The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

            At this point in our parable series, especially if you’ve been coming to the Wednesday night classes, you might already know that when Amy Jill-Levine, the Jewish New Testament Scholar, explains a parable, you’re never going to be able to look at that parable the same. Today’s parable is no exception.[1] This parable seems pretty straightforward, there’s a proud boastful Pharisee, and a lonely repentant tax collector. Maybe you think you already know which one is the good guy, and which one is the bad guy, but if you heard this story and immediately thought, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee…” I’m afraid you might need to turn this parable around and look at it again.

            These two characters are polar extremes. The Pharisee is an extreme do-gooder, though as modern Christians, we’re likely to see him in a negative light. It seems to us like he’s clearly being a jerk by bragging about all the good he does. However AJ Levine says, that’s not how a first century Jew would have seen him. They would have seen him as the ultimate caricature of a good person. He fasts twice a week, which is a lot even for a Pharisee. Meaning, he probably isn’t just fasting for his own sins, but likely for his people’s sins. He tithes and he comes to the temple to pray. As far as we can tell, he’s practicing exactly what he teaches.

            It might be easier for us to think of him instead as a pastor who wakes up at sunrise every morning to pray for each of his congregants by name. Maybe he also runs several miles each week, and grows his own food, and of course tithes a chunk of his income back to the church. This pharisee is like the best person they could have imagined, the epitome of their faith, and by coming to the temple to thank God for setting him apart as a Jewish leader, he is actually pretty on book.  In the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites frequently thank God that they are God’s people. God set them apart, and gave them the Torah, along with the wisdom required to follow it. What they do is the result of God’s action in choosing them, hence the gratitude.

            In his prayer, the Pharisee tells God about the faithful actions he is taking. Just as we might tell God what we’re doing when we serve the community, and like we might thank God for how we’ve grown. It’s not entirely different from how we thank God for our offerings, recognizing that all our blessings came to us from God, and in gratitude we tell God about the good we intend to do with them. According to AJ Levine, the 1stcentury audience of this parable would not have held a negative opinion of Pharisees. That’s something Christians have developed by reading about them in the New Testament. In their time, Pharisees were respected teachers of the masses, and their work was the foundation of the Rabbinic literature that Jews read alongside the Torah today.

            Ancient Jews WOULD have had a negative attitude towards the tax collector. They collected taxes from the people for the Romans. They were seen as traitors to their own people, and usually took more than they needed. His isolation from the community is a product of his actions, and the harm he has done to his neighbors. He HAS been corrupt and dishonest. He’s not a pitiful character, he’s a bully. The ancient listener would be surprised to see him going to the temple at all, and downright shocked to hear him being repentant.

            As 21st century Christians, we might underestimate the Jewish connection to the Temple, a site that was sacred to Jews in Jesus’ time and still is today. The Temple was a place where people came to worship, and to be inspired and restored. We should not dismiss the worship that took place there by assuming it was no more than an obligation that filled the pockets of the priests. We are much more wary of institutions in modern times than they were then. The Temple was their communal sacred space.   Not without its problems, but not without its sacred merits either. It was the home of their most valuable traditions and it’s not right for us to assume that they were misguided. This parable is not a critique of the Temple. In fact, it’s kind of an endorsement of it because both characters can come there to pray, but we’ll come back to that.

            There are two places in the Greek to English translation that Levine points out can entirely change the the point of the parable. The first one is where it says the Pharisee was standing by himself. Translations range from “he was standing by himself” to even “he was praying to himself.” The translator gets to decide just how obnoxious the Pharisee is being, and while we may hear a sense of elitism, that might be an overstatement of what is actually in the text, which might just that he was there alone. Not with a group. Pharisees did not work in the Temple. They worked in the villages and they spent their time thinking about how to best follow God’s commandments. Going to the temple was a part of their religious observances. So, if anything he was being a good example for those he taught, and doing what a religious Jew did.

            Levine’s opinion is that he isn’t as disconnected from his community as we may think. He is there worshipping with them. He goes above and beyond what is required of him to make atonement for them. He gives back to their communal place of worship so that the tax collector has a place to come for mercy. We have come to see the religious leader as the unexpected bad guy in this parable, and to see the repentant sinner as the good guy, but that is exactly what this parable is trying to warn us about. We’ve flipped the script in the opposite direction and Levine thinks we’ve accidentally skipped right over the point.

            The last verse is usually translated as “this man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other (the pharisee).” And it is the “rather than” that she takes issue with. She says that the same words could also be translated as “alongside” or even “because of.”

            This man went down to his home justified alongside the other one.
This man went down to his home justified because of the other one.

            She says that these translations of the Greek preposition para – as in both paradox and parallel, are just as possible in this context and would bring an entirely different meaning to the story, that is a lot more challenging to us. These two characters, the best they could imagine, and the worst, both find God’s grace in the Temple. The tax collector has wounded his community. He has not shown them mercy. We don’t know why he works for the empire, but we can probably imagine why cooperating with the powerful might be appealing. Maybe he needs the money, or the security, but his spiritual self has been damaged. When he asks for mercy in the house of God. He will not even lift his eyes, because of what he has done to others. What remains to be seen is whether he will change. Will he find a new career? Or simply try to be honest in his work? Will he give back what he has stolen? We do not know.

            Meanwhile the pharisee does an over-abundance of good deeds, and what Levine thinks the story is implying is that the Pharisee’s faith, maybe his teaching, maybe his prayers, in some way helps the tax collector find his way to restoration. Now, the Pharisee does have a problem, which is that he is dismissive of the tax collector. In that regard the Pharisee misses the mark because God is generous with both of them. God has blessed the Pharisee in his faith and God has blessed the tax collector despite his unfaith. Both come to the temple to pray, and both go home justified. It may seem like justice to us that one person should be forgiven and the other should not, but that is not God’s justice.   The best of the best, and worst of the worst, are both God’s people, and when they pray, both are reconciled to God.

            That is the point that might have us saying “ouch” in this parable, because most of us can think of some people who we don’t think should be given mercy. But the lives of the Pharisee and the tax collector are entangled, and just as the harm that one of them does can affect the whole community, so too the good the other one does can affect the whole community, and what God does in the temple is pour out grace on both. We are not pharisees or tax collectors, unless I guess if you work for the IRS. They’re like a sliding scale, and we will find ourselves somewhere in between them. Whichever one we identify more with, the parable is a reminder not to underestimate the abundance of divine grace that covers all of us.

            It should prompt us to ask ourselves, who is it we are having an impact on, and what kind of impact are we having? Are you tearing down the community through your actions? Or are you building it up? Is there anyone who you see and begin to think, “Thank God I’m smarter, kinder, more respectable, more faithful than them”? Is there anyone you don’t want here in our sanctuary? In these questions, this parable is here to challenge us to be humble.

             I had some ministerial diversity training on Tuesday this week, and the speaker, Dr. James Knight emphasized humility as what we need to live well in our diversity. We must be able to let go of the assumptions we are so sure are true. The Pharisee may have had some assumptions about the tax collector. We may have had some assumptions about the Pharisee. But we do not know what God knows, which is that despite what you see on the outside, both come seeking reconciliation, AND both receive it, and that should make us humble. One quote of his that really stuck with me went like this: “Diversity is a reality. Equity is a choice. Inclusion is an act. Belonging is a result.”[2]  If we want the result of belonging here in our holy place, belonging for all people, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey, it begins with cultivating our own humility, so that we can choose to act in equitable and inclusive ways.

            A quote I love from the Jewish Talmud says, “Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” We probably won’t ever arrive at a point where we’re done working on that belonging. We must continue to repent of how we cut ourselves off from others, like the tax collector did, AND we must do as much good as we can, for as many we can, like the Pharisee did. Thanks be to God that even though we stumble, and judge, and forget our own belovedness, there is mercy enough for all of us, and we can still go home justified, not rather than, but alongside. Amen.

[1] Read more in Amy Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus, Chapter 6!

[2] Find Dr. James Knight on his website:, or check out his book Heart: A Journey Toward Cultural Humility

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