Luke 18:9-14 - The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
He 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.”
Background: This parable follows immediately on the parable of the widow and the unjust judge in which a poor widow is vindicated due to her persistence in her calls for justice. That story ends with a rather odd, but timely connection to persistent prayer. On the surface today’s passage extends the conversation about appropriate prayer. On a deeper level Jesus is calling the people to a deeper understanding of justice from God’s point of view. He wants us to understand just how God sees and assesses people’s hearts. It is a parable that calls on those hearing it to identify with both of the characters and therefore to reflect on how one’s attitudes might need to change.
The Pharisees: The Pharisees were a powerful political/religious party in Jesus’ day. They were strict interpreters of the Laws of God and prided themselves on being very faithful and devout. They believed that all the laws must be kept very carefully and that, when that happened, it resulted in a life pleasing to God. In a sense they were the professional lawyers of the day. They were generally seen as faithful and were highly respected. They were often viewed as symbols of righteousness and piety. Ironically, from our modern point of view, they were the theological liberals of the day, at least as compared to the Sadducees. They believed God’s Law was at the very heart of human life. They also held to a more open and generous interpretation of it, as long as it was their interpretation of it. In several instances in Luke, Jesus calls them to account for their blindness, self-righteousness and lack of humility.
Tax Collectors: Tax collectors were agents or contract workers who collected taxes for the Roman government. They collected several different kinds of taxes depending on the kind of rule in the particular Jewish province. There were land taxes, poll taxes, import taxes and taxes for the operation of the Temple. It was not uncommon for a Jew to pay 30-40% of his or her income in taxes and religious dues. Tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews. They were the only ones who knew the exact tax rates so they often overcharged and pocketed the excess. They were also hated because they were viewed as mercenaries working for the Roman government. They were often used as a stereotype for someone who was a garden-variety terrible sinner.
Vs. 9 – He told this parable to – could also be translated ‘against’. So we know right up front that Jesus is going to confront behavior that he thinks needs to change.
Some who trusted in themselves – the implication is that they trusted in their own ability to do right as opposed to trusting in God for the power and insight to live rightly. This is, by the way, addressed not just to the Pharisees, but to all who are travelling with Jesus.
Vs. 10 – went up – to get to Jerusalem one had to go up hill from all directions. Once in Jerusalem the temple was located on the highest point in the area.
Vs. 11 – standing by himself – implies a stance of personal prayer. The temple was open for prayer at all times. There were certain times that were more usual for prayer when a number of people gathered. The text doesn’t tell us if this was one of those times or not.
I thank you – an unusual phrase not in common use by Jews in Jesus’ day.
Rogues – general evil-doers
Vs. 12 – fast and give – these were the general signs of being devout. The emphasis in this verse is on the word ‘all’ implying that this man goes beyond what is expected and required by the law.
Vs. 13 – standing far off – probably near the door. This stance indicates his feeling of unworthiness before God.
Would not look up – the common stance for prayer in Jesus’ day was standing, looking up with arms raised. This man was too full of remorse to do that.
Beating his breast – a sign of remorse and/or grief.
God be merciful to me – from Psalm 51
A sinner – the man adds this phrase to the Psalm indicating a level of self- awareness of his condition before God.
Vs. 14 – all – this word makes clear that the teaching does not apply to the Pharisees only. It is a call to each person to examine his or her heart. All of us are just as vulnerable to pride and self-righteousness as the Pharisee.
Questions for Reflection
1. Who are the groups of people that you tend to look down upon? What is it about them that bothers you the most?
2. What do you think is the best motivation for leading a moral life? How do you think that people can best be convinced to make needed changes in their lives?
3. Have you ever experienced being judged, ridiculed or looked down upon? How did that affect you?
4. How do you experience your own need for forgiveness and God’s offered grace?