Publican and Pharisee: A Parable of Two Public Sinners

The parable of the Pharisee and the publican only appears in the Gospel of Luke. Prayer is a main theme in Luke, and this parable seems to be talking about two ways of praying. There is the humble prayer of the publican and the proud prayer of the Pharisee.

At least the publican knows he is a sinner.

Scholars believe that the Pharisee’s prayer was a decent prayer in this story. He tells the truth about himself and about the publican, as he sees it. With a hint of pride, perhaps, but he begins by thanking God rather than taking credit. And he stands high and apart from the hated public sinner alone at the east gate. Almost everyone else too, judging by their description of their religious practices. Surely God should see that and accept the Pharisee’s prayer. But Jesus says “rather than” he is the humble tax collector, who can claim no credit, who goes home justified.

William Herzog II, in Parables as subversive discourse, sees something other than pride versus humility behind the different results of the two characters’ prayers. This is not a question of internal disposition but of objective truth in the context of the Palestinian economy. He says that we have in the parable two public sinners, only one of whom is publicly recognized as such.

In several parables, Jesus only draws pictures. It shows the economic, political and religious oppression of the poor in Palestine. Herzog deals with these dark stories in the second part of his book. In the third part, he finds some light and hope in another group of parables. The parable of the Pharisee and the publican is the first of four in this series.

Previous articles in this series on Herzog’s Parables as subversive discourse:

The parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10-14a)

The pride of the Pharisee and the humility of the publican – this is the lens through which I learned to view this parable. The lesson: Pride is bad; good humility. Herzog says the lesson comes from what Luke added to the parable, rather than what Jesus said about it. Without these additions, the parable tells a different story. I’ll get to possible Luke additions at the end. :

Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other a publican.

The Pharisee took a stand and said to himself this prayer: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of mankind – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.

I fast twice a week and pay tithing on all of my income.

But the tax collector stood at a distance and didn’t even roll his eyes but beat his chest and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

I tell you, the latter came home justified, not the former.

Luke’s additions

Luke adds a conclusion to the parable, which he puts in Jesus’ words:

… for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (14b)

The lesson is unmistakable and valuable. Jesus probably agreed with that. At least scholars think he said it, but probably not on this occasion. They see in it an independent word of Jesus because the Gospels record it, twice, elsewhere. Luke’s interest in adding it here is also why he gives the story a special audience:

He also told this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised all others. (Luke 10:9)

That this audience is an addition to Luke’s is guesswork, but scientific consensus, Herzog says. I believe some evidence for this supposition is that Matthew and Luke seem to have copied from a hypothetical ancient document. Based on texts that Mathew and Luke have in common but appear nowhere else, scholars believe that this document contained words of Jesus without context or framework. The parable of the Pharisee and the publican is not one of these texts. Yet it seems likely that tradition has transmitted other sayings of Jesus in the same way without context. Thus, the evangelists, to make a story, had to invent sets and audiences. When Matthew and Luke tell the same parable, they often construct the setting differently.

Audiences are important and Herzog says we can’t rely on Luke to get it right. The result is that we have no reason to think that this parable teaches humility in prayer unless the actual words of Jesus lead us there.

We have to imagine a certain audience, and Jesus was mostly with poor peasants and workers. These were probably his audience for this parable.

Peasants and workers hear the parable of the Pharisee and the publican

Herzog’s technique of interpretation is to try to hear a parable as Jesus’ audience would have heard it. I will follow this procedure as well. Not alone, of course, because I’ve read Herzog’s Chapter 10, some parts more than once. But I’ll take the liberty of telling the story in a way that I imagine without slavishly following Herzog. The criterion, for Herzog, is not certainty but a plausible reading, which can survive close scrutiny. I think the closer we get to hearing Jesus, the more plausible the reading becomes.

The Pharisee and the Publican

The poor of Palestine had strong opinions about the Pharisees in general. They hated them, but they also admired them. The Pharisees were the beneficiaries of an economic, political, and religious system that enhanced the fortunes of the rich and separated, degraded, and essentially robbed the poor. Yet they represented one of the upper echelons of what appeared to be reality. You might hate them, but you wanted to be like them. Some enterprising people manage to climb one or more levels of the hierarchy. With some ability and not caring too much about who they walked, they could work for a government official, landowner, or mid-level bureaucrat.

I imagine that such was the publican in the story of Jesus – a collector of tolls or taxes. He was now part of the hierarchy of society. His job was to collect whatever his immediate superior required. Of course, he had to draw a little more from the patrons of his district for him and his family. His superior, in charge of several districts, had his own boss whom he had to pay. He also needed something for himself, a bit more than his underlings, given his higher place in society.

The fact is that the publican is part of a hierarchy but at the very bottom, barely able to make ends meet. He would be the one in daily contact with the unprivileged crowd and would be the most hated.

The temple and the two figures

The story of Jesus brings together a Pharisee and a publican in the temple. It’s a strange connection, a scandal, and Jesus’ audience knows it. The publican has no right to be in the temple. He is a public sinner. Most of Jesus’ audience, public sinners also if for no other reason than not paying tithing, were under the same restriction. They dare not go to the temple, the place designated by the community to receive God’s mercy and favor. It either. They resent the publican, but not the Pharisee.

The Pharisee “took his position,” an important position. Jesus concentrates on the words he says. There are many words. We see that he is a particularly rigorous follower of the Law. He fasts twice a week instead of the acceptable once. He tithes his “total income”; his generosity is exceptional. He is a step above the others, whom he describes as “greedy, dishonest, adulterous”. He despises the publican.

The publican’s words are few, but Jesus pays close attention to his posture and actions. He stands near the East Gate, barely visible to the Pharisee. He looks down and hits his chest. His words are simple: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

You could say that his actions and his words are really humble. But once you understand his situation, you can see something else. It’s not “supposed” to be there. He took a big risk and he doesn’t want to be more attacking than necessary. Of course, he wants to avoid censorship. He therefore adopts a low and respectful profile and stays away from the most sacred places. We don’t know his soul. He may be humble, but he’s certainly scared. I suspect Jesus’ audience would be interested in the latter state rather than any moral quality like humility.

“Opening new possibilities: pushing the limits”

This topic is the title of Part Three in Herzog’s Parables as subversive discourse. In this parable, Jesus challenges limits and opens up possibilities. They see the publican getting even more than he asked for in his daring venture into the Temple. He called himself a sinner and asked for mercy, and he went home “justified.” By the way, begging for mercy doesn’t single him out as particularly humble. Mercy is what people, perhaps not including the Pharisee, usually went to the temple for.

We do not know what sins occupied the publican’s mind. Would he have thought that his way of life as a hated money collector was a sin? Perhaps, like most others, he thought about the purity code. History doesn’t tell us, and it doesn’t matter.

Nor do the Pharisee’s sins go down in history. Indeed, he is a sinner, even a public sinner. His sinful participation in an oppressive system is obvious to everyone, but is generally not recognized as sinful. But these sins do not enter into this story. It is religious, not economic or political, oppression that Jesus presents in this story. The arrival of the parables in the third part of Herzog will address these other questions. They will inspire conversations about the quality of life of peasants and workers and the opportunities available to them. I’m pretty sure the anger toward the tax collector felt by Jesus’ audience and their shock at the surprise ending left them ready to sort things out. That anyone dared to follow the publican’s example and challenge the prevailing religious history, Jesus, at least, planted a seed.


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