9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Translation: And also, he spoke this parable to certain ones having been persuaded by themselves that they were just and despising the others: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a pharisee, the other a tax collector. The pharisee stood (and) was praying thusly, 'God, I give thanks to you that I am not like the others--extortionists, the unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I tithe on all that I possess.' But the tax collector, standing far off, did not wish even to raise (his) eyes to heaven, but was beating his chest, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner.' I say to you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For all the ones exalting themselves will be humbled, but the ones humbling themselves will be exalted."
Background and situation: The scene is the same as the previous reading. Jesus is speaking to both disciples and a general audience. The story is related only in Luke, though 18:14 has a parallel in Matthew 23:12.
Text: The table is set rather specifically. Jesus addresses his remarks to a certain mindset. He is addressing the idea that a person may think of themselves--or even "depend on themselves" (pepoithe epi)--as righteous or just, while, at the same time, looking down on other people.
Note that Jesus does not specify by name who these people are. Our mind, having listened to many sermons on the evils of phariseeism, tends to see these people as pharisees or others of the religious hierarchy. Jesus is not so sanguine. He knows that depending on yourself is not limited to pharisees. Even the disciples are not immune. Jesus had already had to warn them about "the yeast of the pharisees" in 12:1-2.
Moreover, in the story that follows, the disciples will be shown to think themselves as higher up than children, a notion of which they are quickly disabused. Jesus is not singling out specific people or groups therefore, since all may be guilty. He is addressing a specific psychological and spiritual stance. He is attacking self-righteousness.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector: The two characters represent positions at opposite ends of the social and spiritual scale. The pharisee is respectable, the tax collector despised. The pharisee stands to pray, the tax collector stood "afar off." The pharisee recounts his accomplishments, the tax collector knows he needn't bother.
The pharisee begins by thanking God for having made him such a swell person, not like "others." He recounts his spiritual accomplishments, which include such laudable acts as double fasting and tithing on the entirety of his possessions. May his tribe increase! (This is called "superegoratory practice," i.e. "above and beyond the call of duty.")
In the time of Luke, c. AD 85, "double fasting" was far from unknown. Some Jews fasted on both Mondays and Thursdays. Some Christians, probably to distinguish themselves from Jews, fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Likewise, tithing was encouraged, then as now, but, then as now, there were certain questions about the details. For example, one was expected to tithe on their own production, but what about goods purchased at the marketplace? Presumably, a tithe had already been paid by the original producer. The pharisee in Jesus' story wants us to know he tithed on everything he owned. Oh, what a good little boy is he!
The pharisee thanks God that he is not like other people, and then specifically identifies these "others" as "extortionists, the unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." All others, in the pharisee's estimation, are guilty of robbery and violence (harpages), unrighteousness or injustice (adikoi) and sexual immorality (moixoi).
The pharisee's prayer, one also notices, is remarkably short on what God has done for him, and rather windy on what he has done for God. The tax collector, by contrast, beats his breast, an expression of humility and self-accusation, looks down at his shoes and says, simply, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." You know what? Jesus says. This is the guy who goes home right with God and not the other.
Interpretation: That's fine for this week. The snooty pharisee gets his comeuppance, and the "tax collector with a heart of gold" catches a break. How heartwarming.
But what about next week? Let's say that the same two guys show up in the temple. The cleanly-attired and clean-minded pharisee reminds God (again) of how devout he is, while, this week, the tax collector shows up (again) with his whisky-breath and a blonde on each arm, and intones the same "I'm a jerk/let me off the hook anyway" prayer.
Guess what? The pharisee would (again) not be justified, and the tax collector (again) would. Week after that, same thing. Week after that, same thing. How heartwarming is this story now?
You were thinking that this story is fine as a start, but, in the future, we expect some amendment of behavior on the part of the tax collector. In other words, while the pharisee is clearly going overboard, we want the tax collector to start acting like one anyway.
Some commentators wonder exactly where the tax collector repented. Fact is, he didn't, and it wouldn't have mattered a bit even if he did. The story is not about our righteousness after all, not about our piddly attempts at self-improvement, not about our crying our eyes out or feeling suitably bad about ourselves.
Quite the contrary. Our situation is always hopeless. The twist is that even when we're at our best, such as the pharisee, we're actually worse off than we were before we shaped up. Now, we're under the illusion that we're "special" and "better." This has a technical name: "Lutheran irony." It means that even when we think we're close to God--especially then--our self-righteousness in thinking so means we're actually farther from God than we were to begin with.
Fortunately, though our situation is hopeless, God is the master of impossible situations. Even more fortunately, in terms of his love and mercy, God doesn't care a whit about the pharisee's spiritual "accomplishments" or whether or not the tax collector has one blond on his arm or three.
The pharisee went before God dressed in his spiritual finery, the tax collector naked and bare. That's why the story scares us. Who wants to stand naked before others?
Yet, at the same time, the story is the very heart of the good news. God sees all about us, and knows all about us--every fraudulent act, every whiff of envy, every resentment, every act of self-deception--and throws all of it out the window. None of that matters anymore because only one thing matters: Christ's death at the hand of sinners, and his resurrection in the power of God that saves them.
Image: The pharisee and the tax collector, Rebecca Brogan