October 23, 2016 – Proper 25 (Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost)

September 23, 2016 | by David J. Lull

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Joel 2: 23-32 Psalm 65 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18 Luke 18:9-14 Sirach 35:12-17 Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

The Gospel reading for this week has been a centerpiece in Christian anti-Judaism. Christians have made the Pharisee a stereotype of self-righteous, legalistic Jews. For Christians, the toll collector is an iconic hero, an example of true Christian piety. Never mind that his life work contributed to Rome’s imperial domination of Judea! Is it possible to find good news for Jews and Christians in this parable, or do we have to find it against this parable? These issues are so important that I will focus my comments on the Gospel. Of the other readings, I will comment only on Joel, whose fierce critique of arrogant empires who think they are “exceptional” complements the last words of the Gospel for today. [This commentary is an improved (corrected!) version of my 2013 online P&F lectionary commentary.]

(Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are adapted from the NRSV.)

Joel 2:23-32

I recommend Pablo R. Andiñach’s comments on “Joel” in the Global Bible Commentary, edited by Daniel Patte and Teresa Okure (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 272-76. As an interesting exercise, compare his political reflections from an Argentinian perspective with Elizabeth Achtemeier’s (merely) theological reflections (“Joel,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, edited by Leander E. Keck [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996], 7.325).

It is worth remembering that we have to read from the beginning up to the lectionary verses and beyond them to the end of the book. The good news of God’s salvation (2.18-32) is incomplete without Joel’s call for the Judeans to lament and repent (1.2-2.17). Joel’s call for the Judeans to “be glad and rejoice” (2.23) is a reversal of their fear of God’s angry punishment carried out by the Babylonians. God has taken pity on the Judeans (2.18) and dealt with the Babylonian armies. Instead of sending the Babylonian armies against them (2.20, “the northern army”; 2.25, “the swarming locusts … my great army”), God will now shower the Judeans with blessings (2.18-19 and 23-32). The Judeans, together with their soil and animals, no longer need to fear God (2.21-22). God fulfills the Judeans’ desire for God’s justice when God dares “all the nations” to turn their farm implements into weapons of war and bring their armies to do battle with God, which will end in their defeat (chapter 3).

God’s salvation for the Judeans, on the one hand, consists of liberation from the Babylonian empire. On the other hand, God creates salvation for the Judeans through the superior military power of another empire: the Persians. The Persian King Cyrus liberated the Judeans from Babylonian captivity and allowed them to repopulate Judah and rebuild their temple. However, they were now clients of another empire, the more “benevolent” Persian Empire. This was God’s response to Judah’s pleas for salvation! King Cyrus was God’s “shepherd” and “anointed one”—Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek—who carried out God’s purposes (Isa 44.28-45.1).

Biblical history is littered with the rise and fall of empires: the Hittites, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, and the Romans! All claimed the favor and blessings of the gods. All thought that their armies’ victories were the work of the gods. All also came to believe that their defeats were the work of the gods’ angry punishment.

Joel, like other prophets, agreed. Judah’s God uses empires when they serve God’s purposes. When they no longer serve God’s purposes, God discards them to history’s waste heap and turns to other empires. God does the same to them in due time. And so it goes! May all nations listen to Joel’s dire warning of God’s fierce judgment, and not just to Joel’s good news of God’s blessings!

The danger is that the lectionary’s selection mutes the warning. That’s especially dangerous today for the U.S. and Israel, who are riding high on their sense of “exceptionalism.” Today’s Gospel pronounces a warning to those who “exalt themselves,”—who think they are “exceptional.” They will be “humbled”!

The lectionary’s selection also focuses only on God’s blessings for humans (see also v. 19). It excludes verses that proclaim God’s salvation, not only for the Judean people, but also for the “soil” and “animals” (vv. 21-22)! God will make the soil fertile again, so that it can bear fruit to nourish the animals and the people of the land. From their first appearance on this planet, humans have done more than all other creatures to change and adversely affect the health of the natural world. As long as religions talk about salvation exclusively for humans, they will play no significant role in the healing of the natural world, and actually will contribute to its declining health. Joel 2.21-22, like Rom 8.18-25 and Rev 22.2, are a call for all humans to listen to the lament and hope of the “soil” and “animals,” and to repent from the many ways we are destroying the natural world. Override the lectionary’s selection and let the people listen to Joel 2.21-22!

Verses 28-29 introduce another set of teachable/preachable moments. First, the image of God’s “pouring out” of the “Spirit” is similar to the metaphor of “the dry desert wind that marks the change of the seasons and the same wind that divides the Red Sea in the exodus traditions” (Richard A. Henshaw and Marvin A. Sweeney, “Joel,” in HarperCollins Study Bible: NRSV with the Apocryphal/ Deuterocanonical Books, Revised & Updated Edition, edited by Harold W. Attridge and Wayne A. Meeks [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006], 1213). Joel announces that these times are changing! The Spirit brings freedom! Second, the Spirit of freedom works through prophets and people who dream dreams and see visions—people open to the novelty that God is calling into being. Third, the new community will be egalitarian! God will pour out God’s Spirit on everyone without exception, and not just on the elite establishment. Notice that it does not mention priests—nor clergy and professors! As we heard last week in Jeremiah, God will communicate with everyone without the intervention of temple, church, mosque, and university professionals! Finally, Acts 2.17-18 shows how scripture is adaptable to new situations. There, God’s outpouring of the Spirit enables the proclamation of the gospel to people of many languages and cultures.

Verses 30-32 introduce yet another set of teachable/preachable moments. First, as Henshaw and Sweeney point out, the “portents” echo exodus traditions of the fire and cloud of smoke, symbols of the temple altar and signs of God’s active presence, accompanying the people in the wilderness. They also continue the metaphor of the dry desert wind, which whips up sand and dust, darkening the sun and turning its color to blood red (a familiar sight wherever the sun rises and sets in polluted air). It’s a mistake to think that it refers to the flowing of actual blood. Second, the “portents” show God’s acts in history involve the natural world, not just humans.

Third, “Joel’s use of frightening apparitions, particularly mushrooming smoke, has received fresh and terrifying force as a result of the modern threat of a nuclear holocaust” (James L. Crenshaw, “Joel,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, edited by Walter J. Harrelson [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003], 1276). Finally, “everyone” in v. 32 refers in the first instance to the ancient Judeans. It’s okay for Christians to apply the prophet’s words to those who hear the gospel and believe—if they also acknowledge that Joel spoke first to the ancient Judeans! As the Apostle Paul reminds us, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom 1.16).

Psalm 65

Verses 1-4 are pertinent to today’s Gospel (see below).

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Verse 16 is pertinent to today’s Gospel (see below).

Luke 18:9-14

This is my translation (compare and contrast the NRSV, NAB, and NET, and see my annotated comments below):

9 So, Jesus also told this parable to some who were self-confident that they were righteous and despised everyone else: 10 “Two persons went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a toll collector. 11 The Pharisee, after standing up, began praying silently with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, the wicked, adulterers, or even like this toll collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I have.’ 13 But the toll collector, after standing some distance away, would not even look up to heaven, but began beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this one went down to his home justified rather than the other; because all people who think of themselves as more honorable than they should will be disgraced, but all people who think of themselves as disgraced will be made more honorable.”

Because this passage has been a centerpiece in Christian anti-Judaism, I want to begin with an extended quotation from Amy-Jill Levine’s call-out box on this parable in The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 137-38.

Some Christian readers dismiss the Pharisee as hypocritical, sanctimonious, and legalistic, and in turn identify with the tax collector, the appropriately repentant and humble sinner. However, this reading traps interpreters: to conclude (following 18.11), “God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee” places the readers in the very position they condemn. Moreover, this interpretation overlooks the Pharisee’s numerous supererogatory qualities: tithing, fasting, giving thanks without asking for something in return.

Other readers presume that the tax collector stands “far off” (18.13) because other worshipers ostracize him, believing him to be ritually impure. The parable says nothing about either ostracism or impurity; to the contrary, to enter the Temple a person must be ritually pure. Even if he were to be ostracized, the cause would not be impurity but employment: he works for Rome, the occupation government.

Still other readers perceive the Temple to have become an elitist, xenophobic, misogynist, fully corrupt “domination system.” Again, the parable thwarts this stereotype, since it is in the Temple that repentance and reconciliation occur.

Finally, might we see the Pharisee as helping the tax collector. Just as the sin of one person impacts the community (hence, e.g., “forgive us our sins” [11.4] rather than “forgive me my sins”), so the merits of the righteous can benefit the community (see Gen 18.24-33; hence one view of the cross: the sacrifice of one can save the many). Perhaps the Jews who first heard this parable understood the Pharisee’s merit positively to have impacted the tax collector. This would be the parable’s shock: not only that the agent of Rome is justified but that the Pharisee’s own good works helps in that justification.

I could stop here! I would be happy, dear reader, if all you took away from today’s readings were Amy-Jill Levine’s push back point by point against anti-Jewish interpretations of this passage. Nevertheless, the traditional interpretations are so strongly embedded in church theologies that I invite you to bear with me as I attempt to unpack this familiar parable. If you don’t have that much time, at least read the quotation from Fred Craddock at the very end!

I begin with a literary analysis:

Verse 9 is the evangelist’s introduction, which names the narrative audience and identifies the thematic lens through which the Gospel’s author wants us to view the parable. At the beginning of the verse, a pair of Greek conjunctions, δὲ καὶ (de kai), links this narrative to the preceding (“so also,” “similarly,” or “likewise”). More on that below.

At the end, the evangelist added v. 14b, which circulated independently as a proverbial wisdom saying in the tradition common to Matthew and Luke (Q: also see Mt 23.12). It begins with a Greek conjunction, ὅτι (hoti, “because”) that introduces the reason for the preceding statement. This “reversal” theme is a favorite of this Gospel. The same saying appears earlier (14.11). In addition, this Gospel begins with the “reversal” theme (e.g., see “Mary’s Song” in 1.46-55); and the evangelist has made it the theme of the “Sermon on the Plain” (6.17-49).

The Jesus Seminar excluded v. 14b from the database of authentic saying of Jesus, although its content is similar to some authentic sayings (The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus: New Translation and Commentary, by Robert Walter Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, A Polebridge Book [New York: Macmillan, 1993], 369). Because it belongs to Jewish wisdom traditions, on the one hand, Jesus could have said it; on the other hand, for the same reason, Jesus’ followers, including this Gospel’s author, could also have added it to the parable.

Verse 14a begins with a formula introducing a pronouncement (“I tell you”), which is firmly rooted in the earliest Jesus traditions. It appears 113 times in the Gospels (28 times in Luke) and once in Acts (elsewhere in the New Testament, only once in the undisputed Pauline letters: Gal 5.2). Unlike v. 14b, which makes sense as a stand-alone saying, suitable for any setting, v. 14b makes sense only as a pronouncement about the preceding parable. As an interpretation of the parable, it fits. (Some don’t fit. For example, 15.7 and 10 are in tension with stories about a shepherd who lost one sheep and a woman who lost one coin, both of whom “repent” when they search for and find what they negligently lost. The one sheep and one coin were innocent victims of their owners’ negligence and didn’t need to repent.) Verse 14a could

have been original to the pre-Lukan parable; or the evangelist could have added it. It looks like one of the evangelist’s themes (e.g., see 15.7 and 10), and the Greek verb δικαιόω (dikaioō: “vindicate, declare innocent or righteous, set free”) is one of this evangelist’s favorites (see 7.29, 35; 10.29; 16.15; 18.14; Acts 13.38-39; elsewhere in the Gospels, it appears only twice in Matthew: 11.19 and 12.37). The related substantive Greek adjective (dikaios: “righteous”) is also a favorite (see 1.6, 17; 2.25; 5.32; 12.57; 14.14; 15.7; 18.9; 20.20; 23.47, 50, all of which are “special Luke,” except 5.32, which is from Mark; also see Acts 3.14; 4.19; 7.52; 10.22; 22.14; 24.15; elsewhere in the Gospels, it appears 17 times in Matthew, twice in Mark, and three times in John). Whereas the noun δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē, “righteousness”) appears seven times in Matthew and twice in John (and never in Mark), it appears in Luke only once (1.75) and four times in Acts. Although this word-group seems to be a favorite of this Gospel, the Jesus Seminar’s consensus was that v. 14a belonged to the same source as the parable (The Five Gospels, 369).

Verses 10-13 are the parable itself, which came from the evangelist’s special source. A majority of the members of the Jesus Seminar were persuaded vv. 10-14a should be included in the category of sayings that sound like something Jesus could have said. They gave the following reasons. The Pharisee’s prayer has “some known parallels in Judean sources,” which undermines the attempt to explain it as “a pejorative invention by the early Christian movement.” Its portrayal of a “stunning reversal of ordinary expectations” is typical of Jesus’ parables (e.g., Lk 10.25-30).

On the other hand, some “were inclined to think that this story was the product of the Jesus movement rather than a parable told by Jesus.” They argued three points. This is the only appearance of a Pharisee as a character in a parable, as opposed to being in the audience. The early Jesus movement anachronistically projected its conflict with Pharisees back on Jesus. Its theme of justification reflects the influence of the Pauline letters on the early Jesus movement.

(For the above summary, see The Five Gospels, 369.)

I think it’s too close to call. I’d paint it a pinkish gray (blending two of the Jesus Seminar’s four colors).

Verse 10 sets the scene for two kinds of Jewish prayers offered in the temple. On the one hand, they are examples of “how to pray.” On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, they are contrasting examples of piety or righteousness.

The first, by a Pharisee, begins with a thanksgiving (v. 11). As a statement about who the Pharisee is not, it presents a view of the Pharisee’s righteousness by contrasting its opposite (compare Psa 17.1-5). By thanking God, the Pharisee acknowledges that God is the source of righteousness. In v. 12, the Pharisee’s prayer turns to a positive description of the Pharisee’s piety or righteousness. The two halves of this prayer, and the implied piety or righteousness, represent the Pharisee’s observance of the Torah, expressed in terms of the avoidance of universal vices (v. 11) and the pursuit of Torah virtues (v. 12).

The second prayer, by a toll collector, is a petition for God’s mercy (v. 13). Confession and a plea for mercy are central to the toll collector’s piety or righteousness. The parable is silent about whether the toll collector was an observer or violator of the Torah. The setting in the Temple at least implies that the toll collector passed any tests of purity.

I now offer a close reading of vv. 9-14:

RE: v. 9, So, Jesus also1told this parable to some who were self-confident2 that they were innocent3 and despised everyone else:4

1 Like the previous parable (18.1-8), this parable continues the theme of the impending Day of Judgment, whose coming is unpredictable (17.20-37). On that day, who will pass the test? In addition, it continues a theme of the previous parable: How should a disciple pray (compare 11.1-4)? On the other hand, because it has its own introduction, it is also the first in a series of stories that come after it about how to pass the entrance exam for God’s kingdom. In addition, it is near the end of Jesus’ traveling seminar with his disciples on route to Jerusalem, where the temple authorities will collaborate with the Romans, who together will arrest, try, and execute Jesus. Even passing the exam has its risks!

2 Self-confidence is not the same as self-righteousness. A person could be self-assured because of faith that God is a sure and certain helper, and that God’s love and forgiveness are steadfast (compare Psa 17.1-5). Nothing in v. 11 says that this Pharisee was confident that pious deeds made the Pharisee righteous; neither does it say that the Pharisee performed these deeds without God’s help. This Pharisee’s self-confidence could imply the belief that God graciously makes a person righteous, and that God enables persons to do pious deeds. Confidence that one is righteous is not bad in itself. Confidence that God declares and makes one righteous is “blessed assurance”! The narrative audience for this parable consists of those who were confident that they were “righteous”—and, therefore, would be ready for when the Day of Judgment comes (17.20-37). This Pharisee wants to keep on being ready for the “son of man’s day.” Confidence will help. The problem is with the last clause: “and despised everyone else.”

3 The Greek adjective δίκαιος (dikaios) is traditionally translated “righteous,” in the sense of “conforming to the laws of God and people” (BDAG δίκαιος, dikaios 1,a,α). Such a person would be “innocent” (see the discussion of v. 14a below).

4 “Despising everyone else” is an attitude toward others that implies a moral judgment about their character and lives; it then manifests itself in contemptuous treatment of others. We are all wired to make moral judgments about others—our safety and the safety of our families depend on our being good judges of others. Nevertheless, to “despise everyone else” goes beyond healthy suspicion and is a radically pessimistic disposition. It could tend to lead to a lonely life with very few friends!

Let’s not assume that this polemical stereotype of Jesus followers’ opponents (projected back to the time of Jesus) is an accurate description of all Pharisees. No doubt it would fit some Pharisees, just as it would fit some of Jesus’ followers, then and now. For too long, Christians have been guilty of the very thing they “despised” in their stereotypical Jew (Rom 2.1). It’s time for Christians and the Church to repent!

RE: v. 10, Two persons1 went up2 to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee3 and the other a toll collector.4

1 As far as we know, only men could be toll collectors. Both women and men, however, could be Pharisees. The Greek word ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos) could be gender-specific or not. Translating it with “persons” leaves open the question about the gender of the Pharisee, while allowing us to gender the toll collector.

The temple mount was the highest point in Jerusalem.

Pharisees were one of several Jewish groups who had their beginnings during the Hasmonean dynasty, who ruled Judea in second half of the 2nd century BCE (others were the Sadducees and Essenes; the Zealots came later). A “lay” group, they practiced a way of life otherwise intended only for priests. The purpose and goal of their way of life was to maintain a level of purity, defined over against the dominant pagan/gentile society and culture, as a way of preserving the Jewish ancestral traditions, contained in both oral and written sources. In the Gospels, they are foils for Jesus and his followers. Nevertheless, sometimes Jesus takes the Pharisees’ side of a dispute with the Sadducees (e.g., see Mk 12.18-28 and parallels); and sometimes Pharisees are among Jesus’ followers (e.g., see Jn 3.1-2). Christians have made the terrible mistake of confusing the New Testament Pharisees (a literary-foil) with the historical Pharisees, on the one hand, and the literary-foil-Pharisees with all Jews up to the present, on the other. The Jewish Annotated New Testament can help us “repent”! [See, especially for this parable, Lawrence M. Wills’ call-out box on “Pharisees and Tax Collectors” (64) and David R. Schwartz’s essay on “Jewish Movements of the New Testament Period” (526-30).]

4 Pharisees are also frequent foils for toll collectors in the Gospels, primarily so that Jesus can show God’s love for repentant toll collectors and “other sinners,” in contrast to the Pharisees’ lack of mercy for sinners. Here, again, we are dealing with literary, not historical, Pharisees. God’s forgiveness of repentant sinners is a cardinal, central theme of the Jewish written and oral traditions that the Pharisees cherished above all else! Furthermore, toll collectors were both historical and literary figures. Historically, in the Roman Empire, they were of two types: the “chief” collectors, some of whom became wealthy (e.g., Zacchaeus in Lk 19.2), and their hired hands, most of whom were poor and unable to find any other work. With the exception of Zacchaeus, toll collectors in the Gospels are of the second kind. They would have collected tolls from “tradesmen, craftsmen, and even prostitutes” passing through their district or crossing “bridges, gates, or landings” (Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002], 82). Historically, and as literary figures, toll collectors were objects of contempt. However, as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, we have to pay attention to who despised them. Those who had “little or nothing” from whom collectors could demand tolls would have had no reason to despise them, except perhaps for their complicity in Roman imperial domination; the wealthy, and anyone who had goods or services subject to levies, however, despised toll collectors (compare Malina and Rohrbaugh, 82). The Pharisee in this parable tithed “everything” and, therefore, had goods subject to the toll collectors’ levies.

RE: vv. 11-12, The Pharisee, after standing up,1 began praying2 silently3 with these words,4 ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people:5 extortionists, the wicked,6 adulterers, or even7 like this toll collector. I fast twice a week;8 I give a tenth of everything I have.’9

1 The Greek σταθεὶς (statheis) has an aorist (a past tense) participle, which signifies an act completed prior to the action of the main verb προσηύχετο (prosēucheto). It was customary to stand to pray.

2 The Greek verb προσηύχετο (prosēucheto) is an imperfect (a past tense) that often signifies the commencement of a continuous, progressive act.

3 The Greek prepositional phrase πρὸς ἑαυτὸν (pros heauton) could modify the adverbial, antecedent participle (as in the NRSV, “standing by himself”). It could also modify the main verb, in one of two ways: he “prayed about himself” (as in the NIV and NET) and he “prayed thus with himself” (as in the KJV and RSV) or he “spoke this prayer to himself” (as in the NAB). The Greek-English Lexicon of the NT says that this phrase means to pray “silently” (BDAG ἑαυτοῦ, heautou 1,a,ι; πρός, pros 3,g).

4 The Greek plural demonstrative pronoun ταῦτα (tauta), used as a substantive adjective, points ahead to the prayer’s content.

5 The Greek word ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos) could be gender-specific or not. The plural usually is not, unless something in the context limits the reference to males (also see the NAB: “the rest of humanity”). Christians might think that this thanksgiving prayer violates the belief that all humans are sinful, but this Pharisee does not claim to be sinless. It could simply imply, “There, but by the grace of God, go I!” “Righteous” persons ought to thank God as the source of their righteousness! At the same time, they can be confident that they are righteous, without being “self-righteous.” See, for example, Psalm 17.1-5:

Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
From you let my vindication come;
let your eyes see the right.
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.
As for what others do, by the word of your lips
I have avoided the ways of the violent.
My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.

Nevertheless, we need to be careful about what we say about others in prayer to God. When we lift up to God only the sins of others, we imply that God only views “other people” in terms of their sins. That could come back to bite us, if God were also to view us only in terms of our sins (see Mt 7.1-5; Lk 6.37-42; and Rom 2.1)! It would be better to lift up “other people” in prayer to God for their forgiveness, freedom from temptation, and transformation into “righteous ones”! It would be better to lift up “extortionists” in prayer asking God to help us create a world that does not produce extortionists. It would be better to lift up “adulterers” in prayer asking God to help us create a world that does not produce adulterers. It would be better to lift up those whose work makes them complicit in imperial domination and, in prayer, ask God to help us create a world in which no one would need to sell out to imperial powers just to survive. It would be better to lift up the poor and unskilled workers in prayer asking God to help us create economic justice for everyone and a world in which everyone has access to education and opportunities for meaningful work.

6 The Greek word ἄδικοι (adikoi) has several other connotations, including the opposite of a “model citizen,” someone who is unjust to others, and someone who is impious or does not honor God.

7 This Pharisee, by lumping the toll collector together with people everyone would agree engaged in immoral and unjust behavior, represents the views of those who had goods or services subject to levies, especially the wealthy. In addition, the phrase “or even” (ἢ καὶ, ē kai) signifies that “this toll collector” was more immoral and unjust than the others. Many toll collectors were “fair and honest,” although, no doubt, some cheated and might have extorted. Such behavior, however, more often than not, benefited the chief toll collector, whose hired hands had to turn over their collection of levies, from which they would receive their pay from the “chief.” To be fair, with this Pharisee, we should despise the toll collector only if we can assume he had been dishonest or unjust. On the other hand, if this parable depicts a Pharisee who was a tradesman or craftsmen, as the capacity to “tithe everything” (v. 12) might imply, the contemptuous condemnation of the toll collector, simply because he was a toll collector, honest and just or not, would be typical of tradesmen and craftsmen (see Malina and Rohrbaugh, 82-83).

8 John the Baptist and his followers “fast and pray frequently, as do those of the Pharisees” (Lk 5.33). The only required fast mentioned in the Torah is the fast of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (e.g., see Lev 23.26-32). The Old Testament includes non-mandatory fasting, a form of self-renunciation, among various ascetic practices that make one “holy” (e.g., see Dan 9.3). As a practice that goes beyond what is required, frequent fasting is a work of “supererogation.” When Jews perform such works, Christians call it “self-righteousness” and “works righteousness.” However, when Christians perform such works, they call it “going the second mile”! From a Pharisee’s perspective, such practices are simply part of the effort to maintain the same constant state of purity in daily life otherwise expected only of priests.

9 The Jewish law prescribes that Israelites tithe produce offered annually at the harvest festival (Deut 14.22-23). The accent in this parable is on the word πάντα (panta) “everything” or “all.” This Pharisee tithes, not just on surplus wealth (see Mk 12.44), but on everything the Pharisee possesses (compare Lk 11.42). Instead of calling this an act of self-righteousness, or an effort to earn God’s “justification,” Christians have made it the benchmark of stewardship campaigns in many churches! The original Jewish practice was an act of radical gratitude and of justice for those who lacked the land, seed, and livestock to produce their daily food. (See Malina and Rohrbaugh, 382-83.) Christians might try to build their “stewardship” on these foundational Jewish values!

RE: v. 13, But the toll collector, after standing some distance away,1 would not even look up to heaven,2 but began beating3 his breast4 as he said,5 ‘God, be merciful to me,6 the sinner that I am!’7

1 The phrase “after he stood” translates ἑστὼς (hestōs), a Greek adverbial, temporal participle, which signifies an act that precedes the action of the main verb οὐκ ἤθελεν (ouk ēthelen: “he would not…”). This phrase depicts a toll collector who recognizes and accepts the wealthy Pharisee’s moral judgment that he does not belong in the company of law-observant Jews. With the next two acts, it portrays a sense of shame and contrition.

2 The toll collector’s sense of shame does not permit him to look up, which is also an expression of submissiveness.

3 The Greek verb ἔτυπτεν (etypten) is imperfect (a past tense), which often signifies the on-set of an ongoing action.

4 Although the Old Testament does not mention breast beating, it came to be an expression of contrition practiced on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Josephus says that King David “beat his breast” at news of his son Absalom’s death, out of “extraordinary compassion for his son” (Antiquities of the Jews, 7.10.5 §252).

5 Because the main verb ἔτυπτεν (etypten: “began beating”) is imperfect, the Greek present participle λέγων (legōn), which signifies a contemporaneous action, is translated with a simple past tense.

6 The toll collector prays in the spirit of Psalm 51 (compare today’s Psalm 65, especially vv. 1-4).

7 The Greek here has an article that makes the substantive τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ (tō hamartōlō) definite (“the sinner”), where we might expect an indefinite noun (“a sinner,” as in all standard translations). The NET, however, has “… to me, sinner that I am!” Its translation note (40tn) explains, “The tax collector views himself not just as any sinner but as the worst of all sinners,” and then refers to Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 222-23. Wallace discusses two possible interpretations of the definite article. Here is my take on them.

The first interpretation is that the narrator simply identifies the toll collector as “the sinner,” in contrast to “the righteous one” (the Pharisee). The second interpretation is that the narrator has the toll collector declare either that he is well known as a sinner or that he is a sinner par excellence—that is, “the worst of all sinners” (Wallace, 223). Both apply here. However, this parable does not tell us how, or in what respect, this toll collector should be thought of as “the worst of all sinners.” Was it because he a collaborator in the hated Roman imperial domination of Judea? Was it because God’s failure to “bless” him was divine punishment, which left him poor and without skills to do more honorable work? Was it because he had been dishonest or unjust, either on his own or in compliance with the chief toll collector’s demands? The honest answer is that we just don’t know. The parable narrator chose not to tell us. What we do know is that toll collectors in Luke are among those who, after listening to John the Baptist and Jesus, repent (7.29-30; 15.1-10). When they repent, they commit to be honest and fair (3.12-13)—including one chief toll collector, who redistributes his wealth and makes amends for any wrongdoing (19.1-10).

RE: v. 14a, I tell you, this one1 went down2 to his home vindicated3 rather than4 the other

1 The Greek οὗτος (houtos) is a demonstrative pronoun that refers to “the latter” (as in the NAB)—namely, the toll collector, clearly a masculine figure (“this man,” as in most translations; the CEB has “this person”). However, “this one” is better, because it matches the emphatic “me, the sinner.”

2 The temple mount was the highest point in Jerusalem.

3 The Greek participle δεδικαιωμένος (dedikaiōmenos) functions as an adjective modifying “this one.” Although it is rare, a positive adjective can function as a comparative, so that we could translate it as “more innocent” (Wallace, 297). However, see below for a discussion of the preposition παρ᾽ (par’: “rather than or more than”).

The Greek participle is in the passive voice, which means that the subject is acted upon by an implied agent, which in this case is God (such verbs are “divine passives”). This verb is God’s response to the toll collector’s prayer, asking God for mercy. If the verb signifies an act of acquittal, it would mean that God had declared him innocent. In that case, it could mean that God found him innocent of false accusations of wrongdoing and vindicated him before his accusers (vv. 9 and 11). Or, it could mean that God waived the divine punishment that the toll collector deserved for his wrongdoings, and thereby made him innocent. Or, it could mean that God declared that the toll collector’s contrite petition made the toll collector righteous, in spite of “the sinner” the he was.

This is the clearest expression in the Gospels of the Lutheran doctrine that a sinner is, at the same time, righteous (simul justus et pecator), a doctrine usually found only in the undisputed Pauline letters. Nevertheless, we should also keep in mind the ancient historical context for this parable. In that context, what is amazing is not that God (or Jesus) declares a sinner righteous or innocent, for that is a well-known and foundational belief in written and oral Jewish traditions. What is amazing, from the perspective of a Pharisee living under Roman imperial domination, is that God would declare righteous or innocent a Jewish collaborator with imperial Rome! Any extortionist or adulterer who repents could become righteous, but a Jewish toll collector? Never! For, a Jew who kept on enforcing imperial Rome’s economic domination has not repented enough! What was Jesus thinking when he declared that “this one” was “righteous”?

4 The Greek preposition παρ᾽ (par’) is a “marker of comparative advantage” (BDAG παρά, para 3). The question, however, is whether the “comparative advantage” is better expressed with the exclusionary “rather than” (as in BDAG παρά, para 3 and all the translations; the NAB simply has “not”) or with the truly comparative “more than” (see Levine 137, who proposes “alongside”). According to BDAG (παρά, para 3), “When a comparison is made, one member of it may receive so little attention as to pass [from] consideration entirely, so that ‘more than’ becomes instead of, rather than, to the exclusion of.” But does the Pharisee really “pass [from] consideration entirely”? At stake is whether the parable declares that this Pharisee was not innocent, or whether it says that the Pharisee was innocent (see v. 9), but that the toll collector was more so.

I’m not sure what “more innocent than the other” means. To be forgiven “more than the other” does make sense (see Lk 7.36-50). It’s possible to read “forgiven more than the other” into the Greek participle δεδικαιωμένος (dedikaiōmenos), traditionally translated “justified.” If that’s what it means, being “righteous” (v. 9: δίκαιος, dikaios) is different from being “forgiven” or “justified” (v. 14a).

The translation of the Greek preposition (παρά, para)—as “rather than” or “more than”—dramatically affects one’s opinion about the Pharisee. Whenever the translation “rather than” is combined with the assumption that the New Testament’s literary Pharisees are not only accurate portrayals of historical Pharisees, but also represent all Jews, the result has been Christian oppression of Jews and anti-Judaism. The irony is that Christians who think that way about Jews and Judaism are subject to the same harsh indictment that they think Jesus leveled against the Pharisee of this parable (vv. 9 and 14; also see Rom 2.1)!

Part of this Pharisee’s righteousness consisted of frequent fasting and tithing everything (v. 12). Luke contrasts such acts of righteousness with “justice and love for God” (11.42; compare 10.25-28). However, fasting can contribute to ecological and animal “justice,” as well as to one’s “holiness,” if it reduces one’s consumption of foods that pollute and deplete the soil, water, and air, and that are produced by methods that violate “animal rights.” Tithing can be a way of expressing radical gratitude and love for God, and it can contribute to ecological and economic justice.

Nevertheless, v. 14b leaves little room for a kinder, gentler “more than” or “alongside.” Besides, the Greek verb here describes God’s action as one of vindication or justification. The Pharisee, who thanks God for knowing his moral uprightness and piety, had no accusers and, therefore, no need for vindication or justification. Let’s not vilify the Pharisee for that! The toll collector, on the other, had many accusers, including this Pharisee and the rest of the parable’s narrative audience. And we can imagine that God might have been his fiercest accuser. Even if he had not cheated his employer, a chief toll collector, or those from whom he collected levies, he was still complicit in the Roman imperial occupation of Judea. In addition, he was probably poor, uneducated, and could do no other work. The toll collector, of all people, needed God’s vindication or justification! That’s why Jesus pronounced that “this one went down to his home vindicated or justified, rather than the Pharisee.” This toll collector, like the ill and infirm who needed a physician to heal them, needed to hear the good news. We can imagine the Pharisee had heard it and thanked God.

The interpretation of this parable as an illustration of Jesus’ rejection of the Jewish purity code goes something like this: The Pharisee despises the toll collector because his handling of impure goods and contact with those who provided impure services (e.g., prostitutes) made him impure. Even though there is no support in the literary evidence to support this view in Jewish sources, this interpretation claims that the parable’s concluding pronouncement (with the phrase “rather than”) implicitly condemns the Pharisee for strictly—and legalistically—observing the Jewish purity code. As Amy-Jill Levine says, this passage has nothing to do with any purity code: we should assume the toll collector’s presence inside the temple is a sign that he passed any purity tests.

Another interpretation is that its context is Jesus’ prophetic opposition to the temple. Again, as Amy-Jill Levine points out, this parable contradicts this view, since the toll collector’s vindication or justification takes place in the temple! Furthermore, this evangelist has a more positive view of the temple than the other evangelists have (e.g., see 2.22-52; 24.52-53; Acts 2.44-47; and compare 19.45-46 and parallels in Mark and Matthew).

RE: v. 14b, because all people1 who think of themselves as more honorable2 than they should will be disgraced,3 but all people who think of themselves as disgraced will be made more honorable.”

1 Translation issues abound in v. 14b! The first issue is how to translate the masculine singular adjective πᾶς (pas: “everyone”) and the third person singular verbs. The RSV, e.g., has “everyone who exalts himself …, but he who humbles himself….” The adjective πᾶς (pas) with singular substantives does mean “everyone.” This proverbial wisdom saying, however, applies to both males and females. The NRSV solves this problem by changing the singulars to plurals: “for all who exalt themselves …, but all who humble themselves….”

2 The second issue is how to translate the Greek vocabulary of an honor/shame culture. First, the Greek substantive participle ὁ ὑψῶν (ho hypsōn) and verb ὑψωθήσεται (hypsōthēsetai, from ὑψόω, hypsoō), traditionally translated “exalt,” refer to raising someone’s level of honor and power (see BDAG ὑψόω, hypsoō 2).

3 Second, the Greek substantive ὁ ταπεινῶν (ho tapeinōn) and verb ταπεινωθήσεται (tapeinōthēsetai, from ταπεινόω, tapeinoō), traditionally translated “humble,” refer to lowering someone’s level of honor and power, which brings shame and disgrace (see BDAG ταπεινόω, tapeinoō 2,b).

Fred B. Craddock’s reflections, which are, as always, spot on, are a good way to conclude!

If the Pharisee is pictured as a villain and the tax collector as a hero, then each gets what he deserves, there is no surprise of grace and the parable is robbed. In Jesus’ story, what both receive is “in spite of,” not “because of.” When the two men are viewed in terms of character and community expectations, without labels or prejudice, the parable is still a shock, still carrying the power both to offend and to bless. But perhaps most important, the interpreter of this parable does not want to depict the characters in such a way that the congregation leaves the sanctuary saying, “God I thank thee that I am not like the Pharisee.” It is possible that the reversal could be reversed.

[Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 211.]

David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and was the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock); and, with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others, Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). In 2010, he published a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” (Religious Studies Review 36/4: 251-62).).