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The case of the Pharisee and the tax collector: justification and social location in Luke's Gospel.

The episode

But he [Jesus] also spoke this parable for the sake of certain ones, ones who have confidence in themselves that they are just and who despise the rest.

"Two men went up to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying these things: 'O God, I thank you because I am not just like the rest of humanity: swindlers, unjust ones, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice during the week. I tithe everything that I acquire.'

But the tax collector, stopping far off, did not even want to lift his eyes toward heaven, but instead he was beating his breast saying, 'O God be merciful to me, the sinner!'

I say to you all that this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." (1)


Luke's brief account of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14) presents a seemingly simple story of pride in one's own accomplishments turning into contempt for others who don't measure up. In the narrative, the Pharisee thought he was just but went home unjustified, while the tax collector knew he was unjust and God justified him. It seems to be an open and shut case of humility winning out over self-exaltation. Despite the obvious interpretation, this case deserves a second look.

Without firsthand knowledge of Pharisees or first-century tax collectors, we are left with biased biblical witnesses about these characters ringing in our ears. We are made deaf both to the nuances and to the shock of the story. We may find it too easy to identify with sinful tax collectors and too easy to vilify Pharisees. Or, perhaps most dangerously, we may fall into the trap of believing that a humble attitude about our circumstances--our sin and our position in society--is enough to warrant our own justification.

Throughout this essay, I argue that Luke's view of justification has as much to do with our social location and our willingness to show mercy as it does with an inner attitude of humility or of being right with God. Given this supposition, the reason the tax collector is justified goes beyond his penitent attitude. He is justified because he occupied a marginal position within society. And from this position, where he received no mercy from others, he recognized his own need before God. On the other hand, the Pharisee remains unjustified because his central position in society gives him power and authority to show mercy to others, which he fails to do with respect to the tax collector.

In this paper, I present this story as something of a legal case, a framework that allows for a thorough investigation of what righteousness means to the Pharisee, to the tax collector, and ultimately to Luke. I am choosing to present this story as a "case" for three reasons. First, while this story is often linked to the preceding story of the persistent widow and the wicked judge (18:1-8) by virtue of the common subject matter of prayer, the two stories are also linked by a host of "righteousness" or "justification" words. (2) Second, one of the historical contexts for speaking of justification or righteousness was a legal one. (3) Finally, exploring the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector as a legal case serves as means to "hear" both sides, while exploring what constitutes justification for Luke.

Challenges of the case

There are two main areas of knowledge that we need to set aside while undertaking this inquiry. First, Paul's spin on justification is a difficult paradigm to shed, even briefly. It is easy for us to assume that Paul's notion of "justification by faith through grace apart from works" is the same notion of justification as Luke, Matthew, or John might have. However, for the sake of this inquiry, it is necessary to bracket any Pauline understanding of justification. For this reason, I use words that are less theologically loaded, such as "align" or "upright" and "unaligned" or "upside-down."

Second, we need to set aside our preconceived notions of Jesus, the Pharisee, and the tax collector. We are accustomed to a Jesus who opposes the Pharisees and who befriends tax collectors and sinners. We are accustomed to identifying ourselves with the tax collectors and sinners and distancing ourselves from the Pharisees. This acculturation to the text removes much of the force of the story. We must bracket what we know of Jesus and must hunt to find the real story of the Pharisees, the tax collectors, and the sinners.

Opening arguments: Expectations of justification

Pharisees as holy. From the Pharisee's point of view, his case is open and shut in the story. He is clearly upright according to the law, according to covenant tradition, and according to his own self-assessment. However, Luke presents Pharisees in a much different light. In order to understand how Luke is portraying Pharisees as different from the norm, it is helpful to explore background information on Pharisees in general.

First, Pharisees saw themselves as preserving covenant relationship to God by practicing holiness. Originating in the time of the Maccabees, the name "Pharisee" is thought to mean "set apart" or "separated ones." (4) According to the Torah tradition, Pharisees would understand holiness as principally meaning separation: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev 19:2b; cf. Lev 10:10-11; 11:44-45). In their view, the best way to keep covenant relationship (read right or upright relationship) with God was to keep holy by separating themselves from all that was unclean.

Jerome Neyrey, in an article about cultic purity, notes that there were two distinct strands of covenant tradition within Judaism: one understood covenant chiefly as holiness, and the other understood covenant chiefly as mercy. In Neyrey's words,
With Moses, God acted in "holiness" to gather a special people as his
own, which he separated from the nations and made holy by the Law. This
tends to be an exclusive covenant. With Abraham and David, God acted in
"mercy" to elect unlikely people to receive blessings and promises by
grace; this covenant was perceived as being inclusive in nature (Gal 3:7
-8; Rom 4:11-12, 17). (5)

The Pharisees and the Jesus movement are best seen as competing reform movements within Judaism, the former appealing to an understanding of the covenant as holiness and the latter appealing to an understanding of the covenant as mercy. Both have valid Torah basis. Therefore, it is best to view the interaction presented in Luke between Jesus and the Pharisees, and the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, in light of this "sibling rivalry." (6)

The parable of the Prodigal Son (15:11-32) is helpful for understanding this sibling rivalry concept. The older son represents the Pharisees who have been doing the right things all along but become bitter because the father is now showing mercy to the younger, wayward son. The younger son represents the sinners whom Jesus welcomed. The father in the story attempts to include both siblings in the reunion banquet. In this way, the father continues to show deep concern for the elder son throughout the parable. We conclude that God's mercy is sufficient and overflowing, enough to embrace both covenant interpretations, both reform factions, and both siblings. Therefore, to vilify the Pharisees is to lose sight of the fundamental backdrop of the story. In times of exile or times of persecution, separation from other traditions and cultures would seem the most logical way to preserve right relationship with God. The Pharisees' holiness approach protected Israelite culture from assimilation into the dominant Greco-Roman culture. The Pharisees, from this point of view, would have reason to be "trusting in themselves that they were just" (Lk 18:9).

For Pharisees, holiness was achieved, in part, by rigorously keeping the law. When the Pharisee in our story claims, "I fast twice during the week; I tithe all things that I acquire" (18:12), he is claiming that he has not only kept the law but also has gone above and beyond the law's requirements. Some sources claim that fasting was required only on the Day of Atonement. (7) Later, it became customary to fast on the Sabbath day in addition to the Day of Atonement. This Pharisee mentions fasting twice during the week. "This Pharisee was boasting, in other words, of an asceticism beyond the norm." (8)

As for tithing, it was customary to tithe on particular items. Deuteronomy 14: 22-29 instructs the faithful to tithe their grain, wine, and oil along with the firstlings of the herds and flocks. The Pharisee in this story is again claiming to go above and beyond the duty of the law by tithing a portion of everything he acquires.

According to his understanding of what it means to be faithful and upright according to the covenant tradition, this Pharisee is doing all of the right things in the narrative, in fact doing more than he needs to. Therefore, according to his tradition and understanding of scripture, he is certain that God sees him in the same way he views himself, namely, as "upright."

Although little is known about first-century Pharisees, one of the best informants was the apostle Paul. In Philippians (3:4b-6) and in Galatians (1:13-15), Paul describes what it meant for him to be a Pharisee. Despite the context of counting all of his previous accomplishments and sources of status as loss on account of Christ, it is still plain to see that Paul took great pride in his accomplishments as a Pharisee. Therefore, it becomes apparent why in the Pharisee's own estimation he was already considering himself upright or just in God's eyes, in the eyes of the people, and in his own eyes. He can make this claim because of his adherence to the holiness code and his supererogation of the law. All in all, this Pharisee is presented as an upstanding citizen, someone we would be proud to have as our neighbor.

Tax collectors as hated. Merely to mention tax collectors in ancient society would conjure up images of a much-hated group. Because the tax collector entered the homes of unclean people, touched unclean objects, and handled unclean money, he would be considered ceremonially unclean. Thus, according to the holiness tradition of the Pharisees, the tax collector fell well outside of the boundaries of holiness. "He belonged to a class of people who were hated and despised by all Jews. He was deprived of many rights, and ostracized. He could not be a judge; his witness was inadmissible in a court of law; and everything he touched became ritually unclean." (9) In addition, some tax collectors tended to exploit others (cf. Luke 3:13; 19:8).

Their profession landed them firmly on the margins of society for two main reasons. First, they were employees of the Roman imperial oppressors and were seen as colluding with them to oppress others. Second, the taxes they collected competed with the average person's ability to pay both Roman taxes and temple taxes, making holiness more difficult for the peasants to achieve. "A half-shekel tax was exacted by temple authorities for the upkeep of the temple ... each year from every Jew twenty years of age and over in the land of Israel and beyond." (10) Inability to pay the annual temple tax would render one out of favor with God (11) and, on some level, unholy.

For tax collectors, there were no possibilities for changing status except to quit, which would not help their status at all. While some may have obtained wealth, they did so at further expense to their honor. In an honor-shame society, accumulation of wealth rendered them poor among the poor. (12)

The law prescribed what constituted restitution for tax collectors who had taken more than they ought. In order to make right with those who had been defrauded, the law required that the one defrauding another, upon realizing guilt, needed to repay the principal amount plus one-fifth (Lev 6:2-5). Tax collectors were like sub-contractors, who agreed to pay the chief tax collector a given sum. Meanwhile, they lived on what they could collect in addition to what was required. (13) Therefore, defrauding people went hand in hand with being a tax collector. To justify themselves by repaying the principal plus one-fifth was impossible. This situation rendered all tax collectors in a hopeless predicament. "It was considered highly unlikely that such a person could and would ever repent and be acceptable to God." (14)

Indeed, for our tax collector, neither restitution nor repentance is easily observable. There is no mention of him paying anyone back anything, and yet he returns home "uprighted" or "aligned" with God. He does, however, refer to himself as "the sinner." The use of the definite article with "sinner" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) makes the tax collector a sinner par excellence; he's the prototype of a sinner. Just as the Pharisee went above and beyond the works of the law, so the tax collector excels at his role of "sinner." Referring to himself this way reflects his hopeless situation.

From this summary, it is clear that the tax collector saw himself as everyone else saw him: a sinner. Indeed, both the Pharisee and the tax collector represent the typical ideological categories of the period: "the 'righteous' represent those who do God's will, the 'sinners' are those who represent a whole complex of behaviour that is opposed to God and his ways." (15) The tax collector had no right to think of himself as just. In fact, in every possible way, he was far from just. Why then, does he go home justified? And why does the up-standing Pharisee go home unjustified?

Evidence from Luke

Righteousness and repentance in Luke. "Uprightness" or "right relationship" is expressed often in Luke, along with its opposite. There are two points of view by which someone might seem upright: God's view and humanity's view.

Luke, the narrator and reliable witness in this story, communicates God's standards of judgment. Because Luke tells us that Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Simeon are righteous, we can assume that they are "upright" in God's eyes. The narrator also tells us that people, including tax collectors, were baptized by John (7:29), but the Pharisees and lawyers were not baptized by John (7:30). Receiving this baptism was a way to "justify God," and refusing it was tantamount to rejecting God's purpose for them. The people, including the tax collectors, were "aligned" with God's purposes or "uprighted" by God, while the Pharisees and lawyers were "misaligned." The tax collectors' and sinners' alignment with the ways of God becomes a key clue to Luke's view of justification.

The second view, uprightness in the eyes of humans, is portrayed as an ever-present danger. Being viewed as upright, or being an upstanding citizen in the view of other humans, was equivalent to practicing holiness as separation, seeking honor, having wealth, or maintaining power. While none of these qualities is wrong per se, uprightness in the eyes of humans often comes with the unfortunate corollary of neglecting the ways of God, in particular, neglecting mercy.

These two points of view are often characterized in Luke as the dichotomy between people who want to "justify" themselves (10:29; 16:15; 18:9) and "deny" Jesus (12:9) versus those who are willing to "deny" themselves (9:23) and "justify" God (7:29). The centurion's witness about Jesus, "Certainly this man was righteous" (23:47), is an example of one who "justified" God. Tax collectors are willing to be baptized by John (3:23, 7:30), demonstrate a willingness to leave everything to follow Jesus (5:28), and "acknowledge the justice of God" (NRSV) or "justify God" (7:29). As Johnson summarizes, tax collectors and sinners "have consistently been portrayed in the narrative as open to the prophet and conversion, thereby 'justifying God' (7:29; also 3:12; 5:27, 29, 30; 7:34; 15:1), whereas the Pharisees (with the lawyers/scribes) have just as consistently been portrayed as 'rejecting God's will for them' (7:30) by 'justifying themselves.'" (16)

A question is raised, however, as to whether this prayer of the tax collector is actual repentance or whether true repentance might require more, as in the case of Zacchaeus who demonstrated repentance by his willingness to pay back four times any amount he defrauded anyone. Because repentance is such a key theme in Luke-Acts, it is important to carefully explore how repentance and justification intersect in Luke's narrative.

John the Baptist defines what it means to repent: bear fruit and do not rely on blood kinship (3:8), share if you have an abundance of clothing or food (3:10), collect no more than prescribed (3:13), and refrain from extortion (3:14). Each of these directives is addressed to people who already have honor, wealth, or status. Jesus claims that he has come to call sinners to repentance (5:32), that there will be joy over even one sinner who repents (15:7, 10), and that repentance leads to life (11:32; 24:47) and lack of repentance leads to death (10:13; 13:3, 5; 16:30). Repentance is typically viewed as a turning away from sinful ways and back toward God. Zacchaeus is an example of one who takes just such an action.

However, there is another group of people within Luke who do not repent in the classic sense of the word. This group consists of those who, because of their position on the margins and their total lack of wealth, status, power, or honor, are completely dependent upon the mercy of others, including God. They lack the resources to repent, when restitution is part of the deal. They do not have room to turn back toward God when society has backed them into a corner. They can only throw themselves on God's mercy over their hopeless predicament. The tax collector is one such character. He demonstrates two gestures of import: he would not raise his eyes, and he was beating his breast. Before the tax collector utters a word, the implied reader would have known that he was deeply anguished about his hopeless situation before God.

Two other examples of characters fitting this description--one "real" and one fictional--are the woman who loved much (7:36-50) and Lazarus (16:19-31). Neither of these characters confesses any wrongdoing, vows to refrain from any further wrongdoing, or turns back to God in any obvious way. The woman throws herself at the feet of Jesus, demonstrating great love toward him. Jesus lifts her--uprights her--both literally and figuratively. Similarly, Lazarus throws himself on the mercy of the rich man and is ignored, but God uprights him.

God's vindication of those in such a hopeless predicament is also apparent in the Beatitudes in Luke. When Jesus blesses the people, he does so without conditions, including repentance. "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh" (6:20-21). These people, who are sinned against and have not oppressed, exploited, or marginalized others, have accepted the ways of God and have accepted Jesus. For that, and for the marginal and oppressed position they occupy, they are already aligned with the ways of God. They are justified.

Therefore, repentance for Luke means two different things for two different groups. For those with power, wealth, and status, repentance means risking all of what they are and what they have in order to justify God's ways, which includes showing mercy to those at the margins. In some cases, it means offering restitution for the wrongs committed. However, for those without power, wealth, or status--for those who have been sinned against, oppressed, and marginalized--classic repentance is not necessary. Only the simple acknowledgment of God's ways is required.

In the same way, justification is two-tiered in Luke. For those at the center, much is required, precisely because God has already given them much. But for those at the periphery, justification happens simply because they are marginalized and because of their willingness to "acknowledge the justice of God" or "justify God" (7:29). Proximity to the center. Proximity to the temple might be seen as a symbolic representation of social location. In other words, those nearer the temple are historically viewed as more upright, while those at the periphery are viewed as more sinful. In this particular story, the Pharisee proves his character by how and where he postures himself. The Pharisee was "standing by himself." However, the nuance of the "standing" participle used here ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) indicates standing in the presence of others to make a speech. (17) Incidentally, this exact verb form is used in Luke only three times: here (18:11), concerning Jesus (18:40), and concerning Zacchaeus (19:8)--all three of them public stances for public announcement. It is clear from the word usage that he speaks in such a way that others can overhear him.

Just like the Pharisee, the tax collector's actions tell the needed information about his character. Whereas the Pharisee was standing close and within earshot of others, the tax collector is standing "far off." The "standing" participle used here ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in relation to the tax collector has the sense of simply being, (18) unlike the Pharisee's posture for public announcement. Luke also tells us that he was standing far off ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). From the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it is apparent that the Pharisee was standing closer to the center of the temple than the tax collector was. One theory for this placement of these two characters is that Jesus was effectively redrawing the lines of the temple map. (19)

Under the purity holiness tradition, those who were closest to the center of the city, or the temple (which would be centrally located within the city), were more protected and were closer to the righteousness and justice of God. The temple functioned as "the chief symbol of Israel's symbolic universe." (20) The temple is mentioned frequently in the narrative through chapter 4 (Jesus' temptation) and then is not mentioned again until this verse, which immediately precedes Jesus' reentry into Jerusalem. All of the intervening verses describe events that occur at a distance from the temple and from Jerusalem.

In these intervening verses that take place on the margins of society, whenever Jesus comes near or others come near him, compassion, mercy, and healing come near. For instance, when Jesus was coming near Nain, he had compassion on a widow and raised her only son (7:11-17). Likewise, in the parable of the good Samaritan, when the Samaritan came near to the beaten man, he had mercy on him. This story is set as the man is going down from Jerusalem (note: away from the temple, not toward it) when he is ignored by the priest and the Levite, but shown compassion from the Samaritan. Betty Tan argues that two parables, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector and the good Samaritan, demonstrate Luke's distaste for the temple. Citing Shillington, she argues the ineffectiveness of the temple for giving life and forgiveness. (21) One might add that the model of temple as central was failing precisely because it precluded any demonstration of mercy to those on the periphery. (22)

Taken with this backdrop in mind, the physical position of our tax collector is key. He is standing far off during his prayer. And in life, he is positioned as an outcast on the outskirts of society. In light of what we have learned about the mercy of God shown elsewhere in Luke, part of what justifies, or "uprights," this tax collector is his position in society. Effectively, Jesus "rearranged the lines of the map so that those formerly excluded from the map were included and those on the outer circles of the map were now closer to the center." (23) One may even say that proximity to Jesus, who situated himself on the margins, became for Luke the new symbolic center of God's mercy--the mercy seat, as it were--rather than the temple.

Humility. It is necessary to consider humility in light of the prayers of both the tax collector and the Pharisee, together with the maxim that ends this story: "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted" (18:14; cf. 14:11). Humility is more than just an attitude about oneself or the absence of boasting. Humility also has very concrete dimensions. I argue that this story, as well as much of Luke, is as much about social location as about any spiritual or psychological attitude.

Examining other places where Luke uses the "humility" word group is helpful. In Luke, there are two parables ending with the same maxim: the Pharisees taking the places of honor at the banquet (14:7-11) and the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-11). The former story is clearly about status. Being humble has everything to do with standing up and taking a lower seat, which represents a lower social position. In addition, the word is used twice in Mary's song: "he has looked with favor on the lowliness ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of his servant" (1:48) and "he has lifted up the lowly ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])" (1:52). In both of these cases, the word is used in terms of social location, representing those at the periphery of society.

Many commentators attribute the tax collector's return to his home "justified" to his humble and penitent attitude. (24) However, it is no accident that the story of the banquet and this story are linked by the same maxim, verbatim. In both stories, honor and status are intimately linked both to attitude toward the lowly and to social positioning in relation to the lowly. Taking the low seat at the banquet means dislodging oneself from the center enough to be physically situated close enough to show mercy to those at the periphery, to those such as a tax collector. The same can be said of the Pharisee who takes his place near the center of the temple and, instead of being humble, distances himself further from the tax collector with his prayer.

Throughout Luke, moral and ethical behaviors (showing mercy, loving enemies, being humble) are intimately connected to one's status. The higher one's status, the more obligations one is under to demonstrate moral and ethical behavior. "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (12:48).

Reviewing the story with all of the above in mind, it is possible to see that the Pharisee who was trusting that he was just by his many upright works was also "despising" the rest, thereby demonstrating behavior that is anti-moral and anti-ethical. The tax collector, among other "unjust" ones, was the object of the Pharisee's scorn this particular day. Because he had been scorned, by this Pharisee or by others in society, he calls upon God to act mercifully toward him by removing the impeding distance.

Whereas the Pharisees took seriously the command of Lev 11:45, where "Be holy as I am holy" could be translated "Be separate as I am separate," Jesus here reconfigures the whole notion. Jesus' mandate "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (6:36) recasts two dimensions of Lev 11:45: mercy as covenant holiness and mercy as proximity instead of separateness. Luke is making the assertion that one cannot be merciful if one is also distant; one cannot show mercy at the margins if one is stuck in the center of power, wealth, status, and honor.

To read the tax collector's side of the maxim, "all who humble themselves will be exalted," as a purely psychological or inward turn is to miss the humble (and marginal) position the tax collector occupied. This maxim, indeed the whole story, must be read in terms of social location. The tax collector, while demonstrating a humble attitude, was already occupying a marginal position. He--like Lazarus, the woman who showed great love, and others--was "uprighted" by God because the trappings of humanity and its commitment to status and distance did not allow mercy or proximity to ones such as these.


Pharisees cross-examined. Clearly, this Pharisee is guilty of despising others. Luke the narrator helps us to discover to whom the parable is directed: to "ones who have confidence in themselves that they are just and who despise the rest" (18:9). To grasp fully the extent of the contempt and disregard being depicted here, it is important to note that Luke uses the term "despising" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in only one other place: the trial of Jesus. Luke narrates, "Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and mocked him" (23:11). Although there may have been others in Jesus' audience besides Pharisees fitting this description--even the disciples--the Pharisee in this story reveals himself to be despising others. In the story he thanks God that he is essentially better than the rest.

This Pharisee's prayer has been compared to other prayers in the Torah and in early Rabbinic literature. Frederick Holmgren compares the Pharisee's prayer to one in Deut 26:1-5 that would have been used in a liturgical setting. Here, it would be an appropriate sign to "stand up and affirm a partnership with God that is expressed in a human lifestyle and in specific deeds." (25) Betty Tan and others liken this prayer to an exaggeration of a similar prayer in Rabbinic literature, (26) a prayer that emphasizes, acknowledges, and thanks God for the good fortune of the pray-er. In both cases, which-ever scenario Luke may have been calling to mind, the exaggeration of the prayer is the point. Rather than thanking God for the blessings God has bestowed, prayer can quickly turn into self-satisfaction, self-justification, or self-righteousness. The Pharisee in this story has made himself the center of his prayer, a prayer in which God should rightfully be the center.

It is also clear that he has moved into his rightful position in the temple, which would presumably be very near the center. (At a minimum, we ascertain from the use of "afar" in reference to the tax collector, the Pharisee would be much nearer to the center than the tax collector.) The Pharisee's physical placement nearer to the center and his physical posturing, then, both represent his own self-assessment of inclusion in the holy places of society and his distance from the sinners, like the tax collector.

Third, the cross-examination reveals that the Pharisee is the personal subject of most of his own prayer. There is much I-language in the prayer, with God functioning only as the object. (27) Moreover, the Pharisee asks nothing of God, (28) perhaps because in his own mind he needs nothing from God.

Finally, elsewhere Luke depicts the Pharisees negatively. By association, this Pharisee represents other Pharisees, and vice versa. By examining how Luke treats the Pharisees, it is possible to see the reasons why Jesus conflicts with them. Pharisees are portrayed as ones who refuse John's baptism and reject God's purpose for them (7:30). They are described as "full of greed and wickedness" (11:39), hypocritical (12:1), and "lovers of money" (16:14). In addition, they prove themselves highly concerned with matters of the law, including food laws (e.g., 5:33, 6:2, 11:38, 15:2) and Sabbath laws (e.g., 6:2, 13:10-16, 14:3-6), at the expense of demonstrating mercy to the lowly among them. Perhaps most pertinent to our discussion, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of justifying themselves in the eyes of other humans (16:15). Luke's portrayal of Pharisees is that they tended to align themselves more with worldly status and honor than with God's ways.

Jesus also sharply condemns a group of Pharisees for exactly what our Pharisee does in this parable: "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others" (11:42). By this remark alone, it is obvious that Jesus does not have anything against people who are law-abiding and covenantally faithful. However, he does have a problem with ritual observance when it comes at the expense of the duty to show mercy to others. Similarly, in the very next verse (11:43), Jesus condemns the Pharisees for what they will wind up doing in 14:7-11: "Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces." This proves to be important, because both stories end with the same maxim: "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted" (14:11; 18:14). The "woes" against the Pharisees are expanded and explained in these two stories of Jesus.

From a more careful assessment of the Pharisee in this story, it is unmistakable that he was considering himself upright, or just, and obvious why he might even be "justified" in thinking this way. However, it is also clear that the Pharisee and other leaders are using "religion as a wedge between themselves and those who need their help." (29) In this respect, by "despising the rest" the Pharisee is failing to show the required mercy to his fellow human beings. Therefore, while he thinks he has a firm and central place to stand before God, the story illustrates that he does not. His central position in society affords him more options to demonstrate mercy to others than those in more marginal positions are offered. This Pharisee misuses those options to set himself further apart from the rest.

Tax collectors cross-examined. This tax collector does not volunteer to give up any wealth that he may have or to offer restitution to those he may have defrauded. While there is no restitution, there is recognition of distance, both from God and from other people. There is also recognition of the need for mercy, both from God and from other people. Ultimately this means that the tax collector, like the tax collectors who received the baptism of John (7:29), acknowledges and aligns himself with God's ways. He recognizes his own distanced position from God, and he recognizes that it is only God who can bridge the chasm between them because he is in a hopeless bind. His offering of the sacrifice of prayer in the temple is further evidence that this tax collector "acknowledges the justice of God" (7:29).

The tax collector's prayer is recognition that he has no basis on which to stand before God. He does not cite anything good that he may have done. In his prayer, God is the sole subject. He, by contrast, is the "sinner," the object of the mercy hoped-for from God. The word used here by the tax collector, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (often translated, "be merciful"), is not the usual word used by others of Luke's characters when asking for mercy. While still within the semantic domain of mercy, (30) it may be more specific to translate [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] as "atone for me" or "be inclined toward me." A proper understanding of this word goes a long way in discovering what the tax collector was really asking: he was not able to cover for his own restitution, so he asked God to atone for him--and/or he wished that God would help to remove the distance that separated them.

When Jesus says in 5:32, "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance," it is clear from Jesus' behavior and his company that those who consider themselves "sinners" are inclined to receive his message, while those who consider themselves "righteous" and in no need of anything are inclined to reject his message. Rhetorically in this story, Luke is leading us to identify with the sinners, and with this hated tax collector, in hopes that we too will be inclined to make a choice to align ourselves with God by humbling ourselves in a social way, by physically moving from our own "centers" of power and privilege toward the margins of society in order to demonstrate God's mercy.

The verdict: Reversal of expectations

By this point in the story Luke has undone many of the old boundaries through reversals. In this story, roles are reversed. But, more important, mercy replaces holiness and separation as the true test of alignment with the ways of God. The narrative function of this episode advances Luke's overall plot: the old categories are being shuffled and new categories are being marked. Those calling themselves just no longer look so just. Those being called sinners are becoming "upright." The disciples occasionally take on traits ascribed to Pharisees (9:46-48; 18:15-17; 22:24-27), while a member of the council (23:50) starts to act like a disciple! Just when you think you know where and how you fit, you are challenged to reconsider Jesus' calling. Those who deny themselves justify God, but those who justify themselves deny God.

For Luke, justification involves two different things for two different groups of people. For those with power, wealth, or status, justification involves repentance, or a turning back to God's ways of mercy (not separation). However, for those without power, wealth, or status--in other words, those who are completely marginalized--justification is part of God's mercy being shown to them because humans are not doing it. For this group, acknowledging or accepting God is enough. Humility, too, means different things for the two groups: for those who already have power, wealth, or status, humility means giving some (or, arguably, all) of it up to move closer to those on the margins. However, for those who do not have power, wealth, or status, humility is their current state. "When the powerful love God first, they are humble and use their power in mercy to serve others (22:24-27). They act to justify God's ways rather than their own." (31)

In painting these dramatic pictures of reversal, Luke is effectively drawing us a new picture of what society could be: a place where those with power voluntarily give some up so that others might have more, a place where those with money and other resources voluntarily give some up so that others might have enough to live. To those at the margins, it is a word of hope. However, this utopian vision is not a rosy vision for everyone. "To the religious community which has defined itself in ways that exclude many, it is a challenge to change from rejection to acceptance." (32)

While the blessings and woes of Luke are interpreted concretely (as opposed to Matthew's more spiritual reading), justification, exaltation, and humility are often read as highly psychologized terms, meaning the inward attitude of the heart toward God. I argue that these, too, are very concrete terms in Luke and have everything to do with social location. In a very real sense, then, the place from which you pray (the center or the margins) has everything to do with whether and how God justifies you.

1. Luke 18:9-14, my translation. All further translations also are mine, unless notated as from the NRSV.

2. In the Greek, "righteousness" and "justification" are etymologically linked. English translations obscure the same Greek root ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). For instance, see "grant justice" in 18:3, 5, 7, 8 ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "opponent" in 18:3 ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "unjust" in 18:6, 11 ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "just" in 18:10 ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and "having been justified" in 18:14 ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

3. Three primary uses of justification words in the first century included relational fidelity (covenant), forensic justification (modeled on the legal system, where people are vindicated as "upright"), and restoration of right relationship. See A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God's Righteousness (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 21-25.

4. [BDAG] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed., ed. Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 1049.

5. Jerome H. Neyrey, "The Symbolic Universe of Luke-Acts: 'They Turn the World Upside Down,'" in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation, ed. J. Neyrey (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 296.

6. James D. G. Dunn, "Pharisees, Sinners, and Jesus," in The Social World of Formative Christianity and Judaism, ed. Jacob Neusner, Ernest S. Frerichs, Peder Borgen, and Richard Horsley (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 275.

7. Darrell L. Bock, Luke Volume Two: 9:51-24:53 BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 1463.

8. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina Series vol. 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991): 272.

9. John Strelan, "The Pharisee Lurking: Reflections on Luke 18:9-14," Lutheran Theological Journal 20, no. 2-3 (Aug-Nov 1986): 118.

10. Anchor Bible Dictionary VI:340.

11. Web site of Catholic Education South Australia:

12. It is important to note that there was a difference between the tax collectors ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), such as the one in our story, and the chief tax collectors ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), such as Zacchaeus. Supervisory officials, such as Zacchaeus, were the ones who "had the opportunity for personal gain." In other words, they had the opportunity to amass wealth. And wealth, in a limited-goods society, was a sign of robbery. These ordinary [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (toll collectors), such as the one in our story, may have had small opportunities to collect "more than the amount prescribed" (Lk 3:13). However, they would not have had the opportunity to amass wealth like Zacchaeus, an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

13. Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3d ed. (Louisville: Westminster, 2001).

14. Thorwald Lorenzen, "The Radicality of Grace: 'The Pharisee and the Tax Collector' (Luke 18:9-14) as a Parable of Jesus," Faith and Mission 3 (Spring 1986): 69.

15. David A. Neale, None but the Sinners: Religious Categories in the Gospel of Luke (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 95.

16. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 271.

17. BDAG, 482.

18. BDAG, 482.

19. Neyrey, "The Symbolic Universe of Luke-Acts," 278.

20. Ibid.

21. Betty O. S. Tan, "The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector in Luke 18:9-14: A Study on the Practice of Prayer," Asia Journal of Theology 14:2 (Oct. 2000), 290.

22. Not to mention that by the time Luke wrote this account, the temple was gone.

23. Neyrey, "The Symbolic Universe of Luke-Acts," 298.

24. See L. Thomas Strong III, "The Importunate Widow and the Pharisee and Publican," The Theological Educator (Fall 1997), 90; Tan, "The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector," 289; Walter R. Liefeld, "Parables on Prayer (Luke 11:5-13; 18: 1-14)," in The Challenge of Jesus' Parables, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 240-62; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke, 2:1183-84; I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 681; Darrell L. Bock, Luke Volume Two: 9:51-24:53 BECNT, 1465; John O. York, The Last Shall Be First: The Rhetoric of Reversal in Luke (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 74, 110, and so on.

25. Frederick C. Holmgren. "The Pharisee and the Tax Collector: Luke 18:9-14 and Deuteronomy 26:1-15," Interpretation 48 (July 1994): 258.

26. Tan, "The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector," 291.

27. Holmgren, 254.

28. Alan Culpepper, "The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections," in the New Interpreter's Bible 9 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995): 342.

29. David Rhoads, The Challenge of Diversity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 107.

30. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2d ed., ed. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), 88.75.

31. Rhoads, The Challenge of Diversity, 110.

32. Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation. Volume One: The Gospel According to Luke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 125.

Stephanie Harrison

Program Coordinator, Wisconsin Primary Health Care Association

Madison, Wisconsin
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Author:Harrison, Stephanie
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Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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