The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Professor Elisabeth Dutton, University of Fribourg
Trinity 19


Choral Eucharist

Luke 18:9-14        Sirach 35: 12-17

This parable from Luke feels a bit like the opening scene of a play.  We have a setting - the Temple - and we have some blocking, indicating where the two characters enter and where they stand for the scene -- one by himself, and the other some distance away.  The two characters then introduce themselves, and let's say it's a medieval play because it's a convention of medieval drama that what characters say about themselves is true. 

The first character explains that he is not like other people, who do bad things: he does good things, religious observance and charitable acts.  We have no reason to disbelieve him. 

The second character has fewer words, and identifies himself only as a sinner: again, we have no reason to disbelieve him. He has an action: he beats his breast. 

There is no direct interaction between the two characters, but the first character indicates that he is aware of the second as the sinner, by contrast with his own virtuous self. 

Then both men go home.  The End.

The two characters have addressed an invisible and silent God. 

The first character has invited no response, and for him nothing happens. 

The second character has directly asked for action in response to his prayer, 'have mercy on me'. We don't see any action, hear any further lines, and neither does he; nothing happens, but he goes home justified. 

The dramatic climax of of this little scene is God's merciful response to the second man's prayer; divine forgiveness for a sinner's debt.  But how silently the wondrous gift is given!

Does the tax collector know anything has changed?  We are not told. 

But our point of view has changed. We are briefly allowed to look at this man through the eyes of God, the inscrutable judge.  We do not see the judge deliberating; we do not see the processes of atonement; only, we imagine we see, perhaps, a little glow of divine love surrounding this man as he takes his usual walk home.    

When we study medieval plays - or indeed any plays - we often want to know about the audiences who watched them, so that we can imagine something of how they responded.  This is always a fraught question, because of course even if we know who is present in an audience it is impossible to generalise the response of individual audience members.  But Jesus gives us a bit of help with this one: his audience is

'some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else'

We can imagine, therefore, that most of them would identify with the first man, believing that, as he says, he does good things: after all, his attitude to himself and to others perfectly matches theirs.  And perhaps his experience in the Temple is also theirs: they do not look for change, they go back home untroubled.

The shock for them, as this brief scene unfolds, is not that they are suddenly judged, but rather that the man they looked down on is suddenly justified. 

We know this story too well, perhaps. And we know that the first man is a Pharisee and therefore a religious hypocrite, too concerned with rules and regulations and paying no attention to the virtues Christ extols: humility, mercy, love. 

But this is what a Pharisee has become, to us; it is not what a Pharisee was to Jesus or to those who first heard this parable. 

The Pharisees were the good guys -- it was the Sadducees who were the bad guys, the ruling elite, concerned with priestly power. The Pharisees, by contrast, were popular and democratic; they were expert at explaining Jewish Law, but they were not blind supporters of the establishment; they taught that an outcast child, if learned, took precedence over an ignorant High Priest.  It sounds almost the sort of thing Jesus would say -- possibly, Jesus' arguments with the Pharisees should be understood as examples of the method of disputation by which Pharisees sought truth.  Some have argued that Jesus himself was a Pharisee; certainly Paul was, and Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea. 

So, when Jesus tell his listeners that the first man is a Pharisee, this implies that he will be the hero of the piece, and of course this has to be true, because his audience have to be ready to identify with the Pharisee.

Tax collectors, on the other hand.... they worked for the Roman occupiers, collaborating with the enemy in order to line their own pockets; corrupt, greedy opportunists who would trample on their own people in their rush for profit.  Jesus' audience would know at once the tax collector is the villain of the piece.

The work of this parable is done in a moment: the good man identifies himself as good by despising the corrupt man, and the audience, and the corrupt man himself, agree. The good man does good things and prays about that.  The corrupt man, however, recognises that, even if he cannot do good things, God can: and God acts in response.

Note that this tax collector does not promise to give up his job, or even to refund any ill-gotten gains to those he might have defrauded.  He does not offer to start a rebellion against the oppressive state.  He just recognises what he is, and asks for mercy.

Probably, he will have to go back to the Temple next week, and ask for forgiveness again.  And the week after. 

Maybe, little by little, he will be able to live better -- maybe he recognises that it is the experience of mercy that enables a person to show mercy. As today's reading from Sirach says:

Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.

The Pharisee is precise in his giving - a tenth of all his wealth.  What would it mean for the tax collector to 'give as God has given to him?' God gives recklessly - he repays sevenfold.  Sirach offers a challenge to both the Pharisee and the tax collector, neither of whom, we assume, is poor. 

We might be surprised that, according to Sirach, God will not show partiality to the poor -- ought he not to be active on their behalf?  Perhaps it would be somewhat patronising to see 'the poor' as automatically 'right': perhaps it would be another form of prejudice, no better than assuming the wealthy are automatically 'right'.  The individual person, regardless of their circumstances, can always approach God. 

Those who have been wronged are right to approach God as the righteous judge, and those who suffer poverty through no fault of their own -- widows, orphans -- can approach him too.  He demands of us that we give to those in need as generously as we can: Sirach even states that almsgiving can atone for sin. But in Sirach, as in Luke, we must offer to God honestly.  God is the ultimate judge and he cannot be bribed.

We do not know what changes the tax collector makes in his life as a result of his prayer in the Temple; we know only how God views him, and that this insight into God's mercy on a sinner is designed to shake up the righteous men who listen to Christ's story.  This is a parable about how to pray, acknowledging what we are, but focussing on God.  It is a parable about the dangers of contempt, for when we despise another, as the Pharisee does, we blind ourselves to God's point of view.  It is a parable about judgment, for when we judge another, as the Pharisee does, we presume to know the will of an inscrutable God. 

It is therefore a dangerous parable to try to explain, because, while we must learn from the Pharisee's mistake in despising another man, if we judge him we may fall into the parable's trap just as surely as Jesus' original audience, albeit that we fall into down a different hole. 


These two men are in the Temple.  Of this Temple, the Psalm for today declares:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
    Lord Almighty!

My soul yearns, even faints,
    for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
    for the living God.

Even the sparrow has found a home,
    and the swallow a nest for herself,
    where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
    Lord Almighty, my King and my God.


This Temple is where Luke begins and ends his gospel - he begins with Zachariah, who will become the father of John the Baptist, serving in the Temple, and then introduces us to Simeon and Anna, who wait in the Temple for the coming of the messiah; he ends with the disciples in the Temple continually praising God.  It is a place of promises fulfilled to good people, and of gratitude to God.

The tax collector, aware that he is a sinner, keeps a cautious distance as he approaches the Temple, standing 'some distance away'.  Or perhaps he keeps his distance from the Pharisee, who, after all, chooses to stand 'by himself'. The two men come here to pray, and then they go to their own homes.  But the Temple itself is God's home, his dwelling place. 

It is the home, too, of the humble sparrow, a place where the swallow can nest.