|Parable of Pharisee and Publican|
Studio of Rembrandt van Rijn. Courtesy NGA.
To some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised othersa, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a deeply religious pillar of the community and the other a profiteering collaborator with the Roman occupiers. The Pillar of the Community stood and prayed in this way to himself a: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — rapacious, unrighteous, adulterers—or even like this profiteer. I fast twice a week and give tithes of all things that I get.’
“But the profiteer stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Lord, I pray that you will guard these words of mine, bless what is right, and correct any errors in my words in the minds of these kind hearers. Amen.
The story goes that John Major, when he was Prime Minister, met Boris Yeltsin at the time President of Russia, and asked Yeltin: “how are things in Russia”. Yeltisn replied “in a word: Good”. Ah excellent, said Major, and what about in more words? “In two words” replied Yeltsin, “not good”.
Jesus’s parables overturn expectations. Our problem, hearing them, is that we often know the parable but not the expectations. What’s the one word you associate with Samaritan? (Good) Precisely. But the whole point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the Samaritans were the despised heretics, with whom, as St John tells us, the Jews had no dealings (if they could help it).
So who is this “deeply religious pillar of the community”? Well the Greek is Pharisaios which comes from the Aramaicb Pərīšā which means “set apart or separated” and of course the English word is Pharisee. But the very word now means a religious hypocrite, and if we read it that way we miss the point of the parable completely.
The Pharisees were in many ways among the best of the religious Jews at the time. The Sadducees had basically sold out and collaborated with the occupying powers in exchange for control of the Temple and earthly power. They also denied the doctrine that God would raise people from the dead at the end of time - which is why “they were sad, you see”. The Zealots were actively resisting occupation, from time to time fighting against the Romans and supporting little bands of brigands in the wilderness.
But the Pharisees devoted themselves to careful study of the scriptures, and scrupulous observation of the Law. They believed in an Oral Torah which (it seems from the Talmudc) was both revealed to Moses at Sinai, and the product of debates among rabbis, in an ongoing process of analysis and argument in which God is actively involved. They produced great religious teachers – Gamaliel taught Paul. Gamaliel’s grandfather, Hillel the Elder, was probably one of the sages Jesus listened to as a child in the Temple. Hillel was approached by a heathen who asked him “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot” and Hillel replied 'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary on it; go and learn it.”. Hillel was “not far from the kingdom of God.” When we hear this parable we must not imagine it only applies to other people– we must not think “I thank you that I am not as other men are – like that Pharisee.”
And what about the profiteering collaborator with the Roman occupiers? The Greek is telwnEs which means what the Romans called a publicanus. A publicanus was literally a public contractor but their main role was collecting taxes for the Romans. It worked like this. The right to collect taxes for a particular region would be auctioned every few years for a value that (in theory) approximated the tax available for collection in that region. Any tax collected that was in excess of their bid would be pure profit for the publicanusd. He would then generally sell the right to collect the taxes in a particular sub-region to the highest bidder, who could then pocket the difference between what he collected and what he had to pay. These people got very rich. In Luke 19 we meet a chief-tax collector called Zacchaeus who can afford to give away half his wealth to the poor and restore anything that he defrauded fourfold e.
The annual tax revenue of Judea was about 300 talentsf and a talent is 10,000 days wages - about £1M in today’s money. So these were really rich profiteers collaborating with the heathen occupying power. Nobody respectable would associate with them and their sins cried out to heaven. Quite right, everyone hearing Jesus would think, that this disgraceful profiteer would not even lift up his eyes to heaven. The Pharisees particularly disliked the tax-collectors, and a tax-collector who wanted to join a Pharisee guild had to give up his profession and pay just compensation to all those he had cheated.g
As for the pillar of the community – he goes beyond the letter of the Law. The Law requires you to fast once in the week – he fasts twice. The Law requires you to give tithes of the crops and animals that you owned, but there was no requirement to tithe the whole of your income – but this is what the pillar of the community does. His prayer sounds strange to us, but it was the practice (recorded in the Talmud h) for a pious Jewish man to bless God every day for not having created him a Gentile, a slave or a woman. Indeed it’s something we are often called to reflect on that if we had been born in different circumstances we would have found it much harder to come to faith. What he is saying is not that dis-similar from the most famous remark of the English reformer and martyr John Bradford, “there but for the grace of God go I” – brilliantly subverted by Churchill of observed of the austere intellectual Sir Stafford Cripps “there but for the grace of God, goes God”.
But it’s the profiteer who goes home justified before God, and the other does not i. This is not because the accusations were false. The profiteer was surely rapacious and unrighteous, and even if he hadn’t committed adultery in a physical sense, the very coins in which the profiteer dealt had a graven image of Caesar making an explicit claim to divinity – and the Old Testament considered any mixing with foreign so-called “gods” as adultery. What Jesus says is meant to be shocking to his hearers when he says it and is meant to be shocking to us now. What is wrong with the pillar of the community, what is right about the profiteer, and what does it mean for us, today?
We have a clue in Luke’s introduction: this is told to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others (the Greek is literally “relying on themselves that they are righteous/justified”). The problem is not that the pillar of the community does the tithing and fasting, but that he “trusts in himself that he is righteous” and not in God. And Jesus describes his prayer as being said, “to himself” – that’s what the Greek says j . Of course the pillar of the community would indignantly deny it – it’s clear from his words that he is addressing God. But God sees the heart, and Jesus is suggesting that this man is not really addressing God at all. Because if he were connecting with God at all he would know two things. One: that he was unworthy and Two: that he must be compassionate. Here, beside him (though afar off) is a profiteer who is evidently humbled before God and penitent. But what does the pillar of the community do? He despises him.
What’s right about the profiteer? Does Jesus approve of his collaboration, his rapaciousness? Surely not. But what he does approve of is that he recognises his own unworthiness. Despite his great riches he humbles himself. He beats his breast and prays “God, have mercyk on me a sinner”. He is “not far from the kingdom of God”. And when someone who could have been his boss, Zacchaeus, really repents and turns to Jesus, Jesus says “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19.9)
So what does this mean for us, today? May I explore three suggestions?
- We must not trust in ourselves, but in God. This applies at the personal level, and also at the political. Much of the awful mess that some (but by no means all) US Evangelical leaders have got themselves into supporting Trump seems to be because they have made political calculations rather than trusting in God l. As Psalm 65, which we read, says
“God silences the roaring of the sea.
Their roaring waves, and tumult of the nations”
But of course we must be careful not to “thank God that we are not as other men are” in this.
- We must not despise others. Jesus is very stern about those who call a brother “fool” (Mat 5.22). There are of course many situations where we have to exercise judgement about our own courses of action. But God is the one true judge and we are not to place ourselves in God’s judgement seat. We are called to love our neighbour, not to judge him or her.
- We should walk humbly with our God. There is a wonderful prayer called the Jesus Prayer which is based on this passage. It goes: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have pity on me, a sinner.” It can be helpful to repeat it 12 times, pausing to mediate on each of the 12 words. But whether we pray in these exact words or not, we should pray in this spirit. Jesus is clear: all who exalt themselves will be abased, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
- NIV’s “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” is wrong. The Greek is specific pepoithotas eph heutois hoti eisin dikaioi. The NIV also leaves out "with himself " (pros heauton) and gives “robbers, evildoers” for harpages, adikoi harpax means literally ravenous though harpazw means to steal or take away forcefully. RSV and KJV has "extortioners" which isn’t bad.
- Interestingly not directly from the Hebrew, where the related word is pārûš. The earliest historical sources about them are the gospels and Acts, but they are extensively discussed by Josephus.
- The sages of the Talmud are not quite the same as the Pharisees, but we don’t have any first hand accounts of the Pharisees’ teachings.
- Or indeed the leasing company he represented. Special leasing companies (societas publicanorum) were formed to bid for the contracts in large provinces.
- According to Clement of Alexandria, Zaccheaus was surnamed Matthias and became the replacement apostle for Judas, and the Apostolic Constitutions (c380AD) say that Zaccheaus the tax collector was the first Bishop of Caeseria.
- First Century Galilee: A Fresh Examination of the Sources by Bradley W. Root says Archelaus collected 600 talents from Judea, Samaria, Idumea and a number of semi-independent cities under his control, and this grew quite a lot during the 1st Century. - a talent was 10,000 Tyrian (or 6,000 Attic) drachmae and a drachma was a day’s wage.
- EDNT Vol 3 p 349 citing Herrenbruck.
- Menachoth 43b-44a.
- And when Jesus says “will be humbled” and “will be exalted” he means humbled and exalted by God.
- The RSV has ”prayed thus with himself“ following the KJV (though the Greek is to and not with), the NJB “said this prayer to himself”, Tom Wright has “prayed in this way to himself” which is of course spot-on. I often marvel at the NIV’s mistranslations – I wonder if US evangelicals have a problem with this passage?
- The word used hilasthEti comes from hilaskomai which means “be reconciled” but I think it’s a distraction.
- Some of them are rowing back – see the coruscating editorial in Christianity Today. But immense damage has been done.