The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and a missing voice Luke 18:9-14
2010-10-23 by Hwa-Young Chong

Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and a missing voice

Stephen Prothero in his book God Is Not One examines 8 different world religions, claiming that each religion offers to solve a different human problem.  For instance, in Buddhism the problem is suffering, and the solution is nirvana, or enlightenment. In Confucianism the problem is chaos, and the solution is social order.  In Christianity, the problem is sin, and the solution is salvation. Since I grew up with these three religions, I find Prothero's analysis on them, among others, intriguing.

I especially find it interesting that he points out the sin-salvation emphasis of Christianity.  Our recognition of sin and the subsequent need for repentance are indeed at the heart of Christian conversion, the journey in and towards salvation.  Sin, whether it be personal or structural, does seem to be a central problem Christianity addresses, at least in mainline theologies and homilies.

Reading Luke 18:9-14 in this context, it seems that this parable begins with an assumption that both the Pharisee and the tax collector are sinners.  The difference is that the Pharisee is not aware his sinfulness and the tax collector is full of such awareness. The result? The absence of recognition of his sins in the Pharisee leads to the absence of justification; the presence of recognition of his sins in the tax collector leads to the presence of justification. A familiar homiletic approach might be to find ourselves in either the Pharisee or the tax collector, recognize our own self-righteousness, and change our hearts.

But there is a missing voice here - the voice of the sinned-against.  If the Pharisee and the tax collector are both sinners, who are the victims of their sins?  What was the tax collector thinking about, when he had to beat his breast and said, "God, be merciful"? Was was his soul tormented?  Would he have been thinking about the fact that he collaborated with the unjust imperial power? That he gained his wealth by taking what belonged to others? That his actions might have led to the malnutrition, or even death of innocent children of suffering and poor families?  That he acted to consolidate the structures of oppression?  We know that, regardless of what his issues were, he came home justified.  He was forgiven. He was relieved of his guilt.  He became the model for the Pharisee and others for humble faithfulness.  The troubling part of the story is that the victims of his sinfulness remain voiceless victims. We do not know what happened to the suffering, pain, and injustice done to men, women, and children who struggled under the oppressive tax laws in the colonial structures.

As Korean-American theologian Andrew S. Park points out, the church has tended to focus more on condemning sin or comforting/saving sinners, while the han (Korean word that can be roughly translated as suffering) of the afflicted has been rather ignored.  A task of a preacher for Luke 18:9-14 is perhaps to find a missing voice, the voice of the sinned-against.

Hwa-Young Chong

Pastor, Prince of Peace United Methodist Church, Elk Grove Village, IL

Adjunct Professor, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL

Thanks; Luke 18:9-14; Psalm 84:3
2010-10-22 by David von Schlichten

Scroll down to read intelligent contributions about the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. There are some especially helpful reflections on the meaning of justification in the days of the Roman Empire.

The back cover of my bulletin warns us not to read about the Pharisee and say, "Thank you, God, that I am not like that Pharisee."

That's all I have so far regarding Luke 18:9-14.

The ecofeminist in me finds compelling Psalm 84:3, which talks of birds knowing to build their homes near God's altar. In other words, the non-human animals know to revere God. Let's follow their example. Humans tend to think of themselves as superior in intellect to non-human animals, but passages such as this one remind us that non-human animals are wiser in some ways.

That's all I have so far.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

Values Clarification
2010-10-22 by Stephen Schuette

(Luke 18:9-14)  After last week’s urging of constancy in prayer Luke adds a word about the content of prayer.  One possible summary:  even the recognition of your failures in relationship to your neighbor is more important than all you can do in your relationship with God.

Jesus advised to love God and love your neighbor.  And typically we give them parity in importance.  But in the flaunting of Sabbath practice, in parables like the Good Samaritan and others, and now in this story indications are that the priority for Jesus was consistently upon the relationship with the neighbor.

And there’s the irony of this story.  Although the Pharisee seems to do everything right in relationship to God he uses his neighbor to lift himself up in his prayer, kind of standing on their backs when he says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…”  But the one who cannot even look up to heaven but recognizes his faults in his relationship with his neighbors is justified.

And here’s my confession:  it’s stewardship time and I’d rather have the Pharisee as a member of my congregation.  He tithes.  I wish we had more people who were not like other people in their giving habits.  If even half my congregation tithed we’d be wondering what to do with all the new funds.  And although he doesn’t have a positive relationship with his neighbor the Pharisee isn’t doing some of the things his neighbors are doing:  thieving, spouse stealing, or consorting with the enemy for one’s own profit.  So didn’t the good that the Pharisee was doing outweigh the little bit of ego that he brought to his prayer life?  See how easy it is to weigh out our values?

Jesus says, "No."  And here's where we finally get back to God.  The value of all people, each person, as a child of God goes beyond all righteousness.  And that's the odd way that God values us.

Joerg Rieger on Luke 18:9-14
2010-10-21 by David Howell

We've had such a positive response to this article that we thought we would put it on the blog this week:


At first sight, the theological meaning of this story seems clear: do not boast about your accomplishments, admit that nobody is perfect and everything will be fine. This may be the shortest theological reflection ever written.

On second sight, however, a few questions emerge. What does it mean to confess one’s sin? What does it mean to be justified? Although the confessions of sin that are used in many worship services are fairly generic, there is a common awareness that sin implies a breach both with God and with our neighbors. By not moving close to the holy place and by not looking up to heaven, the tax collector acknowledges his broken relation with God. What about his neighbors though?

Justification is usually interpreted as an act in which our broken relation with God is addressed. The only discussion left, then, is about whether justification is a formal pronouncement or whether it implies a real change. In other words, is the sinner merely regarded as just before God in justification (although nothing has changed), or is the sinner actually becoming more just?

Such reflections commonly overlook the fact that the theological notion of justification has to do with justice, (too often, the Greek term for justice that is used in this context is translated as "righteousness," understood as a narrow religious category). In the context of the Old Testament, however, justice had to do with the covenant which includes both relations to God and to other people. In the context of the Roman Empire, in which Luke wrote, the Christian notion of justice also had to do with the questions of everyday life as it proclaimed an alternative justice, different from the justice of the empire.1

If justification is thus seen in the context of justice, the term takes on a broader meaning. What happens as this tax collector is justified might very well be the same thing that happens to the tax collector named Zacchaeus in the passage below: here, justification is not only a formal transaction according to which someone is merely considered just before God, but a process according to which justice is embodied and lived out in relation to both God and neighbor.

Furthermore, if justification is seen in the context of justice, the confession of sin needs to be rethought as well. Is sin merely a general reminder that nobody is perfect? A more specific understanding of sin might help us move this discussion to the next level. What is the sin of a tax collector in the context of the Roman Empire, the region for which he collects taxes? What if sin had nothing to do with moral failure but with pursuing false notions of justice: the false justice of the Empire that works in favor of the powerful and the mighty? Again, the story of Zacchaeus gives us some clues that point in this direction as well. In this context, justification might mean that God’s own justice begins to take the place of the Empire’s misguided justice.

When seen in this light, both the attitude of the tax collector and the problem with the attitude of the Pharisee make more sense. Judging from a moral perspective, the Pharisee may well be living a better life than the tax collector, but the Pharisee’s lack of a self-critical attitude blunts the radical difference that God’s justice seeks to make. In the context of the Roman Empire, all need to rethink their take on the matter of justice. As I have argued elsewhere, empires go deep, as they are not just interested in political and economic control: they seek to shape the way we think, feel, and even our innermost beliefs.2

In this context, the Pharisee would need to learn not only that nobody is perfect, but how even his own well-intended performance of the moral codes of his people might be co-opted by the powers that be. The tax collector is closer to this insight because he appears to have an inkling of the sinfulness of his state that may not be obvious to those who are used to following the precepts of the Roman Empire. Consequently, neither Pharisee nor tax collector is let off the hook easily. In the end, both Pharisee and tax collector need to develop a more robust understanding of their sinfulness in order join God’s alternative justice.

The good news is that justification and a new take on justice appear to be possible even for tax collectors, those who are even more closely connected to the Roman Empire’s distorted notion of justice than the Pharisees. If even the tax collector gets it, why should there not also be hope that the pious Pharisee will eventually follow this example?

Joerg Rieger

Wendland-Cook Professor of Constructive Theology

Perkins School of Theology

Southern Methodist University



1. See also Elsa Tamez, The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

2. See Rieger, Christ and Empire.

Christine's Sermon
2010-10-18 by David von Schlichten

Scroll down to read our guest blogger's sermon about Luke 18:1-8 and how the rescue of the Chilean miners was a prolepsis of the Kingdom.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

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