution to do penance. This striking of his breast was an external confession, a sign of contrition and satisfaction.

“Saying, O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Literally, “to me, the sinful one.” This is an humble confession of sin and a petition for pardon of the same; a very brief, but efficacious form of prayer, to be imitated at all times, by truly humble penitents, who should ascribe all the malice of sin to themselves, without extenuation of it from circumstances, or without throwing the blame on others. This brief, but comprehensive petition, is more fully expressed and developed in Psalm 1—“Miserere mei Deus,” &c. While the Pharisee scornfully singled out the Publican as an object of contempt, he, in his humility, singles himself out as the chief sinner on earth, surpassing in wickedness all other sinful men.

14. “Went down,” in allusion to the position of the Temple on a hill (v. 10). “Justified,” rendered really just by the grace of God, who Himself had inspired him with the necessary dispositions, consequent on which He remits sin and infuses the grace of justification. “Rather than the other,” whose boastful contempt and rash judgment regarding the Publican, and proud conduct before God, rendered him deserving of condemnation. That one was really justified, and the other condemned, is clearly shown from the general reason assigned (v. 14). The Vulgate is, “ab illo,” that is, præ illo, in preference to the other. The Greek reading is different in several manuscripts. That followed by the Vulgate, which is the reading of the Vatican MS., is παρʼ ἐκε͂ινον, rather than the other. Most of the ancient codices have ἤ γαρ εκεινος, quam enim ille, which it is very hard to explain. Some understand it thus: Surely, more than the other. Some codices have, ἤ εκεινος (μαλλον), being understood, as in Matthew (18:8), Luke (15:7), more than the other. It is thus the Syriac version has it, and St. Augustine so quotes it in several places. (Epist. 86, ad Casulanum; Serm. 36, de Verbis Domini, &c., &c.)

“Because, every one,” &c. (See Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11.) This is the general reason assigned for saying, that one was justified and the other condemned; and thus our Lord rebuked those who proudly trusted in their own fancied justice, and despised every one else (v. 9). These haughty Pharisees, and such like, were to be humbled here and hereafter, publicly rejected and abandoned by God; the most notorious sinners to be received by God in preference. “The publicans and harlots to go before them,” &c. (Matthew 21:31.)

15, 16. (See Matthew 19:13–15.)

17. (See Matthew 18:3.)

18–27. (See Matthew 19:16–26.)

28–30. (See Matthew 19:27–29.)

31–33. (See Matthew 20:17–19.)

34. (See Mark 9:31). The words of our Lord here were so utterly incompatible with their preconceived and cherished notions regarding the temporal glory and splendour of the Messiah’s reign, in which they hoped to be sharers, that the allusion to His Passion they could never endure nor understand. (See also Matthew 20:19.)

35–43. (See Matthew 20:29–34.)

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