The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector (Luke 18.8–14) is the gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary in the C of E for this Sunday, and a number of people have asked me questions about it. Here are some observations, still some way short of a coherent narrative.
First thing to note is that this is found in Luke only, so it might be worth keeping an eye out for distinctively Lukan themes, interests and vocabulary.
Second, Luke introduces the parable with his own comment on why Jesus told it. This is distinctively Lukan: he has already done this for the previous parable (Luke 18.1) and does it again soon after (Luke 19.11) and I cannot recall this happening the other gospels. Why does he do it? I think the most obvious answer is that these parables don’t have any obvious context at the point Luke places them, and he has not gathered together parables on a theme, in contrast to Matthew (eg Matthew 13). It suggests that there might not be any necessary connection with what goes before or comes immediately after.
We then need to put this in its historical context. Pharisees were generally admired, and so they should have been, in that their stress on obedience to Torah was the obvious response to the story of the Old Testament, where judgement had come with the destruction of the Temple, because of the people’s lack of obedience. Although he has some harsh words for them (Luke 11.42–43), Jesus himself says that we should follow the teachings of the pharisees (Matt 23.3), not neglect the details, and our ‘righteousness’ (that is, our observance of these things) should exceed theirs (Matt 5.20). So the lesson of this parable cannot be ‘Don’t engage in the practices that the Pharisees practise’. We need to feel the weight of Jesus’ unexpected inversion: the person to whom we ought to look as a role model actually has the wrong attitude. If we read this already knowing that the pharisee was the ‘baddie’ then the whole point it lost, and the parable just confirms our prejudice.
Quite a lot is often made of the phrase ‘he prayed to himself’ (Luke 18.11), often not translated in English but there in Greek. Some say that this shows he was not actually praying to God, or his prayer was ineffective. Again, reading in historical context, we need to remember that silent prayer was unknown in that culture; all praying would be out loud (hence, eg Hannah’s lips moving as she prays in 1 Samuel 1.12–13). So the comment ‘to himself’ simply means he was not praying loudly for others to hear, as was Jesus in Luke 10.21, but quietly to himself.
The comment on fasting reflects an interest of Luke (which people often don’t notice). It is Luke 5.33 that gives tells us that John the Baptist’s and the pharisees’ disciples fast ‘often’, and one manuscript tradition had corrected Matt 9.14 to line up with this. And it is Luke who tells us that the ekklesia in Antioch were ‘worshipping and fasting’ (Acts 13.2).
Whilst some commentators suppose that in fasting twice a week, the pharisee is boasting that he exceeds the requirement of the law, in fact I have shown that this was common practice in the first century, and was continued by the first Jesus-followers. So his claim is nothing exceptional (and in fact we know which two days he fasted on!).
It is reasonably well-known why tax-collectors were despised. On the one hand, the role was awarded on the basis of an auction, so whoever claimed to be able to raise the most taxes was awarded the franchise. This meant that tax-collectors were seen as exploitative, taking more than was strictly necessary. On the other hand, there was an important theological issue at stake. Tax-collectors were colluding with the very power from which pious Jews sought God for liberation (Luke 1.68–75).
The concluding phrase is very interesting. Most translations make it a comparative:
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. (TNIV)
Luke is distinctive in using the verb ‘to (be) justify (ed)’, one of Paul’s favourite terms. And Howard Marshall, in his magisterial and still useful commentary, notes that the phrase ‘rather than the other’ ‘par’ ekeinon’ is unusual. He believes that is it is a translation into Greek of an Aramaic phrase ‘one from the other’. This offers some evidence that the parable goes back to Jesus, against some who have argued it is a creation of Luke. But it also means that Jesus’ point is not that God prefers the tax-collector over the pharisee (‘this one in preference to the other’) but simply that the one was justified, and the other not.
Putting all this together means that the parable does not support an antinomian position. It is not that the pharisee is mistaken in his devotional practices, and that the tax-collector is right to do nothing other than throw himself on the mercy of God (quite a common reading!). As Luke’s introduction highlights, the issue that Jesus is focussing on is the attitude to such practices. Good practices are worth nothing without right attitude, and even if the good practices are absent, right attitude to God is the thing that really counts. And the heart of that right attitude is recognising that God’s grace comes to us, by whatever means, as pure gift.
Each morning I go around our house, opening the curtains. It is a more laborious job than previously, because we have moved into a house where lots of the curtains have draw cords and tiebacks, so it takes quite some time and effort. But when I put the effort in, I am rewarded with the sun streaming in and lighting up the room. Does the sun stream in because I have made the effort to pull back the curtains? In one sense, of course. But should I be proud that my effort has merited the sun streaming in? Of course not! It still comes as gift.
When we follow the disciplines of life that the Spirit of God forms in us (as we surely should), God’s presence still comes to us as unmerited gift.
(Some commentators say that this parable is about our attitude to others, as evidenced by the pharisee’s comment in Luke 18.11. But I think it is primarily about our attitude to God and to spiritual practices and disciplines; when that is wrong, our attitude to others is corrupted.)