Commentary on Luke 18:9-14
This parable is deceptively simple, although its warning against contemptuousness and spiritual superiority can expose our brokenness in numerous ways.
At the same time, it encourages contrition and celebrates God’s extravagant mercy.
The parable also deals in characters and activities that are widely misunderstood and have nourished anti-Jewish tropes in Christian communities for centuries. Interpreters need to handle the text carefully, attentive to historical realities and alert to what mistaken assumptions one may have accumulated.
The Pharisees of the first century were not “legalists” who were trying to earn God’s favor. They were a Jewish movement that emphasized the importance of obedience to the law of Moses. Living in accordance with torah was a way of making God’s benefits visible and accessible in all aspects of life for all who were Jewish.
The Pharisees’ attention to things like rituals for cleansing one’s body or one’s cookware was part of a larger effort to encounter God’s holiness in everyday life. Pharisaic priorities aligned with the notion of Israel as a holy (“set apart”) nation, even while in the first century Jews lived in subjection to Roman rule and were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world. Pharisees’ emphasis on interpreting the law and developing “oral torah” as practical guidelines for law observance helps explain why Jesus has so much interaction with Pharisees in the gospels. The similarities he shared with them led to dialogue, which made some Pharisees sympathetic to Jesus’ movement (Luke 13:33; 19:39; Acts 15:5; 23:6). The similarities also exacerbated the differences, as Jesus and the Pharisees participated in critical intra-Jewish debates about how exactly Jewish values should express themselves in a changing cultural landscape.
Although Luke is not as critical of Pharisees as Matthew and John are, still this gospel often speaks of Pharisees in caricatured ways, offering grotesque generalizations to score polemical points (e.g., cf. Luke 7:30; 11:37-44; 12:1; 16:14). Part of the reason for the polemics stems from the Christian church’s emergence within and then out of Jewish communities in the first century. It’s valuable to for interpreters to know the real history of Pharisees and where the gospels reflect it. It is also crucial to note that the term Pharisee sometimes functions in Luke as a cipher for villain. The Pharisee in the parable, for example, functions mostly as an embodiment of arrogance and contemptuous. The degree to which those qualities accurately characterized any or all ancient Pharisees is debatable, to say the least. To embrace Luke’s anti-Pharisee belligerence before letting the parable do its thing would be to miss the parable’s points entirely.
Be aware, finally, that Christian use of the word Pharisee as a synonym for hypocrite is inappropriate. It neglects the ways in which Jesus’ (and Paul’s) teachings arose from Pharisaical influences. It implies that the gospels’ combative depictions of Pharisees are historically precise and that Christian tradition warrants labeling anyone who does not embrace Jesus as “self-righteous” or somehow poisoned by a commitment to false forms of religion. It resurrects anti-Jewish tropes, especially by simplistically equating modern Jews with Jesus’ adversaries in the gospel narratives and ignoring the complexity of the connections and dissimilarities between Rabbinic Judaism and the ancient Pharisees.1
The Roman Empire’s taxation system repeatedly offended many residents of first-century Galilee. It is difficult to determine how severe the taxation demands were on individuals and their families, but the tax-gathering system was notoriously corrupt. To collect taxes in places like neighborhoods, highways, markets, and docks, Roman officials enlisted members of the population to bid for contracts. Tax collectors could line their own pockets with whatever they could collect over and above their contractual obligations.
The gospels operate with an understanding that tax collectors were generally viewed as dishonest and greedy. The reasons are obvious. They were slimy opportunists and collaborators, willing to victimize their own neighbors while assisting the occupiers. They upheld Roman interests at the expense of the people of God. It would have been dangerous to oppose such men who appeared to have traded their social consciences and religious self-worth for financial gain.
Jesus’ willingness to associate with tax collectors compounds the scandal of his ministry in the eyes of others (Luke 5:27-32; 7:33-35; 15:1-2). Why would someone so interested in holiness and liberation spend his time in the company of mobsters? Why would he extend mercy to those who made a living off of denying mercy to others? Jesus deliberately reaches out to scoundrels. He does not cast off those who enrich themselves by enabling the empire.
When the tax collector leaves the temple “justified,” he goes home unburdened. Vindicated. In restored relationship with God. “Justification” is not a common theme in the Lukan writings, so a preacher should not do too much with the word and that dimension of the parable. But when Jesus says, “This man went down to his home justified” we should imagine his words taking his audience’s collective breath away. The tax collector is not the kind of person one might expect to be so easily restored. Beating his breast in sorrow, the man utters a simple request for mercy and confesses his sinfulness. But he does not promise to change. This traitor to his people does not pledge to find a new job or join the resistance.
It’s rather outrageous that God shows mercy so easily to such a villain. The grace on display here is as absurdly generous as what we see in the prodigal son’s return home (Luke 15) and the end-of-the-day payment of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20).
The Pharisee and his prayer are more complicated. His failure to ask for mercy is not necessarily a problem, for the focus of his prayer is thanksgiving. In fact, he too may depart the temple justified after he prays; the parable is ambiguous on this point.2
The Pharisee’s main problem is that his prayer regards the tax collector with such contempt. He assumes his corrupt neighbor has situated himself beyond God’s mercy when in truth he has not.
The contempt is the point
There is a lot going on in this little parable. There are differences between the Pharisee and the tax collector in terms of how they stand, what they pray for, and how they pray. But if a sermon makes this parable about how terrible the Pharisees were, the preacher has totally missed the point—or fallen victim to it. For the greatest difference between the two praying men lies here: one has written off the other, while the other can speak only of his own brokenness.
The parable sets a trap. Whenever we want to be critical of one of the characters or distinguish ourselves and our values clearly from one of them, the parable exposes the disdain we harbor. What is disdain? It is the manifestation of a belief that we know better than God who should receive mercy and how they should receive it.3
The passage contains many layers. If we imagine Jesus speaking the parable to an original audience, maybe we see them experiencing a surprise: the parable upends their expectations when they discover that a respectable religious person does not possess advantages before God over an obvious “sinner.” If we read the parable within Luke’s overall narrative, with its interest in vilifying ancient Pharisees and celebrating Jesus’ friendship with “sinners,” we need to recognize that the parable makes its point by using two caricatures: Luke tells an ancient audience composed of Christ-followers that “one of us” knows better than those arrogant and clueless others. Responsible interpreters today will avoid the mistake of thinking the parable is about those caricatures. Instead, it is a parable about the humble contrition God desires versus the arrogance that poisons a life of faith and service.
All kinds of people—whether publicans, Pharisees, pastors, parishioners, politicians, or perpetrators—are capable of either contrition or contempt. Those attitudes express themselves in how we view our neighbors and in the theologies we rely upon to guide our daily lives.
Don’t mistake the polemical caricatures for the parable’s more powerful message. Listen to Jesus’ story and ask: How shall we pray to a wildly merciful God? How shall we live, having learned of such boundless mercy?
- In spring 2019, when presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg called out certain evangelical leaders as “Pharisees,” many Christians and Jews successfully urged him to stop. For discussion of some of the issues that make speaking about modern “Pharisees” problematic, see https://hartman.org.il/SHINews_View.asp?Article_Id=2447&Cat_Id=285&Cat_Type=SHINews.
- The words translated in the NRSV as “rather than the other” in Luke 18:4 can also mean “alongside the other” or “because of the other.” See Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 191-93.
- The verses that follow (Luke 18:15-17), in which Jesus insists that the reign of God belongs to little children, offer further support to viewing the parable as a criticism of contempt. Dismissive attitudes toward other people give rise to all sorts of theological errors.