Pharisees, Publicans—and Us

Luke 18:9–14, preached by Melissa Harl on October 23, 2022

A Pharisee and a tax collector—two of the most frequently seen stock characters on the stage of the Gospels. We get distinct impressions of these two archetypes as we watch them encounter Jesus through various scenes of dispute and confrontation and, sometimes, of welcome. One impression we might have from the Gospel narratives is that the Pharisees are a bunch of self-righteous, hypocritical, stuck-up dudes who like to impose their particular views of how best to do religion on the rest of Jewish society. And one of the favorite complaints they tend to level against Jesus is that he consorts way too much with these disreputable tax collectors, along with other folks they find undeserving, like prostitutes, sick people, and the impoverished.

Pharisees and tax collectors would apparently prefer not to spend much time with each other. In the image of the poet, falling leaves of autumn land unwanted on slumbering blades of grass. So, it’s fascinating how Jesus sets us up in this little story to make us apt to contrast the rather prideful piety of the Pharisee with the apparently remorseful self-recriminations of the publican—publican being the traditional or old-fashioned term for local contractors hired to extract taxable wealth for Empire from provincial populations in places like Judea and Galilee.

Look a little further, and we remember that not only does Jesus share meals with these folks, the publicans, he visits their homes, and even selects one of them, Levi, to join his little group of fishermen and assorted troublemakers. We get the strong impression that, from Jesus’ point of view, while there may be something wrong with being a Pharisee, there might also be something potentially useful or even righteous to be found in a tax collector. And I imagine that Jesus would want to assure us that God loves them both.

Historians and Biblical scholars have long pointed out that the portrait of the Pharisees in the Gospels is distorted and quite unlike how their group was actually viewed by their fellow Jews. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not wielders of religious power or secular authority. Their influence stemmed from their fine reputation as an interest group of lay people seeking to honor God in their homes and workplaces and throughout their daily lives. The apostle Paul tells the Philippians that his scrupulosity with regard to the Law of Moses was because he was a Pharisee. The skewed and, we would say, partisan portrayal of the Pharisees in the Gospels has had baleful consequences feeding the pervasive anti-Judaism of our Christian tradition. 

Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine explains that when the Pharisee in our story this morning lists his acts of devotion, namely, his tithing and his fasting, these are well beyond any expectation of appropriate pious performance. Tithing the value of everything one owns goes well beyond the Biblical injunction, which focuses largely on agriculture. Fasting as frequently as twice a week is a practice typical of those deep in mourning, again, not what the tradition expects. In our modern terms, this man might be called a piety warrior, a real champion who goes well beyond the norm even amongst his own set of fellow piety athletes. And, in turn, perhaps the tax collector in our story goes well beyond his fellow publicans in his display of contrition and self-rebuke as a sinner.

This fall, as we’ve been reading and reacting to parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, we’ve been struck by their ambiguities, their elements of surprise, their twists and turns, and unmet expectations. It’s not always easy to know which characters in the stories we’re meant to identify with or to cheer for or dislike in their daily goings on. Maybe we’re meant to admire and pattern ourselves on none of them. There’s the “Shrewd Manager” who cheats his employer by discounting his outstanding bills in order to find a good situation for himself down the road. There’s the “Widow and Judge”; the judge doesn’t give a fig for justice, and the widow presses for satisfaction, with no indication that her case deserves to be vindicated over her unnamed opponent. 

We’ve also seen how the gospel author works hard to guide our response to these stories, to domesticate them, to make them less able to challenge us or offend our sense of fairness. We are led to look for the heroes and the villains of the stories. Luke does that work here, too. Notice the preface to the story in Luke 18 verse 9: “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Boom! We are primed to see and hear the character of the Pharisee in just those terms: smug self-righteousness and contempt for those who don’t measure up. And then, after the brief parable, Luke confirms us in that point of view by adding one of his favorite taglines, in verse 14: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

These literary interventions lead us to see the Pharisee as deficient somehow—despite his exemplary practice of piety—and to find the tax collector sympathetic, due to his show of contrition, despite his depredations. Clearly Luke wants us to think highly of the publican and his remorse, and to find the Pharisee to be egregiously full of himself. We’ve been told by Luke that these are our choices. Do we agree with that stark opposition? In terms of the images at play in Gibran’s poem, are we meant to side with the colorful falling leaf, with its beauty, but also its haughty self-regard, or do we identify more closely with that recumbent blade of grass, preferring to lie undisturbed, lost in our hopes and dreams?

Here’s where I find Kathy Haskins’ questions and observations especially helpful. She points out that there is no hint at all within the story that the Pharisee has been humbled. Neither is there any signal that the tax collector will now stop squeezing all the cash he could from the residents of the land. In Jesus’ story—as told without the Gospel writer’s framing and interpretive conclusion—we are not called to make comparative judgments of good or bad as to these two stock characters. We simply see them as prayerful men in the Temple precincts, addressing their God in attitudes of authentic gratitude, in one case, and with sincere remorse and contrition in the other.

There are important lessons in this little story, pictures of human nature and of the surprising and bountiful overflow of God’s grace that is potentially available to each and every one of us, whatever our status or level of acceptability in the eyes of society. What might make the Pharisee seem self-righteous to us, of course, is his private judgment and gratitude that he isn’t a sinner, not someone with moral lapses like that tax collector standing some ways off, beating his chest in contrition. He’s something like the autumn leaves that fall down on the ground in Gibran’s poem, heedless for too long of how they live in such close symbiosis with the blades of grass below, how they are all part of a system of growth, decay, and renewal.

The Pharisee thanks God for his ability to practice his religion to a very high level of achievement. He must be living well above the poverty line, must not be trapped in the subsistence economy that puts so many of his fellow Judeans at risk of hunger and even homelessness. Maybe he’s kind of like us. The Pharisee has economic and social privilege that allows him to perform his generosity and self-denial in visible ways. Is his comment about the publican mere self-righteousness, or is it expressing sincere gratitude born out of acknowledgement of his position of comfort and privilege? 

The tax collector apparently feels the sting of being so despised by his neighbors due to his line of work. Is it his employment that he alludes to when he calls himself out as a sinner? As Kathy points out, we are not ever told that, either. What we do see and hear are his apparently sincere expressions of remorse. He stands apart, he weeps, he beats his breast in sorrow. His remorse is anything but private.

Haven’t we all been caught up in our own versions of this scenario? And how do we behave when we are? Speaking just for myself, I know there have been times, when I see someone less fortunate than I, when I thought or possibly even muttered out loud, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I might at times cross the street rather than get too close to an encampment of the unhoused. I might throw a few dollars in the vessel held at intersections by someone braving the weather with a sign that says, “Every little bit helps. God bless you!” But I don’t linger to learn more. When the light turns green I motor off wrapped up in my everyday concerns and private anxieties.

How is this practice of mine, this sentiment, any different at heart from the Pharisee thanking God that he is not like the thieves, the rogues, adulterers, or tax collectors? If I am generous with myself, my reaction when I think “there but for the grace of God” might stem from a feeling of sympathy on my part, but I suspect it also reveals a considerable amount of privilege, even self-satisfaction. If I can assuage any feelings of discomfort through my own version of doing works of charity, thus of piety, I suspect I’m not alone. So that’s a brief lesson in human nature. Perhaps we feel fortunate that we’re better than that tax collector over in the corner, and perhaps at times we even think we deserve recognition for our good deeds like that Pharisee. Sometimes we’re the leaves turning beautiful and vibrant colors before slipping off the branch to disturb the slumber of the grass below. In other circumstances we might find ourselves in the new situation of the blade of grass in springtime, nourished by last year’s fallen leaves.

The other lesson we might find in this “Short Story of Jesus,” as Professor Levine calls these parables, is what we might call an overflowing plenitude of divine grace. Parables are comparisons, are things set alongside each other for reasons of illustration or contemplation. The prefix “para” signals this atmosphere of comparison from to its root meaning of “standing beside, walking alongside, set alongside something or someone.” A para-legal or a para-medic is someone trained to work alongside an attorney or a physician. Levine points out that in the Greek text, this little word para is deployed in just this fashion. As the story goes, in her persuasive translation, “When they departed for home, the one was justified, along with the other one.” Levine suggests that we’re mistaken to think that one of the two characters departs the Temple justified and the other one leaves condemned. Instead, both are justified, one alongside the other. Both are God’s beloved children.

We, too, can be rather self-satisfied and even a bit self-righteous—God sees us, and God loves us all the same. We can be contrite, we can acknowledge our errors and shortcomings, and we may or may not do the hard work of overcoming any of those. Nonetheless, God sees us, and, amazingly, God loves us all the same. As Levine puts it so beautifully, in this little story “We see that divine grace cannot be limited, for to limit this grace would be to limit the divine.”