LUKE 17:20 – 18:30. THE CONTEXT
In 17:20-37, Jesus taught the disciples about the coming of the kingdom. Now, in four vignettes—two parables (18:1-8 and 18:9-14) and two stories (18:15-17 and 18:18-30)—Jesus begins to show the disciples what kingdom life is like.
Both parables have to do with prayer. The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (18:1-8) teaches us to pray persistently, and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9-14) teaches us to pray humbly.
The first story—the blessing of the children (18:15-17)—reprises the humility lesson of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9-14). Both emphasize the Great Reversal of which Jesus has spoken (13:30). The disenfranchised—the tax collector and the children—receive a blessing. When the disciples try to prevent children from bothering Jesus, he not only demands to see the children, but declares that, “whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a little child will in no way enter into it” (18:17).
In the second story—the rich ruler (18:18-30)—Jesus calls the rich man to humble himself by giving his riches (the source of his power, prestige, and pride) to the poor. He must humble himself to be eligible to follow Jesus (18:22).
LUKE 18:9. SOME WERE CONVINCED OF THEIR OWN RIGHTEOUSNESS
9He spoke also this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others.
“He spoke also this parable to certain people” (v. 9a). The word “also” ties this parable to the earlier one (18:1-8). Luke opens this parable with an introduction (v. 9) and Jesus closes it with a conclusion (v. 14). In the introduction (v. 9), Luke does not specifically mention Pharisees, but speaks of people who are self-righteous and contemptuous.
“who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others” (v. 9b). Not all Pharisees are self-righteous and contemptuous, and not all disciples are humble servants. James and John, for instance, try to guarantee themselves top billing in the kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). It is all too tempting for disciples, having achieved “insider” status with this up-and-coming young prophet, to fall into the sin of pride.
It is equally tempting for us to be prideful, self-righteous, and contemptuous. Clergy of mainline churches accuse fundamentalists of such attitudes, but are tempted to pray, “Thank God I am not like those fundys!”
We clergy are further tempted to pride as we are promoted to ever-larger churches and ever more important offices—as we see ourselves on television or rub elbows with wealthy or influential parishioners. We are tempted to be contemptuous of members of our congregation who refuse to share our vision—or who do foolish things that bring them grief.
It would, indeed, be unfortunate if we were to conclude our study of this parable by thanking God that we are not like the Pharisee—if we were to honor this parable by emulating the Pharisee’s self-righteous, contemptuous attitude.
LUKE 18:10-12. I THANK YOU THAT I AM NOT LIKE THIS TAX COLLECTOR
10“Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself (Greek: pros heauton) like this: ‘God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.’“
“Two men went up into the temple to pray” (v. 10a). People must literally go up to the temple to pray. Jerusalem is built on a mountain, and the temple is on a high point in the city. Traditional times for public prayer are 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. (Acts 2:15; 3:1), but a person can engage in private prayers at any time of the day.
We tend to think of these two men as engaged in private prayer, but Kenneth Bailey makes a case for the context being public worship (Kenneth Bailey, 145 ff.):
• In the public worship of the temple, atonement sacrifices are offered twice a day. The idea behind these sacrifices is that people have sinned, and death is required to blot out sin. God permits substitutionary sacrifices, however—animal sacrifices—so that a lamb might die in the place of sinners—might pay the price for sin and thus remove the burden of sin from the sinner. God imputes the sin to the lamb, cleansing the sinner and making it possible for the cleansed sinner to stand in God’s presence.
• The tax collector’s prayer is a plea for mercy, which implies atonement (v. 13)—atonement being the purpose of public temple worship. Jesus concludes that the tax collector “went down to his house justified” (v. 14)—atoned.
“one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (v. 10b). Jesus frequently criticizes Pharisees (11:39, 42; 12:1; 16:15, 18), so we tend to think of the Pharisee as the bad guy and the tax collector as the good guy. However, such characterizations rob the parable of its power. Pharisees genuinely try to uphold the Torah in a world where Roman power and Samaritan neighbors tempt people to compromise. Pharisees genuinely try to please God. Tax collectors, on the other hand, collaborate with Romans and steal from Jews.
Jesus’ listeners must be surprised at the Great Reversal as this parable unfolds. We need to recover that surprise! Perhaps we can do so by imagining a drug addict sitting in the back pew and the deacons at the front. Then let us hear Jesus say, “I tell you, this druggie will go down to his home justified rather than these deacons.”
“The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself (pros heauton) like this“ (v. 11a). The Pharisee stands alone, distancing himself from his inferiors. His purpose in standing by himself might be to call attention to his elite status—or it might be to keep himself separate from those, including this tax collector, who might defile him by their unclean touch (Kenneth Bailey, 148).
Does pros heauton (to himself) modify statheis (having stood) or tauta proseucheto (these things was praying)? In other words, is the Pharisee “standing by himself” or “praying to himself”? Scholars are divided on that point, but a good case can be made for the latter, particularly in view of the content of his prayer—narcissistic and self-congratulatory. There is, in this Pharisee’s prayer, no adoration, confession or supplication—only thanksgiving. His thanksgiving, moreover, is self-centered and, therefore, not pleasing to God. It would seem that the Pharisee is both standing by himself and praying to himself.
“God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (v. 11b). The Pharisee errs by his thoughts of other people while praying to God.
However, the Pharisee’s focus is on neither God nor the tax collector, but is rather on self. He uses the first-person pronoun four times in rapid succession—”I…, I…, I…, I….” In assessing his own character, he compares himself only to the worst elements of his society, and pronounces himself excellent by comparison. When picking a standard by which to measure ourselves, we need to look higher. The only faithful standard is Jesus. If we compare ourselves to Jesus, our sin will be obvious and we will not be tempted to the kind of pride that taints this Pharisee.
“I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get” (v. 12). The Pharisee clearly exceeds Torah requirements:
• Jews are required to fast only on the Day of Atonement, but this Pharisee fasts twice a week. This is no small matter. Fasting involves going without food and water from sunrise to sunset, and thus requires serious spiritual discipline. It might help us to fast for one day to help us to appreciate the cost to this Pharisee of his commitment.
• Jews are required to tithe only the production of their fields (Deuteronomy 14:22), but this Pharisee tithes everything—presumably even the produce of his herb garden (11:42). We might try that too—tithing everything! We find it easy to criticize this Pharisee, but we might ask whether we are as willing as he to “put our money where our mouth is.”
The Pharisee’s prayer includes no supplication. He asks nothing of God. He has everything he needs. He exceeds the standard at every point. He is better than other people, whom he characterizes as thieves, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors. What more could he ask of God than the high standing that he already enjoys? This prideful attitude, of course, is the problem. He has created a universe that revolves around himself. His overblown sense of self separates him, not only from other people, but from God.
Our understanding of salvation dictates the shape of our discipleship. Pharisees take a defensive approach to salvation, separating themselves from sin and sinners. They see themselves as a bulwark against the pressures of paganism and assimilation that threaten the Jewish faith. They build a wall to keep sinners out. Jesus, on the other hand, takes the offense, reaching out to redeem sinners and to bring them inside the fold. In the book of Acts, we will see the early church do the same.
Before we thank God that we are not like this Pharisee (thus copying the Pharisee’s prideful behavior), we should remember that clergy, deacons, and other key leaders in the church are subject to the same temptations as those that befell the scribes and Pharisees.
LUKE 18:13. GOD, BE MERCIFUL TO ME, A SINNER
13“But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful (Greek: hilastheti) to me, a sinner!”
“But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven” (v. 13a). The tax collector, like the Pharisee, stands by himself, but his reason is different. The Pharisee feels too good to associate with common people, but the tax collector feels too bad.
“but beat his breast” (v. 13b). Beating one’s breast is a gesture used by Mideastern men seldom and only to express the most extreme anguish. We find examples only here and at the cross (23:48) (Kenneth Bailey, 153).
“God, be merciful (hilastheti) to me, a sinner!” (v. 13c). The tax collector’s prayer is simple and direct. He cannot claim any virtue, and can hope only for mercy. His prayer has much in keeping with the great penitential psalm: “Have mercy on me, God, according to your loving kindness. According to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity. Cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1-2).
LUKE 18:14. HE WHO HUMBLES HIMSELF WILL BE EXALTED
14“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (Greek: dedikaiomenos) rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (dedikaiomenos) rather than the other” (v. 14a). Interestingly enough, Jesus does not tell us that the tax collector offers to refund ill-gotten money, as Zacchaeus will do (19:8). He does not say that the tax collector will change his ways and become respectable. The tax collector brings no personal achievement to the table to bargain with God, and makes no offer to play the personal-achievement game. He has nothing to commend him, and makes no effort to become commendable. His only virtue is his humility, which allows him to ask for mercy. However, God answers his prayer, and he therefore goes down to his home justified.
“for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14b).
We thus have a righteous man (the Pharisee) going down to his house as unjustified/ unrighteous and an unrighteous man (the tax collector) going down to his house as justified/righteous. The point is obvious. Justification/righteousness is not something that we can accomplish on our own. We can only receive it as a gift from God.
However, this story causes us to ask whether personal holiness counts for anything. If rascals are justified ahead of saints, why not be a rascal? The answer is that rascality is not in keeping with who we are—with whose we are:
• Both Testaments emphasize the importance of personal holiness. References are too numerous to list exhaustively, but New Testament references include Matthew 5:6, 8; Luke 6:45; John 5:14; 15:19; and Acts 24:16.
• Paul addresses this issue at length in Romans 6. He says, “We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer?” (v. 2). He reminds us that we have died with Christ in baptism “that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (v. 4). He concludes, “Therefore don’t let sin reign in your mortal body… but present yourselves to God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace ” (vv. 12-14).
• The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector does not celebrate license but instead reminds us that our salvation depends on grace. None of us—clergy included—have cause to tout our spiritual achievements (1 Corinthians 1:31; 2 Corinthians 10:17). None of us have reason to be contemptuous of our fellows. All of us approach the throne of grace with empty hands.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2004, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan