At first glance, this is one of the shortest, most straightforward and easy to understand parables of Jesus. It's about two men and prayer. One man is the good guy and the other anything but. The gist of this parable is about how to pray, isn't it?-----or is it?
We don't understand this parable as those of the first century did. Because we know how the parable ends, we assume that the Pharisee must represent the one who put his trust in himself, that he was righteous and the one who despised others. The first century listeners would have had opposite impressions of these two men. Pharisees often prayed, went to the temple and did all the right religious things--so it would seem they must be trusting God, not themselves.
Tax collectors were traitors to their fellow Jews--so it stands to reason that they must be the ones who despised others. They were in cahoots with the Romans and often took more money from their fellow Jews than they should have. Because of that, they were often rich. They were often disliked, had to rely on themselves-even to being "righteous." Tax collectors were religiously unclean. According to temple standards, they were the bad guys.
Although we may understand this parable to be about prayer, the words of Jesus' introduction strike more at attitudes. The parable was told to people who trusted in themselves for their righteousness and thought they were better than other people.
We know Jesus loves to turn things upside down. Here in this parable, we once again experience a great reversal of what we would expect. That is of course the nature of parables. They are meant to be shocking.
The Jewish temple was more than a place of prayer. It was the cultural center of Jewish life. It was the place in Jewish society where the world was ordered through its layout of courts that segregated Jews and Gentiles, men and women, priests and laity, clean and unclean. It was thus the divinely legitimated hub that mirrored, communicated and sustained the boundaries of social relationships among the Jewish people (Joel B. Green).
The Pharisee stood by himself as he prayed. This suggests he wanted to keep some distance between himself and the tax collector. A better translation of the phrase, "standing by himself," would be "thus within himself." It seems to us to be a narcissistic soliloquy, where he speaks only to himself. Did you notice the excessive number of times the Pharisee's prayers began with the word "I"?
The Pharisee compared himself with the tax collector in an arrogant fashion. When the Pharisee referred to the other in the temple as "even like this tax collector," can't you hear the disdain in his words? They pit the two against each other.
However the tax collector's body language is that of contrition and remorse. Breast beating is a traditional gesture in Middle Eastern culture. It is typical of women, and is only practiced by men when they are in deep anguish. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector knew he was in trouble. He was aware of the gap between God and himself and threw himself on divine mercy. It seems that is a greater exercise of faith than the "prayers" of the Pharisee.
The tax collector goes home justified and the Pharisee does not. This is a statement of role reversal of the humble and the proud. God justifies sinners and judges the efforts of those who try to establish their own righteousness. These are the two accents of the parable.
If all we see in this parable is the Pharisee as the villain and the tax collector as the hero, then each gets what he deserves. Heaven help us if we actually get what we deserve. Rather, the Pharisee represents complete dedication to observing the law of Moses. He even exceeds its expectations.
As arrogant as the Pharisee's prayer sounds to our ears, it was a common rabbinic expression of thanksgiving prefaced by the claim of the psalmist referencing personal behavior. Psalm 17 states, "If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress. 4 As for what others do, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent.5 My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped."
Doesn't the psalm sound like the Pharisee's prayer?
But hold on, the tax collector was not the hero either. His prayer was according to a different psalm, Ps. 51. "1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,"
His prayer was fine, but his life was offensive by virtue of his occupation.
This parable theologically presents the central doctrine of God's justification of sinners and the ultimate failure of the self-righteous. The Pharisee was righteous in a certain sense and the tax collector was justified in a certain sense. What's the difference? Biblically, to be righteous, is to conform one's life to the law. Through diligent effort, one achieves a life that reflects the tenets of the law of Moses and thus remains in relationship with the Holy One of Israel.
The hard work of righteousness according to the law can quickly become self-righteousness and cuts one off from true relationship with those God has given us as brothers and sisters.
To be justified is to be called and considered worthy and restored to right relationship with God by God's action rather than by our own actions.
Justification has nothing whatsoever to do with one's own efforts. We cannot take credit or responsibility for our relationship with God, but recognize that we are recipients of a wonderful gift. We see others in a different way as well; as people God has created, loved and justified. When we recognize that we are justified, we receive all of life back as a gift to be treasured rather than a goal to be accomplished.
The heart of justification is discovering that others are also special and deserve to be loved. Then we can live into the peace and goodness of God. Justification is the empowering word that frees us from insecurity and despair and then frees us again to share that same good news and love of God with others.
As we are reminded in the commandments, our goal is to "Love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind----and to love our neighbor as ourself. Love makes no distinctions (David Westphal). God is the only righteous judge and God alone is able to make distinctions between people.
"Two men went to the temple. One went up and returned righteous--and there is something to admire about that--but the other returned justified, and in the face of justification all we can do is give thanks.
Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke
Beverly R. Gaventa, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Based Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C.
Joel B. Green, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke.
David Lose, davidlose.net
Brian Stoffregen, www.crossmarks/com/brian
David Westphal, devotions.