Historical Cultural Context
The editor of this scene clearly identifies the focus of this parable: those who trusted in themselves as being righteous and who scorned others. In Luke’s story line this is unmistakably the Pharisees and lawyers.
If Christians know the Pharisees only from New Testament information, they are badly informed and the impression is erroneous. Precious little of the New Testament gives a fair report or interpretation of them. Pharisees were one of a number of factions in the world of Jesus. They formed a “fellowship” (haburah in Hebrew) whose members practiced distinctive observances of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and tithing.
In the parable, the Pharisee’s prayer is self-focused, just like Mary’s Magnificat (Lk 1:46-56) and Simeon’s Canticle (Lk 2:29-31). Unlike those prayers, however, the Pharisee’s has an unmistakable elitist edge (“not like other people … especially that tax-agent,” Lk 18:10) spelled out in the details of his piety.
His disclaimer (“not rapacious, unrighteous, adulterer”) is falsified in Luke’s story line. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being full of rapacity (Lk 11:39), money lovers (16:14), and—implied by juxtaposition—adulterers (Lk 16:18).
The Tax Agent
The Greek word most often translated as “publican” or “tax collector” can describe three categories of people in the first century: (1) those who purchased the right from government to collect specific taxes; (2) supervisory officials, regional directors, like Zacchaeus (a “chief” collector or agent); and (3) employees or agents who collected indirect taxes through tolls at major transport and commercial centers like Jericho and Capernaum.
Members of this third category of agents were employed by higher authorities, hence the Baptist urges that they collect no more than is “appointed” (Lk 3:12). Someone else has set the rates.
While despised and avoided by the Pharisees, tax agents formed one of the groups that responded to the prophet John and the prophet Jesus.
God have mercy on me. I am a sinner.
The tax agent in this parable presents a humble contrast to the puffed-up Pharisee. He stands far off and adopts the customary posture for prayer: arms crossed over the chest and eyes cast downward. To strike the breast is a Middle-Eastern gesture peculiar to women (Lk 23:27). Men use it only in extreme anguish, as here and likely in Lk 23:48.
The tax agent simply repeats: “God have mercy on me. I am a sinner.” Or as we noted about mercy above, “God give me what you owe me. Fulfill your interpersonal obligation to me. I am a sinner.”
The Pharisee thought he had it all sewed up, but the tax agent was the one God justified (Lk 18:14). The Pharisee needed nothing; the tax agent recognized he needed God.
The final saying about exalting and humbling self is known as a “floating saying.” It appears here and in Lk 14:11, both stories aimed in criticism at the Pharisees. Other forms of this wisdom occur in Mt 18:4; Mt 23:12; Jas 4:6, 10; and 1 Pet 5:6.
From the cultural perspective of honor and shame, one must always guard against making a hollow claim or a claim that can be easily dismissed. Sitting in the wrong place is risky; sitting lower and being invited higher is wiser.
But the verb in this saying is in the “theological” passive voice, something quite common in the Bible. In passive voice constructions the agent is not mentioned but can be deduced from the context.
In the Bible, when no human agent is identified, the agent is then understood to be “God.” Thus whoever humbles self will be exalted (by God, of course); and whoever exalts self, will be humbled (by God, of course).
In other words, this is another story of divine reversal. God’s ways are not the way humans think and plan. Most people go through life and tally successes and failures.
Believers sometimes can discover in their so-called failures examples of divine reversals, a better plan, a more rewarding venture. What looks initially like a set-back can be an opportunity for course correction.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
**From Saint Louis University