Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

On the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Posted in Theology by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 1 February 2010

This paper is a development of the study on the Gospel of Luke started in the previous work titled “You brood of vipers!–Or What to Say to People Who Have Come to Be Baptized.”

In almost two thousand years of Christianity, we have learned to understand the Holy Christian Scriptures in our own particular way.  We have learned to apply the Scriptures to our own time, our own situation, and to derive meaning particular to what we believe.  In our prayers we may ask God to grant us “the humility of the Publican” from Christ’s parable (Luke18:9-14) and compel each other to “flee the proud speaking of the Pharisee” (Lenten Triodion 106).  The very words “Pharisee” and “pharisaic” (“pharisaical”) can be used in a derogative way by some Christians to describe “hypocritical censorious self righteousness” (Brown 79, fn 19), apparently drawing on passages such as Matt. 23:15, 23, 25, 27, 29.  But did the author of the Gospel of Luke and the early Christian community put the same meaning in those words?  Did they understand them in the same way that we so often do?

Indeed, what we know about the Pharisees, the “seekers of smooth things” (4Q169), is that they were very pious, religious, seekers of God, attempting to fulfill all of the religious rules and customs (Roetzel 39), and that their belief system in many aspects was very close to Christian belief (Brown 80).  On the other hand, while a disconnect between a private life of a person and a public façade may have existed since the fall of Adam and Eve, first-century Palestinians appear to have understood their public face to be a true reflection of their private spiritual life, even in their own eyes (see comm. to Luke18:26 in New Jerome 710).  So, what was it to be called a hypocrite in the first century A.D.?  Was acting or “playing a part” seen as a bad thing and were the Pharisees merely acting or were they doing what they thought was correct?  Do we mean the same thing the Gospel writers did when we call someone a hypocrite or a Pharisee?   What would the intended reader of this passage learn from it?  In this paper we shall take a closer look at the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-1.


Historical Social Analysis

Authorship of the Gospel of Luke

The authorship of the Gospel of Luke has traditionally been attributed to “Luke, a physician, the fellow worker and companion of Paul” (Brown 226) who may have been a Syrian of Antioch, which assertion is “less well attested” (Brown 226).  In many cases scholars treat traditional authorships with skepticism since “pseudepigraphy was widely practiced in the New Testament era and the tendency to link favored writings with an established name was pronounced” (Powell 17).  As to the reliability of the traditional authorship of the Gospel of Luke, Robert Karris writes that “one should accept the tradition that Luke composed the Gospel, for there seems no reason why anyone in the ancient church would invent this datum and make a relatively obscure figure the author of a Gospel” (New Jerome 675).  Powell also points out:

A survey of recent commentaries reveals that many are willing to accept the author of this Gospel as a companion of Paul so long as he is not regarded as the latter’s disciple.  And for those who can accept the author as one of Paul’s associates, “Luke the physician” seems as likely as any. (17)

Luke was likely to have been of Gentile culture since he was “probably not raised a Jew” (Brown 226), although he probably “had become a proselyte or a God-fearer, i.e., was converted or attracted to Judaism some years before he was evangelized” (Brown 268); and he wrote for a community whose primary culture may have been Hellenistic rather than Judean.



The Gospel of Luke and Acts were likely written between 70 AD and 85 AD, since “Luke 21:5-38 presupposes that Jerusalem has been destroyed” and Luke “does not reflect knowledge of the bitter persecution of Christians from the latter part of Domitian’s rule (AD 81-96)” (New Jerome 675).  Brown determines the date of writing as “85 [AD—S.S.], give or take five to ten years” (274).  According to some ancient sources, Luke “wrote in Achaia [or Rome or Bithynia]” (New Jerome 675), in other words, he wrote “to churches affected directly or indirectly (through others) by Paul’s mission” (Brown 226, 270), yet, according to some scholars, “there is no compelling reason not to place the composition of Luke-Acts in this [Syrian Antioch—S.S.], the third-largest city in the Roman Empire with a varied population including Jews” (New Jerome 675). 

The original language of the Gospel is Greek, a fact which may point to the author being “an educated Greek-speaker” (Brown 226), or that the message was directed to an educated Greek-speaking audience.  Moreover, Luke’s tendency to improve the Greek style and language and his avoidance of Aramaic expressions as well as his “tendency to remove some of the local Palestinian color and generalize the message” (Brown 235) may suggest “that Luke’s community may have been composed mostly of Gentiles, including some who could appreciate the higher class of Greek” (Powell 18).  Brown points out that “the last lines of Acts (28:25-28), attributed to Paul, indicate that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, not with the Jews,” therefore it “would make sense if Luke-Acts was addressed to a largely Gentile area” (270).  It is also likely that by the time Luke was writing his Gospel “Christianity had become, by and large, a Gentile religion” (Powel 51); and Luke wrote to “Christians of the same background spread over a large region” of Greece (271), rather than to a more geographically compact audience.  Perhaps, we may say that the Gospel of Luke was written for an audience in the same “social location,” a community united by the same “position in a social system which reflects a world view,” and a common “perception of how things work, what is real, where things belong, and how they fit together” (Neyrey 306).   



In order to properly understand the meaning of the parable, we must first look at its main characters,[1] who undoubtedly, represent symbolic concepts as part of Luke’s example story, rather than real people[2] (see New Jerome 708).  We shall examine who the Pharisees and the tax collectors were in the Judean culture and how they would have been viewed by the Lucan community.   

Josephus describes Pharisees as desirous to be righteous “and to do all thing whereby [they] might please God (Josephus 426; Antiq. 13.10.5), a Judean sect whose members “are supposed to excel others in the accurate knowledge of the law” (Josephus 14; Life 38).  Even though Pharisees “made men believe they were highly favored by God,” they might have also believed this themselves and “valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers” (Josephus 544; Antiq. 17.3.1).  Since the Pharisees “appear[ed] more religious than others, and seem[ed] to interpret the laws more accurately” (Josephus 662; Wars 1.5.2), they were influential in the synagogues and some played prominent roles in the Judean rebellion against Rome in AD 66-70 (Josephus Introduction).  While Josephus himself was a Pharisee (ibid.) and his comments must be carefully examined for bias, scholarly research suggests that he was not far from the truth.  Brown, for example, tends to agree with Josephus in his assertion that the Pharisees were a very important “sect, extremely influential among the townspeople” (78).  Their observance of the Law may have been “overscrupulous, casuistic” (Brown 79, fn 19), but “their interpretations were less severe than those of the Essenes and more innovative than those of the Sadducees” (Brown 77).  This moderate approach and the teaching of “sensitive ethics” allowed pharisaic theology to be transformed into rabbinic teachings, and “there are certainly lines of development from the early 1st-century AD Pharisees to the 2d-century AD rabbis” (Brown 79), although, there is no complete “clarity on the way in which the Pharisees fed into the rabbinic movement” (81).  Roetzel says that:

They… occupied conspicuous places in the synagogue (Luke 11:43) and rigorously observed Sabbath law.

…this agenda comports favorably with that of the rabbinic traditions.  The Gospels do tend to leave us with the impression that the Pharisees treated all life as a ritual, and Neusner’s studies reveal how important this cultic aspect of Pharisaism really was…  They took seriously if not literally the command in Exodus to become a “kingdom of priests,” (19:6) thus treating all aspects of daily life as if it were a part of the temple service. (39)

The teachings and beliefs of the Pharisees, later enunciated in the Mishna, sometimes seem to parallel Christian beliefs. “Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate” (Josephus 416; Antiq. 13.5.10).  The similarities between Jesus’ “belief in angels and in the resurrection of the body” and respective pharisaic theology, as well as “the eschatological expectations attributed to Him in the Gospels,” lead some scholars to identify Jesus as a Pharisee (“of the Hillel persuasion”) (Brown 80).  While Brown doubts that this actually was the case (80), in fact “Jesus is remembered as having been more often in confrontation with them [the Pharisees] than with any other group—a backhanded compliment to their importance” (79). 

Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees, however, is not uniformly negative or confrontational, and “while some references to the Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel are negative, positive allusions weigh heavily” (Roetzel 38).  Pharisees, for example, listen to Jesus’ teaching (Luke 5:17), warn Him of danger (13:31), and invite Him for meals (7:36, 11:37, and possibly 14:1).  This may be due to the fact that they took His teaching seriously enough to pay attention, analyze the message, and genuinely agree or disagree.  Whatever the historical foundation for these references, Luke’s use of them seems to reflect “later polemics between Christians and Jews” (Brown 79), rather than comment on historical Pharisees.  Perhaps, Luke used the image of the Pharisees to engage in external and internal theological battles:

Internally he engages in polemic against Jewish Christians who seek to apply overly strict entrance requirements to those who want to join reconstituted Israel.  These Jewish Christians are the “Pharisees” of the Gospel… 

The main external problems which Luke’s community faces are those of harassment, primarily from local Jewish synagogue leaders. (New Jerome 676)

In other words, the “Pharisees of the Gospel” may be Judean Christians who were overly zealous for Moses’ Law as well as rabbis emerging after 70 AD, many of whom, at least in the beginning, may have been identified as Pharisees without actually belonging to the sect (see Brown 79); and the parable may be on the nature of religion, or re-connection with the Divine, as much as it is about tensions within social or economic groups.


Tax Collectors

In the first-century Palestine, tax collectors were social outcasts (Brown 251).  They were viewed as aiding the Roman occupation of Judea by collecting taxes for Rome and thus supporting the Empire.  Malina writes that, in the process of collecting taxes, a tax collector “would collect as much as he could squeeze from the people over and above what the Romans demanded, then pay his share to the Romans and pocket the rest (98).  In other words, tax collectors “made profit by defrauding others, by forcing people to part with their share of limited good through extortion” (Malina 98), and would be viewed as dishonorable, “’lovers of money,’ those who sought capital accumulation, a thoroughly dishonorable line of conduct” (99) in a typical limited-goods society.  In the Judean religious world, tax collectors were “considered basically godless,” people who did not “trust in God, but in their own devices” (98).  Elliott identifies the tax collectors as being “on the periphery of Judaism’s social and religious life” (Neyrey 213).  In the Judean society concerned with purity codes and “a clear perception by Jews in the first century of what it means to be an observant Israelite” (Neyrey 272), tax collectors were considered sinners (282) and “morally unclean” (287).

The religious position of tax collectors in the Lucan mostly Gentile community, however, may have been quite different from that in the normal first-century AD Judean society.  First of all, Gentiles may not have concerned themselves too much with Judean purity codes.  Judeans believed that “since Gentiles are not God’s people, they are not on the [purity-S.S.] map at all” (Neyrey 279), that within the Judean purity system they occupied a position similar to that of snakes—an “abomination: off the purity scale entirely, hence necessarily unclean” (Malina 176).  Even proselytes who converted to Judaism on the purity scale were ranked below “full-blooded Israelites,” between illegal children of priests and bastards,[3] thus unable to be fully pure simply on the basis of national origin (see Malina 174-175).  A community of non-Judean people who were “off the purity scale” would either not be savvy enough to understand all the implications of the purity codes within the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector; or, more likely, engaged in a polemic against “the Pharisees of the Gospel” (see above), the Lucan community may have been eager to identify with the tax collector.

The social status of tax collectors outside of first-century Judea may also have been different than that within the land “which is holier than any other land” (Neyrey 278).  While citizens seemingly have always disliked paying taxes and have fought them everywhere from battle fields to voting booths to tea parties (especially in Boston), IRS agents or tax collectors have not necessarily been viewed everywhere as sinners who make a dishonest living in a limited-goods society and aid the occupation forces.  One should remember Horace’s words, “Greacia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio,” yet we are not aware of strong Greek nationalistic movements or revolts against Rome in the first century AD.  Moreover, the Greeks apparently did not see the Roman Empire as a foreign occupying power any more than they viewed the Great Macedonian as a foreign occupant; and after Diocletian’s pars Orientis (ca. 292 AD) we see Vasilia Romanon gradually changing into Vysantini Autocratoria.

In addition, Gentiles were not under the testament of being holy as God is holy (Leviticus 19:2), and every occupation, perhaps even civil service at the local revenue office, appeared to have had its own patron god or goddess, who were not necessarily themselves abiding by Moses’ Law.  Thus, tax collectors in the mostly Gentile world of the Lucan community may have enjoyed a social status similar to that of soldiers, (see Luke 3:12-14)—great potential for abuse, but otherwise a decent job if the person is honest.  The issue of purity scales may have been marginalized within the Lucan community; or, possibly, the community was in the state of rejection of the laws of purity as it engaged in the polemic against the advocates and proponents of those laws: “the Pharisees of the Gospel” (New Jerome 676).



We have examined the religious and social status of two of the three characters in the parable, which, according to The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, is one of the episodes in “a series of scenes held together by the common theme of division between those who have faith and act faithfully, on the one hand, and those who are self-possessed and position themselves over against the active beneficence of God, on the other” (1888).  This position may be overly broad and can hardly be deduced from the text, where it is the Pharisee who certainly “acts faithfully” according to his interpretation of Moses’ Law, which he believes (or “has faith”) to be of divine origin and the will of God for the people of Israel.  The tax collector, on the other hand, had not been acting faithfully, not “all of his commitments and behavior” (1888) were in keeping with the faith of his people, and, thus, he needs to repent.  New Jerome posits, however that it is the tax collector who “is acquitted at God’s court of justice, has recognized his need of God’s mercy and has shown sorrow for his sins,” but the Pharisee’s “self-confident boasting of one’s good deeds will not achieve acquittal at God’s judgment” (710).  It is a wonder, however, that the editors of New Jerome put the Pharisee on trial at all—what would be the charges against him?

Perhaps the central issue in the story is—the relationship of the first two characters with the Third Character, God, to Whom the first two addressed their prayers—should be seen at a much more narrow angle.  It is easy to see that the relationship between the tax collector and God is that of repentance and merciful forgiveness.  The tax collector is certainly a sinner and the parable does not argue against this notion.  His justification is not based on procedural mistakes made by the prosecution or on reasonable doubt provoked by his lawyers in the minds of the jurors.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, is fully justified by his actions and way of life, and needs no defense.  Another thing he doesn’t need is someone to help him, someone to intercede on his behalf, someone to save him from certain capital punishment.  The Pharisee does not need a Savior.  This narrow, but very important point is best summarized by Brown:

Beyond exhibiting God’s mercy to sinners, the story raises the issue of the rejection of the Pharisee, who is not justified.  The Pharisee is not a hypocrite; for, although a bit boastful, he has lived faithful to God’s commandments as he understood them.  Is the problem that although he thanks God, he has not shown any need for God or of grace or forgiveness?  Or does the Lucan Jesus come close to Pauline thought that observing commanded works does not justify by itself? (251)

This wonderful theological insight, in our opinion, is the key to the parable.  Indeed, Christ’s mission is more often characterized as that of the Savior[4]; and the only people capable of accepting Him in this role are those who know that they need salvation.  The Pharisee could accept the Messiah in almost any role—a King, a Judge, a Benefactor, a war General, or a High-Priest.  He, the Pharisee, would have been a noble person in the Divine King’s court, innocent before the Judge, worthy of the reciprocity of the Benefactor, and pure in the eyes of the High-Priest.  The only Messiah that the Pharisee could not accept was the Savior, for he, the Pharisee, did not need salvation.

The tax collector, on the other hand, was serving the wrong king, was guilty before any judge, deserved nothing from the Divine Benefactor, would have been crushed along with the Roman occupants by the General’s army, and was unholy and impure in the eyes of the High-Priest.  His only hope, his only consolation in life is the Savior.  He needed the Savior and he knew it. 


English Translation

Several differences within the English translation of the passage draw our attention.  NAB says that “the Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,” NRSV claims that “the Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus” and NIV posits that “the Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself.”  The phrase in question is “o pharisaeos stathis {VAR1: tavta pros eavton } {VAR2: pros eavton tavta } prosivheto” (Hort and Westcott UBS4 variants).  The difference in translations seems to be determined in part by the variants used by translators.  In the first part of the phrase, for example, the use of the first variant yields “stathis tavta pros,” which could be translated as “took up his position” (NAB) or “stood up” (NIV).  The basic meaning of the Greek text is “stood like this, aright,” which may point to a certain position assumed by the Pharisee,[5] or simply to the Pharisee’s standing up straight, aright for his prayer.  The word “pros” could also mean “above” or “forward,” which is not unlikely in the context where “the tax collector stood off at a distance” (NAB).

NRSV apparently followed the second variant (“stathis pros eavton”), which is translated as “standing by himself.”  This translation leaves out “pros” in a very unfortunate omission and applies “eavton” as a modifier to “stathis.”  If the second variant is the original Lucan version and if we accept that “eavton” modifies “stathis,” then it is easy to see the possible polemic against Jewish Christians or members of higher classes who may have tried to spatially separate themselves from ritually unclean Gentiles and other people during prayer.

In the second part of the verse, the two variants play a similar role.  NAB and NIV, having connected “eavton” and “prosivheto” in a phrase, translated it as “spoke this prayer to himself” and “prayed about himself” respectively.  The first translation (NAB) is seemingly closer to the Greek “eavton prosivheto,” which, in our opinion, may best be translated as “prayed within himself,” although, the prayer was certainly “about himself” as well (NIV).

NRSV, having used the second variant and connected “tavta” and “prosivheto,” translated it as “was praying thus”—certainly a reasonably accurate rendition of the phrase.  The very use of the second variant by NRSV, however, as well as NRSV’s omission of “pros,” appears to undermine some highlights which are arguably present in the text.  First, “pros” in conjunction with “stathis” may relay a complex meaning which is opposite to both “makrothen estos” and “ouk hithelen outhe tous ofthalmous eparae eis ton ouranon” (Hort and Westcott UBS4 variants)—a point missed by NRSV and partly conveyed by NAB and NIV. 

Furthermore, as tempting as it may be to imagine the Pharisee proudly “standing by himself,” away from everyone else, “eavton” is more likely to form a phrase with “prosivheto.”  Since the Pharisee was ritually clean, he would have found his place among other worshipers in a collective rather than individualistic culture, perhaps standing aright, ahead or above (“pros”) others.  The tax-collector, on the other hand, may not have felt free to come near others in the temple due to his occupation and lack of observance of the laws of purity, thus standing “makrothen estos” and by himself, perhaps in or outside “the court of the Gentiles farthest from the altar” (Roetzel 84), looking not very “pros” with his head down, “ouk hithelev outhe tous ofthalmous eparae eis ton ouranon.”



Many sources could have been used by Luke in writing his Gospel.  The evangelist himself “acknowledges sources: ‘The original eyewitnesses and ministers of the word’ passed on reports of what had come to pass, and many had already begun compiling accounts (1:1-2)” (Brown 262).  Although Luke “does not say who these ‘many’ were, scholars generally assume that one of the works he refers to is the Gospel of Mark” (Powell 17), and “the material taken from Mark constitutes about 35 percent of Luke” (Brown 263).  Other sources could have included an earlier version of Luke’s Gospel, “sometimes called ‘Proto-Luke’” (Powell 18), “a collection of early hymns and canticles” (Brown 266), and various other oral and written material (see Brown 113), such as the LXX, which Luke edits and incorporates into his Gospel (New Jerome 686).

Many scholars believe that there are two major sources for Luke’s Gospel: the Gospel of Mark (Luke 3:4, for example) and the so-called Q or Quelle, “primarily a collection of sayings with very little narrative” (Powell 22).  Material from this document (if it existed) was incorporated into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (see Brown 113).  This “two-source” or “two documents” hypothesis helps partly explain the so-called “Synoptic Problem,” yet “no material evidence exists” for Q (Powell 28).

Whether we accept the existence of Q or choose to follow the more traditional Griesbach’s or its modern revival, the “Two-Gospel Hypothesis” (Powell 28), the passage of Luke 18:9-14 is unique to Luke and not found in any other Gospel.  These uniquely Lucan passages, referred to as “special Lucan material,” constitute “between one third and 40 percent” of the Gospel (Brown 265).  Brown points out, however, that “there are two major difficulties when we consider the percentage of the Gospel that is not found in Mark or Q”:

First, since Luke is a very capable rewriter, it is extremely difficult to decide how much material the evangelist freely composed himself, and how much he took over from already shaped traditions and sources.  Second, where the author has taken over material, it is not easy to distinguish preLucan traditions from possible preLucan sources. (266)

As for the “group of special parables, which may have included these: Good Samaritan, Persistent Friend, Rich Barn-Builder, Barren Fig Tree, Lost Coin, Prodigal Son, Lazarus and the Rich Man, Dishonest Judge and the Pharisee and the Publican,” scholars have plausibly posited” them as some of the sources for the Gospel (266).  Nevertheless, “we should remind ourselves… that the evangelist has done far more than collect and organize disparate material” (267)—he was a talented redactor of his sources. 



Luke 18 (NRSV)

9.       He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

10.     “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

11.     The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

12.     I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

13.     But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

14.     I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”


Due to the fact that we do not have any knowledge of the original source for the parable, we may only guess and hypothesize on the nature of redactions that Luke used in the text.  One of the most likely redactions is Luke’s introduction to the parable.  Of course, the introduction may not have been part of the original source, but it is a redaction nevertheless—it has a potential to predetermine the readers’ understanding of the meaning of the parable, as well as to offer clues to other possible redactions.  This introduction seems to bear the imprint of Luke’s analytical guidance for the reader of the parable concerning its meaning and intent.  Luke introduces the parable as a rebuke to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  This may point to some internal struggles within the Lucan community that the Gospel’s author wanted to address.  If we presume that the parable is an example of Luke’s polemic against Jewish Christians who “are the ‘Pharisees’ of the Gospel” (New Jerome 676), then the parable, its introduction and possible redaction could be understood in light of the polemic.

The next possible redaction, in our opinion, is the mention of the tax collector going “up to the temple to pray.”  This statement would hardly be a casual one in the original Judean source, providing the original source was Judean.  Since the tax collector’s occupation was ritually unclean and in the same category with lepers, menstruants, “sinners,” Samaritans, and, perhaps most importantly for the Lucan community, Gentiles (see Neyrey 222), he could hardly have casually strolled into the temple for prayer.  It is, therefore, possible that “as part of Luke’s theological concern for the Gentiles,” he reworks his source material “to remove some of the Palestinian color and generalize the message” (Brown 235), thus placing both the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple.

On the other hand, the Greek to hieron means “a sacred place” and can refer to the Jerusalem Temple, or any other sacred place, the Temple of Artemis for example (Acts 19:27).  The meaning of to hieron, therefore, could have been multilayered, invoking associations ranging from “the Jerusalem Temple area” for Jewish Christians and Christians from Judean proselytes, to, perhaps, the sacred places of worship of the Lucan community for Gentile converts to Christianity.

New Jerome points to another possible redaction, claiming that “Lucan irony is red-hot as he places in the Pharisee’s mouth a G[ree]k word (adikoi) from the same stem as “righteous” (dikaios): Who really is the unrighteous one?” (710)  This point, in our opinion, is indefensible, since Greek, as well as English, uses this device regularly without a hint of irony.  The word “indefensible,” for example is from the same stem as “defense,” yet it is hardly possible to see any “red-hot” irony in our statement above.

Finally, another signature Lucan redaction may, perhaps, be seen in the summary of the parable (Luke 18:14).  One of the most influential cultural phenomena within the Greco-Roman world, the genius of the Romans,[6] was, arguably, the rule of law.  The allusion and appeal to law and legalism, perhaps easily understood by most Roman citizens, is clearly visible in the issue of justification brought up in the verse.  Of course, the notion of justification is arguably present in the Judean faith as well; but the explicit mention of this issue, which allowed some theologians to claim that “the toll collector is acquitted at God’s court of justice”[7] (New Jerome 710), may be a Lucan redaction, influenced by Roman legalistic thought.



Windows of Understanding

An additional window of understanding of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector comes from social science studies of the Gospel of Luke.  Elliott, for example, points out that one of the contrasts “in this parable, intended by Luke as an indictment of those persuaded of their righteousness” (Neyrey 213), is a “shift in locale”:

The story begins in the temple, the “Holy Place” (to hieron), which is the conventional place for demarcating social and religious differences; it concludes in the house (oikos) as the locus of the justified…  Temple and household denote contrasting social spaces and contrasting forms of social life; the temple, an alienating form of collective, institutional life; the house, a creative form of integrative group life. (214)

While shifts in locale are consistent in the work, “temple scenes frame the first half of the Luke-Acts, scenes in the household frame the second half” (215):

The pattern of alternating scenes clearly demarcates two areas of action and two differentiated communities, their variant forms of social and economic organization, and their ultimately contrasting loyalties.  The one represents temple rules, norms and allegiances; the other, a new community of witnesses to the resurrected Christ based in the household, inspired by the Divine Spirit and loyal to the God who does not dwell in man-made houses or temples. (215)

Furthermore, Elliott argues that “the contrast and developing conflict of temple-based and household-based communities… epitomizes historically, geographically, socially, and ideologically Luke’s view of the cleavage between the worlds and allegiances of Judaism and Christianity” (239).  Judaism in Luke-Acts, according to Elliott:

…is a system dominated by a central holy place, an exclusivist holiness ideology, a hierarchically stratified social order, and exploitative economic interests.  This system proved incapable of mediating the inclusive salvation envisioned by the prophets. (239)

Christianity, on the other hand, is represented by the household model and “domestic associations of the movement initiated by Jesus”:

Here the gospel of a universal salvation is socially embodied in a community of “brothers and sisters” where repentance, faith, forgiveness, generosity, mercy and justice, familial loyalty and friendship unite the faithful with a God of mercy and a Servant-Lord. (239)

By applying this model, Elliott hopes to show Luke’s rejection of “the temple, its authorities, its law, its controlling purity ideology [as] an exclusivist, exploitative, and alienating system,” and Luke’s embracing of the household-based model of religious community and “a reforming movement seeking justice and support for the powerless and intent on extending the boundaries of Israel to include all seeking a place of belonging, acceptance, and succor… ‘all the families of the earth’” (240).

Of course, Elliott’s view is not “exclusivist” and “exploits” only one possible angle of the complex world of Luke-Acts.  This view must, however, be balanced against the historical development of the Lucan community, a community which did not remain in “85, give or take five to ten year” (Brown 274), but continued into the second and third centuries A.D.  Based on Elliott’s research, one would expect the household-based model of religious organization to be a cherished and prized sacred system, which may have been protected and kept by the Church for several hundred, perhaps a thousand years or longer.  Instead, Christians did not only move to special temples and church buildings within a relatively short period of time, but developed a hierarchy similar to that of “the personnel” of to hieron, and overlapped the semantic field (“priests [hiereis] = ‘holy functionaries’; chief priests [archiereis] [Neyrey 218]) of the very temple system, which was “incapable of providing access to or symbolizing the ultimate source of personal and communal sustenance” (240). 

In short, “the temple, its authorities, its law, its controlling purity ideology” (240) were embraced by the Christian Church in the form of magnificent temples, strict hierarchy, volumes of canon and liturgical laws and rules, and Its own purity codes within such a short time, that an assertion that household-based organization of religious and social life within the early Christian Church was a theological and ideological choice rather than a mere necessity must, in our opinion, be reconsidered. 

Finally, we would like to explore one more possible issue contained within the parable.  This issue may be relevant in our modern society.  Perhaps, it is even relevant within Christian Churches.  This issue is the magical understanding of the world.  Osipov defines magic as:

… a belief that the laws of this world are subject to occult forces, which a human can harness with the help of certain actions (spells, rituals, etc.)…  Magic is control over the world through the learning of the necessity and the rules of the mystical forces of the world…  Everyone and everything are subject to occult laws that exist from the beginning.  Therefore, one who has found the “key” to them becomes the true lord of gods, people and the world.  One Indian proverb says just that, “The whole world is subject to gods.  Gods are subject to spells.  Spells—to Brahmans.  Our gods are Brahmans.”  (here and elsewhere the translation is mine—S.S.)

 This very worldview may have been prevalent in the Lucan Hellenistic community and in much of the Greco-Roman world.  Whether the same was true for the early-first-century Pharisees as they placed “a strong emphasis on the observance of laws of purity” (Roetzel 39) is perhaps irrelevant.  What may be relevant is that the Lucan community may have had to deal with this issue as it tried to define the essence of their faith in light of the “polemic against Jewish Christians who seek to apply overly strict entrance requirements to those who want to join reconstituted Israel” (New Jerome 676).  This may have been one of the defining distinctions within the very essence of emerging Christianity.  Friedrich Engels in his work Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity wrote:

It [Christianity—S.S.] entered into a resolute antithesis to all previous religions.

In all previous religions, ritual had been the main thing. Only by taking part in the sacrifices and processions, and in the Orient by observing the most detailed diet and cleanliness precepts, could one show to what religion one belonged. While Rome and Greece were tolerant in the last respect, there was in the Orient a rage for religious prohibitions that contributed no little to the final downfall. People of two different religions (Egyptians, Persians, Jews, Chaldeans) could not eat or drink together, perform any every-day act together, or hardly speak to each other.

In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector we notice just that kind of antithesis: the Pharisee’s appeal to ritual acts (fasting, tithing, purity codes, etc.) and the tax collector’s only asset—his “broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17).  The Pharisee, on the other hand, in his heart “regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9); we propose therefore, that the Pharisee may represent the magical worldview in which only external actions matter over the condition of one’s heart, and what made him righteous in his own eyes (see Luke 18:9) was his scrupulous observance of rituals and various prohibitions.  Furthermore, Osipov writes:

… for magic, the fundamental thing is the knowledge of what needs done and how, in order to reach a goal… and this is not in any way connected with the spiritual and moral condition of a person.  The fundamental thing for magic is to do everything correctly.

This magical worldview unfortunately can be found in many Christian churches.  Orthodox or Catholic, Protestant or Neo-Protestant, all too often we find it easier to perform certain external actions to justify our internal inaction.  In some cases magical worldview can even become institutionalized and find its way into the dogmatic theology of the Church; but most often it is present in present in the lives of Christians without any text-book justification.  Here is what Osipov says about the Orthodox Church:

For too many people Orthodoxy is to light candles, to venerate something, to give a donation, to pass a list of names into the altar, to order Liturgies, prayer services, requiems, to visit holy places, to go to confession, to go to communion.  The most important thing, however, without which salvation is impossible—the keeping of commandments and repentance—is forgotten.  But without a spiritual change (in Greek “repentance”—metanoia—the changing of the way one thinks)  all of these external actions are useless at best, but more often—dangerous, since they create an illusion of a righteous life and lead a person to an inflated opinion of self and contempt for all “sinners”…

Compare this last statement with Luke 18:9, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (NRSV).  Perhaps the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector should also be viewed as a warning to all of us to “flee from the proud speaking of the Pharisee and [to] learn the humility of the Publican” (Lenten Triodion 106), as a warning to fight the magical view of the world and especially the magical view of Church Sacraments.

The magical view of Church Sacraments, church sacred actions, the cult in general, is one of the main reasons for the extinction of the Christian faith in people, its distortion, sliding toward paganism. (Osipov)



Osipov, A.I. Put razuma v poiskah istiny. <;

Brown, R. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997. 

Engels, F. “Bruno Bauer and Early Christianity.” Sozialdemokrat. May 4-11 1882. Marxists Internet Archive. 1 Apr. 2006. <>   

Hapgood, Isabel F. Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church. New York, 1965. 

Horsley, R. Jesus and Empire. The kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Minnaepolis: Fortress, 2003.   

Josephus, Flavius. The Complete Works. Trans. William Whiston. Nashville: Nelson, 1998. 

Lenten Triodion, The. South Canaan: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1994. 

Malina, B. The New Testament World. Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Louisville: WJK, 2001. 

New Interpreter’s Study Bible, The. Ed. Walter Harrelson et al. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003. 

New Jerome Biblical Commentary, The. Ed. Raymond Brown, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990.   

Neyrey, J., ed. The Social World of Luke-Acts. Models for Interpretation. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991.  

Powell, M. What Are They Saying About Luke? New York: Paulist Press, 1989. 

Roetzel, C. The World That Shaped the New Testament. Louisville: WJK, 2002.   



[1] There are clearly three characters in the story: the Pharisee, the tax collector, and God, to Whom the prayers of the first two are addressed; but in this section of the paper we shall look at the first two characters only.

[2] Although, Church tradition suggests that this example story is based on a real-life observation of two real people.

[3] Neyrey places proselytes just above freed slaves, below ethnic Israelites (279).

[4] Yet, many Christian theologies have maintained that Christ is primarily the King and the Judge, and, more recently, a leader of the first-century Palestinian insurgency (Intifada?), or a first-century ideologue of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” 

[5] For a modern understanding of prayer positions, consider, for example, various positions assumed for prayer by Muslims, Buddhists, members of other religious persuasions, and, most notably, by Orthodox Jews.

[6] While the codex that we commonly refer to as “Roman Law” was composed by Justinian I, a Byzantine emperor, the rule of law as the foundation of society is undoubtedly the Roman and later Western genius.

[7] One cannot help, but notice, however, that this “God’s court of justice” operates by strange laws and the Roman legal system does not apply here.  In accordance with Roman legalism, a repented criminal can hope for a lesser sentence; acquittal, however, truly belongs to the person who did not do anything wrong—to the Pharisee.  This latter legalism and disregard for the “legal system” of God has, unfortunately, influenced some Christian theologies.


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