Lectionary Reflection for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 18:9-14:


This particular parable sharpens a central distinction in many biblical narratives, namely that between unrepentant and repentant or between hard-hearted and brokenhearted hearers of Jesus’s word. The Pharisee in this parable is one of the “some” (tinas) who have, in effect, self-justified, asserting their notion of vindication before God; this “stage” Pharisee is not one of those who, like Nicodemus or Gamaliel, have some humility about their standing before God and who refrain from presumptuous judgment over others accordingly. In this respect, the Pharisee in Jesus’s story is an exemplar of a type; those who have earlier made self-confident judgments about Jesus are doubtless the immediate targets of his parable (Marshall 1978: 678). . . .

The “tax collector” (telōnēs) is equally a type, in his case already a general object of contempt because of his profession. Tax collectors in general had earned the reputation of being toadies to the occupying Roman power by serving as Herod’s bagmen, and thus were as a class often seen as traitors to their own people. Tax collectors often used their power to overcharge. As such they were social outcasts, the “moral equivalent of lepers” (Wright 1996: 267), and while it may not have been strictly necessary for this tax collector to make his prayer for God’s mercy from the outer court, or Court of the Gentiles, the way the narrative is framed makes it seem that he goes no farther before stopping to make his prayer. Though this is a parable, there could be no doubt in the listeners’ minds that Jesus’s story described a real and painful social reality.

The prayers of the two men are even more a contrast than their social station. The Pharisee has gone with full confidence straight into the inner court; there he begins to “pray with himself,” probably after depositing his tithe in one of the thirteen chests for tithes and offerings found there. Tellingly, “the Pharisee manages to refer to himself in the first person five times in two verses,” speaking of himself in his prayer in the active voice (Bock 1994–96: 2.1458). To whom is he really speaking? The phrase Jesus uses to introduce his prayer is already damning: he is talking not to God but rather as one curved back in upon himself, as Basil puts it, not feeling any need to ask for forgiveness or to pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Commentary on Isaiah 2). Nor, as Augustine points out, does he ask anything of God (Sermon 115).

Rather, he has the audacity to thank God that he is “not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as [kai hōs] this publican” (18:11 KJV)—the unnamed tax collector, whom he regards at the very least as an extortioner. . . . The Pharisee proves to be as devoid of a spirit of repentance, and as hard-hearted about it, as Pharaoh; the law is unable to call him to repentance because he is after all a master of the law, not one mastered by it.

What a contrast is the prayer of the wretched tax collector. A man without community, without acceptance, without self-respect, and even perhaps without love—what should he do but cry out for mercy? He pleads, as he should, for pardon. . . . And on the explicit interpretation of Jesus it is this poor outcast who goes “down [from the temple] to his house justified rather than the other” (Luke 18:14). We are reminded that Jesus came to call sinners, not the righteous, to repentance (5:32; cf. Mark 2:17; Matt. 9:13). Who then, though sinful, is brokenhearted? Such a one is capable of repentance. Who is condescending, full of self-justification, confusing institutional status with personal righteousness so completely that he can no longer even conceive of a reason for repentance? The hard-hearted man of religion.

These are not difficult questions to answer—just discomfiting. As with so many of Jesus’s stories of reversal, it turns out to be the case that here too “the proud” are “scattered . . . in the imagination of their hearts,” “the mighty” are “put down . . . from their thrones,” and “the lowly” are “exalted,” even as “the rich” are “sent away empty” (Luke 1:51–53).


©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.