Commentary on Luke 18:9-14
This parable, if we do our exegetical homework, puts us in something of a bind. At face value, the parable is written so that we will be drawn to identify with the tax collector due to his demonstration of humility (Luke 18:13), as opposed to the Pharisee who displays a sense of moral superiority (18:14). Be humble like the tax collector, and don’t be haughty like that Pharisee, and you’ll be justified before God. Simple, right?
There are many problems with this traditional interpretation. Not only can it lead us to commit the same offense that the parable is teaching against, as we thank God that we’re not like that Pharisee, more importantly, it can lead us inadvertently into perpetuating harmful ideas about the Jewish community. At the most basic level, because the average reader of this text will make no distinction between a Pharisee and “all Jews,” it plays into old tropes about Jewish people and Judaism as legalistic, elitist, and out of touch with the “true” God; at the more extreme end, it can actively lead to the kind of anti-Jewish hatred that has plagued Christianity since its inception and continues to cause harm today. Recall how in the gospel of John, “the Jews” are called “children of the devil” (John 8:44) and how the passion narrative uses “chief priests” and “the Jews” interchangeably as those who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:1-16).
While it’s important to note that the gospels were written in a context that predates the often-conflictual history between Judaism and what became Christianity, preachers must contend with anti-Jewish tendencies that have occurred across history through the reception, interpretation, and application of the gospels and other scriptures by leaders and institutions within our Christian tradition. From the earliest doctors and bishops of the church (Tertullian, Ambrose), to Martin Luther and even contemporary voices, we must contend with the troubling assertion made by theologian David Efroymson: Is there a road that travels (whether indirectly or not) from the New Testament to the Holocaust?1
Ultimately, Christian preaching is about proclamation of God’s word, made known to us through Jesus Christ, and it’s about sharing the good news. So, given all the above, how do we proceed with the good news here? First, I would offer that we need to be honest about this parable and the difficult situation that it presents in setting up the Pharisee “bad” versus tax collector “good” dichotomy. A preacher that takes seriously the great commandments—of loving God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves—affirmed by Jesus in Luke 10:27 and across the gospels, would be wise not to fall into the age-old trap that sets up Jesus and his teachings as against Judaism or anti-Jewish. It never hurts to remind our congregations that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, and that the great commandments (originally found in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18) and all of Jesus’ teachings have their roots in the Torah and the prophetic Jewish tradition.
Second, as sharing the good news is also about truth-telling, we can give voice to the negative portrayals of the Pharisees in other parts of Luke to paint the full picture. According to New Testament and Jewish scholar Amy Jill-Levine, the Pharisees in Luke get a mostly negative review and are portrayed as consistently in opposition to Jesus’ program. Given Luke’s mostly gentile context and audience, this makes the portrayal of the Pharisees even more polemical. The first words of the Pharisees in Luke accuse Jesus of blasphemy (Luke 5:21); they accuse Jesus and his disciples of violating the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-11); Luke calls them “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14), and Jesus calls them “hypocrites” (Luke 12:1).2 The portrayal of the Pharisee as self-righteous in our current parable in question is therefore part of a build-up of conflictual encounters and negative portrayals of Pharisees in Luke. Levine notes that “given the connection of Jews with Pharisees, it’s an easy slide from the conventional insult … ‘the Pharisees, who were lovers of money …’ to all Jews.”3
Third, as we dig deeper into the text, we can also look to the historical record to challenge the conventional wisdom and stereotypical characterization of Pharisees, and as a result, our Jewish neighbors. The ancient Jewish historian and priest Josephus described the actual Pharisees as living meagerly and shunning excess. In addition, within the broader Jewish tradition, the Pharisees are not understood as legalistic, rigid, and elitist. On the contrary, because of their attention to oral tradition and interpreting the spirit of the Torah, they are seen to have played an essential role in ensuring the theological and spiritual continuity of Judaism, and rabbinical Judaism in particular, to this day.4
Finally, with all this mind, we can return to interpreting our parable in question. Instead of falling into the either/or situation of the tax collector versus the Pharisee, what if we admitted the complexity of all humanity and searched for common ground? We can assume that the tax collector’s powerful demonstration of repentance and humility was prompted by some egregious feeling of wrongdoing—perhaps it was the fact that he was an agent of the Roman empire extracting wealth unjustly from his community. Regardless of how we judge the Pharisee’s response, this context may have played a role in his negative feelings against the tax collector. Also, according to Jewish practice, the Pharisee was righteous, going above and beyond what the customs required in fasting and giving.5 Levine offers an interesting take: What if the Pharisee’s good works helped in the justification of the tax collector? When we pray “forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4) we acknowledge how one person’s harmful acts can negatively impact a community. The flipside can also be true—the righteous acts of one person can benefit the community.6
Pope Francis, in addressing how to move forward with the legacy of anti-Jewish portrayals and actions, says this: “Love of neighbor, then, represents a significant indicator for recognizing affinities between Jesus and his Pharisee interlocutors. It certainly constitutes an important basis for any dialogue, especially among Jews and Christians, even today.”7 By being honest about the legacy of Christian biblical interpretation, uncovering the harmful and violent impact on the Jewish community, and grounding our preaching in truth-telling and love of neighbor, we can find a way for the life-giving essence of God for all to emerge.
- Reinaldo Siqueira, “Holocaust and the New Testament: Is There Any Connection?,” in Shabbat Shalom: A Journal of Jewish-Christian Reflection, Winter 2002-03, 14-16.
- Amy-Jill Levine, “Luke: Introductions and Annotations,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford University Press), 105.
- Amy-Jill Levine, “When the Bible Becomes Weaponized: Detecting and Disarming Jew-hatred,” 189.
- “Pharisee,” entry in Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pharisee, accessed September 20, 2022.
- Mikeal Parsons, Luke, Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament, edited by Mikeal Parsons et al., Baker Academic, 2015, 266-267.
- Levine, “Luke,” 138.
- Pope Francis, “Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to the Pontifical Biblical Institute,” May 9, 2019, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2019/may/documents/papa-francesco_20190509_pont-istitutobiblico.html, accessed September 21, 2022.