The Pharisee and Publican at Prayer
Ordinary 30 Year C
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Luke 18: 9 — 14
The CCD version of the Bible (1952) translates literally the opening of our text as, “But he spoke this parable also to some……” (NSAB is similar.) The New American Bible translates the opening as “He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” The intended meaning is the same. In other words, having outlined some critical material on the correct attitude to prayer for His followers, i.e. to foster a spirit of constant prayer in one’s heart and to be assured of God’s comforting support, Jesus also drew dramatic attention to the danger among His followers of spiritual arrogance. This parable is therefore intended as a powerful and decisive warning against allowing any notions of religious superiority to develop among His present and future followers.
Some Reflections on the Text
He then addressed this parable to those who were
convinced of their own righteousness and despised
Our text begins where the parable of the Persistent Widow left off:
We need to get the scene right if we are to get the right message. This parable is not addressed to the Pharisees as a group but to the followers of Jesus, some of whom we know were devout and honourable Pharisees. As mentioned above, it is a warning to any among his followers who were in the habit of relying on their own self-perfection, and denying the holiness of others. It is therefore not addressed to any particular class, sect or level. The danger can be present anywhere among Christ’s followers in any age.
Even at this stage, our Lord can identify among his followers some of the arrogance and elitism they so quickly detect in others. By making such a strong stand about this He is clearly consistent with other Orthodox Jewish teachers such as Rabbi Hillel the Elder who said:
“Do not separate yourself from the community; trust not in
yourself until the day of your death, judge not your fellowman
until you have come into his place.”
Such teaching was compatible with Sacred Scriptures among which we can read:
For thus says he who is high and exalted, living eternally,
whose name is the Holy One: On high I dwell, and in holiness,
and with the crushed and dejected in spirit, To revive the
spirits of the dejected, to revive the hearts of the crushed.
(Isaiah 57: 15)
Every proud man is an abomination to the LORD;
I assure you that he will not go unpunished.
(Proverbs 16: 5)
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was
a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The first thing we notice is that the setting is at a time of prayer in a very holy place. Without any details (which were not necessary in those times) we are given two characters. These are mentioned as distinct types: opposite classes of characters. The Pharisee represents the moral, the respectable, and the externally correct. The publican or tax collector represents the wicked, the profligate, and the utterly irreligious. We should recall a few facts about both, as they are essential to draw the right conclusions.
We repeat an earlier important truth:
“That the persons in question were Pharisees, their can be
little doubt; but the vague allusion suggests that some
particular sect or set of Pharisees was in question.”
The Pharisees, as a general movement, evolved around our Lord’s time, or a little earlier, as a courageous, loyal and devout movement determined to hold back the onslaught of pagan culture and religion from devastating their faith. Inevitably, this gave rise to the need to draw limits to the communication they would have with harmful, foreign religion. They tried in all sincerity to promote a position, in an occupied country, rather similar to the Christian concept of “being in the world, but not of it”. Thus there was always a need for balance, and maintaining at the forefront, the reasons for pursuing such a way of life.
The tax collectors, on the other hand, saw themselves as pragmatists: “If you can’t beat them, join them!” They were virtually collaborators with the Romans and exercised enormous control over their own people, thus performing the role of lackeys to the Roman overlords.
Verses 11 and 12
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer
to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest
of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even
like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
The Pharisee stood in the traditional stance for certain forms of prayer. There may be a hint that he stood very erect rather than in a partial bow, but we cannot be sure. God gets a brief mention, and fades quickly. The man is right, of course; he is none of the things he lists, nor does he scourge his own people the way the tax collector does. Our Lord, as will be obvious to the reader, is comparing opposites. To really rub it in, He has the Pharisee placing himself above “the rest of humanity”, and then adding, “….. or even like this tax collector”.
It was bad enough for the Pharisee to make his prayer a hymn
of self-praise, but worse to use his prayer as a means of speaking
ill of his fellow man. (Steinmueller)
It could be said the Pharisee didn’t pray at all; he simply listed his virtues to parade before God. Expressed more formally, he exalted his owns meritorious works. He fasted even more than God required. He gave tithes over things which God did not command to be tithed, i.e. of all his possessions.
In a sense, he “has God cornered”. God is his debtor and he betrays an attitude of now having God under an obligation. He has carefully chosen the things in which it suits him to excel, and then he leaves the Temple confident that neither God nor man can deny that what he said was correct. He is therefore quite out of character with the Scriptures he must have known. We repeat it, if only for our own need of humility:
“For thus says he who is high and exalted, living eternally,
whose name is the Holy One: On high I dwell, and in holiness,
and with the crushed and dejected in spirit, to revive the
spirits of the dejected, to revive the hearts of the crushed.”
(Isaiah 57: 15)
Judged by authentic Jewish criteria, the so-called prayer of the Pharisee is, therefore, not acceptable to God, and is rejected.
But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would
not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast
and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
This man also stood for prayer, but adopted an obvious aspect of humility, “at a distance”. Looking down, he kept beating his breast and kept repeating his brief plea before God. His prayer was entirely Biblical and is found often in the Psalms.
The more literal translation is “O God be merciful to me the great sinner.” In other words “I am the very sinner the Pharisee has just described! His description fits me perfectly”.
The words “be merciful” refer not to some physical need or distress but to a spiritual predicament he acknowledges himself to be in. He sees himself as he really is and knows he cannot help himself. He can only plea for healing.
This man’s prayer is acceptable and therefore reaches the throne of God.
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and
the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Let’s look at this verse closely in its literal form.
• “I tell you….” is a way of emphasising a truth to be noted
• “this man went down to his home….” (ie back home)
• “in the right relationship with God more than the other….”
— or rather than the other. The term “right relationship”
(or having been justified) points to a relationship that will
last henceforth — meaning he was healed of a spiritual affliction.
The Greek original text implies that God was the agent of
delivery from an evil life repented.
The term here ‘justified’ does not mean “more justified that
the other”. His justification was absolute. (See Callan, O, P.)
We should also be aware that “St. Paul’s doctrine of
justification finds its roots in this statement of Jesus.”
(Ginns, O. P.)
It is wonderful news but a warning nevertheless. Many people describe how, by the time they come to the end of our Lord’s parable, they find themselves thinking, “Thank goodness I’m not like that Pharisee!” At this point they feel they have fallen into the same trap as he did. Our Lord does not send anyone on a guilt trip, but rather uses parables to show us what we are sometimes like. This is meant to help open to us new windows of insight into how to avoid distraction from the goal He has pointed us towards, or rather, calls us into. Obviously, He sees one of the quickest ways of going off track is to compare ourselves to others to our own advantage; so we would be hypocrites to point the finger at Pharisees or anyone else.
Shall we take a leaf from the ancient rabbis whom Jesus would have known and loved: It was a favourite saying of the Rabbis of Yahweh:
“I am a creature of God, and my neighbour is also his creature;
my work is in the city and his is in the field; I rise early to my
work and he rises early to his. As he cannot excel in my work,
so I cannot excel in his work. But perhaps you say, I do great
things and he does small things. We have learned that it
matters not whether a man does much or little if only he directs
his heart to Heaven.”
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Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in doing so,
The Pharisee and the Publican
Ordinary 30 Year C St. Luke 18: 9 ― 14
1. Our Lord told this parable as a severe warning to the Church. As it spread
2. “Cornering God” is as common today as it has ever been. In this parable,
3. The Pharisee separated himself from ordinary society, not just to give himself
Let us pray for one another to take these lessons of genuine humility and service
Luke 18: 9 — 14
Ordinary 30 Year C
9 He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their
10 “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee
11 The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
13 But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise
14 I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone
1 [1-14] The particularly Lucan material in the travel narrative concludes with two parables on prayer. The first (⇒ Luke 18:1-8) teaches the disciples the need of persistent prayer so that they not fall victims to apostasy (⇒ Luke 18:8). The second (⇒ Luke 18:9-14) condemns the self-righteous, critical attitude of the Pharisee and teaches that the fundamental attitude of the Christian disciple must be the recognition of sinfulness and complete dependence on God’s graciousness. The second parable recalls the story of the pardoning of the sinful woman (⇒ Luke 7:36-50) where a similar contrast is presented between the critical attitude of the Pharisee Simon and the love shown by the pardoned sinner.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible,