Two Men in the Temple
This parable is the perfect example of everything with which I take issue in Christian interpretive approaches to parables: a sharp-toothed bear trap of a story flattened and banalized by an immediate jump to allegory, with a history of antisemitic readings. Buckle up.
The Text - Luke 18:9-14
Introduction - What's Luke vs. Jesus?
Christian Interpretations - A survey
A Simple Jewish Take - It's a trap!
Jewish Context - Teshuvah and Hoda'ah
Covenant - Plus, a side trip to Sodom
Jewish Interpretations - Saved by a Pharisee
The Moral - Questions! (always)
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
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!’
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.
Excerpted from The Jewish Annotated New Testament.
I think Luke is doing glossing both at the beginning (overtly) and the end (crediting it to Jesus), and one should read a story on its own terms before delving into interpretation, so I urge you to focus on the Story section above and ignore the Preface and Postscript sections.
So, we all know the common interpretation of this one, right?
If your prayer is all about how great you are in comparison to everyone else, God doesn't like it. (And also, self-evidently, you're kind of a dick.) That's fine, I suppose. I mean, it's pretty shallow and pretty obvious and I'm sort of surprised anyone thought you needed to be God Himself Walking The Earth to come up with it, but sure.
If only preachers had stopped there.
Traditional Christian Interpretations
Christian commentators decided not to stick with the simple explanation Luke suggests, which has led to a lot of commentary that reads the two men as types.
Augustine: Banalization and Antisemitism
Unfortunately, Augustine had to jump right in there and be gross about the whole thing, practically as soon as Christianity got off the ground.
His exegesis demonstrates why immediate moves to allegory are a problem. Suddenly a story about two individuals—which is probably supposed to prompt individual self-examination—is about groups: Jews vs. Gentiles.
Some pastors will acknowledge that Jews at the time would have assumed the Pharisee was a good guy and hated the tax collector, and that's where the challenge to listeners comes in. Yet the ability to hear it that way is already eroded by Luke, who never met a tax collector who wasn't trying to be a decent guy (3:12, 7:29, 15:1, 5:29-30, 19:2) and never met a Pharisee who wasn't an asshole.
So Christians are already primed to prefer tax collectors to Pharisees—after all, Pharisees are supposedly these officious, hypocritical, exploitative religious fanatics, and tax collectors are... well, not a profession we think about much these days.
And just like that—poof!—the challenge is gone. While we might need reminding not to be hypocritical and showy in our religious observance, the idea that the humble common man is the hero of the story instead of the condescending, hollow religious official is hardly radical. It's not a challenge to modern audiences, and to assume it was a challenge to first-century Jews is to Other them into inhumanity.
Mt. 9.12 underscores the distinction between the gentiles who confess to be weak, and the Jews who consider themselves strong. The distinction in question is thus between humilitas and superbia. Mortality is a medicine that stimulates humanity. Augustine delves deeper into this theme in Enarratio in Psalmum 58, 1, 7 (date?). Alluding to the tax collector and the Pharisee from Lk. 18.11-14, he insists that Mt. 9.12 is directed against those who consider themselves strong, who boast of their own righteousness and deem themselves to be superior to others. This is the superbia of the Jews who refused medicine and even killed the doctor.
Anthony Dupont, Gratia in Augustine's Sermones Ad Populum During the Pelagian Controversy, 2012
Blomberg: Othering Jews
Christian preachers didn't stop there. Meet Craig Blomberg, author of Preaching the Parables: From Responsible Interpretation to Powerful Proclamation (2004). Please note the publication date: this isn't coming from dusty tomes published in the 1930s. It's post-2000. Blomberg, in fact, is used as a textbook in many seminaries, and as far as I can tell, is considered a progressive interpreter rather than a conservative one.
Who most corresponds to the tax collectors in our world? We have plenty of people who today suffer the stigma of being considered second-class citizens, even by some Christians—teenage moms; single or divorced parents of whatever age; the physically challenged; foreigners, particularly of Middle Eastern nationalities; the poor; the homeless; and so on. But most of these people are not well-to-do.
Tax collectors, as the relatively wealthy tools of the occupying government, were hardly "second-class citizens." They may not have been popular with their neighbors, but shunning a bully doesn't make the bully a victim. In Blomberg's interpretation, the agent of a brutal occupying empire has become the everyman and then the oppressed Other, while the people suffering under that brutal occupying empire have become first snide hypocrites and then oppressive and powerful persecutors of the innocent. Add Augustine's reading in there and somehow we end up with Roman gentiles being persecuted by powerful Jews.
This is "responsible interpretation" and "powerful proclamation," apparently.
Blomberg's reading is actually made worse by the fact that he acknowledges why first-century Jews might have had a negative view of tax collectors.
No one had to accept that illegitimate form of employment, working for the foreign empire as a traitor to one’s country. In fact, in Jesus’ world no other group was ever linked together with sinners in general. And yet on numerous occasions when one of the Gospel writers wants to talk about the people rejected by conventional Judaism at that time, he simply employs the expression “tax collectors and sinners.” If that phrase sounds natural to you, you’ve been in church far too long! Imagine putting your occupation together with sinners: “plumbers and sinners,” “computer technicians and sinners,” or even “seminary professors and sinners!” The combinations are jarring, even shocking, but for the upstanding first-century Jewish leader, “tax collectors and sinners” came naturally to his lips as a logical combination.
Can you see how first-century Jews are being made out to be foreign, incomprehensible, and irrationally prejudiced here? Their attitudes are "jarring, even shocking," to us, but those attitudes come naturally to them. They find it logical. They're so different, so Other.
One might note that the difference between the plumbers (or whatever trade around the Mediterranean was most comparable at the time) Blomberg uses as an analogy and tax collectors is that one of these jobs involves fixing things and the other involves beating people to force them to pay an empire that took their land, is attempting to wipe out their culture, and is regularly murdering their loved ones. The analogy isn't "plumbers and sinners" or "computer technicians and sinners." It's "Mafia enforcers and sinners," or "Gestapo agents and sinners."
Does the animosity of their neighbors still seem so jarring, even shocking?
(Don't get me started about tax collectors being "rejected by conventional Judaism at the time." That's not how Judaism works. You don't get condemned to hell—or excommunicated—for your profession. Your relationship with your community, just like your relationship with God, is just that: a relationship, not a binary. They may have been rejected by other Jews, but that was because people don't like being extorted, not because of Jewish practice.)
Blomberg then proceeds to attempt to explain why each man is doing what he's doing, and unsurprisingly gets every bit of it wrong.
The Pharisee stands and prays “by himself,” the rendering of the TNIV, which is a better translation than the original NIV (“about himself”) or its footnote (“to himself”—v. 11). The Pharisee was concerned with ritual purity. He wanted to remain separate from the others and acted aloof from them as well. His prayer calls attention to himself and reflects a certain arrogance, as he thanks God that he is not like a variety of criminals and lawbreakers. One is reminded of the common Pharisaic prayer that Paul inverts in Galatians 3:28, in which the Jewish male thanked God that he was created a free man and not a slave, a Jew and not a Gentile, and a man and not a woman.
I could go on hate-reading Blomberg's exegesis for several thousand words more, but instead I'll just end with this:
In short, the man knows he has sinned grievously and wants to be forgiven. If the picture of the Pharisee is largely realistic, the portrait of the tax collector defies first-century expectations.
So that's Blomberg's take on Jews, apparently: The idea that we're arrogant, hollow, and hypocritical is realistic, while the idea that we recognize when we screw up and want to be forgiven defies expectation.
I'll reiterate that this is a current textbook.
Even More Contemporary Christian Commentary
We get similar takes from similar authors. Here's V. George Shillington, author of Jesus and His Parables: Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Today (1997):
Not only did a toll collector defraud people and associate with Gentiles—sin enough—but also his very vocation robbed the Temple of its dues, by forcing the faithful to pay taxes rather than tithes, thus supporting the hated Roman occupation rather than the sacrificial system. He is the sinner. But he is also 'the sinner' because he forced his fellow Jews into impurity through failure to pay their tithes.
I don't even know where to start with this: One couldn't pay both Temple tithes and Roman taxes? Associating with Gentiles was a sin? Failure to pay tithes makes you impure?
All of this is just... wrong. There's nothing indicating Jews of the time felt they couldn't pay their tithes if they paid Roman taxes. Associating with Gentiles wasn't a sin—the Temple had a Court of the Gentiles. Ritual purity and tithing are two separate things.
No sources for these statements are cited, obviously—I guess the Holy Spirit gives you detailed historical knowledge or something.
Additional "history," from William Herzog II, author of Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (1994), includes the "fact" that the Pharisees participated in collecting tithes for the Temple, and that they'd changed the laws of ritual purity so that being in debt made one ritually impure:
Essentially, the scribal Pharisees made the debt code a function of the purity code. The failure to pay tithes rendered one impure, and once impure, one remained forever in debt, unable to satisfy the demands of the redemptive media. This theological move was made to support the economic base of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was dependent on agricultural tithes. The move ignored the reasons the people of the land were unable to pay their tributary tithes to the Temple by increasing pressure on them to do so and stigmatizing them for their failure. It also conveniently overlooked the role of the Temple as an institution of extension by converting it into an institution of accumulation. In the process, debt became a form of impurity.
No sources are cited. (I advise you to get used to the phrase "no sources are cited." You're going to be seeing it a lot.) Ironically, Herzog laments repeatedly about blaming the victims of oppression while doing it liberally himself.
Blomberg, Shillington, Herzog, and others are all certain that the reason the Pharisee is standing apart from the tax collector is that he's worried about ritual impurity, which is absurd. If the tax collector were ritually impure, he wouldn't be in the Temple.
Returning to Blomberg, we find the idea that the Pharisees were intensely nationalistic and encouraged their fellow Jews in an intense hatred of Gentiles:
The Pharisees were also very nationalistic and fueled an intense hatred of Gentiles—people of other nationalities or religions. Perhaps the closest modern parallels to the Pharisees are found right within many very conservative evangelical circles, among those leaders who are on what we have come to call the “far Right,” religiously or politically or both.
Yet again, no sources are cited. Blomberg just comes up with... magical Christian knowledge of Second Temple Judaism. Wanting the nation that invaded your country, attempted to destroy your culture, and regularly murders large numbers of your people to go away and leave you alone is apparently "intense hatred" of all humankind now. (Again, somehow the invading Romans are the powerless oppressed and the occupied Jews are the powerful, racist oppressors.)
And as historical inaccuracy piles upon historical inaccuracy, and logical leap piles upon logical leap, where do we end up?
We end up with the idea that Jewish readings of the Torah are "against God," and that the true point of this parable is to bring down the Temple and, by extension, Judaism itself. Herzog again:
The unexpected ending of the parable also sets the Temple and Pharisaic reading of the Torah against God’s justification of the toll collector. The effect of this surprise ending is to undermine the authority of the redemptive media and to pose another source of “right judgment.”
I'm left with bafflement as to why, in the 20th and 21st centuries, Christians are still treating Judaism as the problem Jesus came to solve.
A Quick Jewish Read
Assuming that what the Pharisee is doing is wrong, and that what’s wrong about it is he’s thanking God that he isn’t like someone else whom he views as morally inferior, by judging the Pharisee and being grateful you’re not like him—or aspiring not to be like him—aren’t you becoming him?
Read this way, the parable is a bear trap, a Catch-22. To take a moral from it at all is to engage in the behavior it condemns. It is, in a sense, the anti-parable in its resistance to interpretation. The only way to win with this one is not to play.
Jewish Context: Tax Collectors & Pharisees
I think the above read on the parable is useful to snap people out of traditional interpretations of it, but I also don’t think Jesus was enough of an edgelord or a nihilist to leave his audience with a parable that mocks the very idea that his stories had any takeaway meaning for their listeners.
So, let’s go a little deeper.
One thing that the bad Christian interpretations above get right is that understanding who Pharisees and tax collectors were in first-century Jewish society is necessary context for the story to make sense. What we have here are not an elite and hypocritical religious authority and a humble marginalized outcast, but a beloved teacher and a wealthy bootlicker of the brutal 1%.
Again, the idea that the Pharisee won’t stand near the tax collector because of ritual purity reasons, or that Jews of the time would have been shocked that the tax collector was in the Temple because of some ritual purity reasons, are both nonsensical.
Far from being outraged that the tax collector was in the Temple, as some Christian commentators suggest, first-century Jews would likely have expected that the story would be about him doing teshuvah, repentance. That’s what the Temple is for, among other things. The tax collector realizing he’d been wrong, atoning, and returning to the bosom of his people would have been the feel-good story the audience was expecting, or at least hoping for. (Much like members of modern-day political parties love testimonials from people who used to be members of the other party, but “saw the light” and crossed the aisle.) There's nothing so satisfying as a story promising that people who have wronged you are going to be sorry.
The Bare Bones
What actually happens in the story?
The Pharisee reflects on the good he’s done (which, incidentally, goes above and beyond what Jewish law requires of him) and expresses gratitude for not being like less virtuous people.
The tax collector declares himself a sinner and asks for mercy.
That’s it. That’s the story.
Jewish Expectations: Teshuvah
As noted above, Jewish listeners would have expected—or at least hoped—that the tax collector was in the Temple as part of a sincere process of teshuvah (repentance or atonement—literally, “return”). Here’s a great Washington Post article by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on the modern role of teshuvah.
T’shuvah is a multi-step process:
Before the formal process of atonement, you have to do whatever you can to substantively repair the harm you have done. For example, if you’ve committed a financial crime, first you have to pay restitution. You must also apologize to the victim. (Atonement is not incumbent on being forgiven, since that is in another’s hands, but you must make a good faith apology.)
After that, you must acknowledge the harm done, express and feel regret, and vow not to repeat it the wrongdoing. When the Temple was around, this would have included a sacrifice as a public and religious acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
The process is complete when you have the opportunity to commit the wrongdoing again and choose not to.
So, if Jesus is actually telling a story about a repentant tax collector in the Temple, that’s what the audience would have been looking for: acknowledgment of what he did wrong, reparations, and proof that he wasn’t going to do it anymore.
That’s not what we get, though. What we get is some vague self-flagellation about being a sinner and a request for mercy. That's all.
It’s just as easy to read this as the tax collector requesting a divine free pass to keep doing what he’s doing as it is to read it as some sort of change of heart.
In the absence of any evidence of substantive repentance (rather than a request for leniency), the idea that this man is “justified” is troubling, since it sure sounds like he’s going to leave the Temple, go back to his job as a tax collector, and keep hurting people.
Jewish Virtues: Hoda'ah
It’s interesting that so many Christian interpretations read the tax collector as humbly throwing himself on God’s mercy and the Pharisee arrogantly taking pride in his own strength, since the actual text has the Pharisee thanking God for being able to not be like the tax collector.
Hoda’ah, gratitude, is a huge part—possibly the primary focus—of Jewish practice. We say blessings, expressions of wonder and gratitude, over practically everything: eating, waking up alive in the morning, watching evening fall, tasting a new fruit, seeing a beautiful animal.
Let’s take a look at the Pharisee for a moment:
He really is going above and beyond: He’s giving 10% of all his income, not just his agricultural produce. The Pharisees weren’t necessarily wealthy. Many of them (like Jesus) relied on patronage to be able to teach, and most had professions in addition to teaching. The fact that this Pharisee can afford to tithe more than the minimum suggests that he’s relatively well-off.
He’s fasting twice a week, which isn’t required. Judaism generally, and the Pharisees especially in contrast to the Qumran sect, frowns on asceticism. We have specific holidays set aside on which we fast, but in general, we’re supposed to enjoy good meals. Not doing so is treating the bounty we’ve been given with contempt—so much so that Jewish tradition imagines that we'll be held accountable in the afterlife for passing up opportunities for enjoyment.
So when Jews are fasting outside those holidays, especially when Jewish leaders are doing it, it’s usually to beseech God for help or mercy for the entire community (almost everything in Judaism is communal) because of a bad situation we’re in—a famine, a pogrom, etc.
Or a brutal occupation.
What the Pharisee is doing outside the Temple is, essentially, paying extra taxes to his community and, most probably, as a teacher who’s supposed to be a moral exemplar, fasting while praying for help for his community.
What the Pharisee is doing inside the Temple is thanking God that he’s in a position to be able to do that. He has the wealth to be able to give extra back to his community, and he has the food security and health to be able to fast.
He’s also looking at a tax collector, someone on the Roman payroll, doing a job that estranges him from his community (both in that he has to harm them and in that they shun him), and acknowledging that, probably, there but for the grace of God go I.
You can read that as an expression of contempt if you want, but you can just as easily read it as an expression of compassion: as an acknowledgment that the circumstances of the tax collector’s life may have driven him into that profession, and that the Pharisee has been blessed in not having to make that sort of choice over whether to compromise.
The difference between what these two men are doing isn’t an assertion of arrogant self-reliance vs. a humble acknowledgment of dependence.
It’s an expression of gratitude vs. a plea for mercy.
Jewish culture has strong communitarian leanings, in which a person's identity, the culture's ethics, and so on are defined in relationship to their community. This type of thinking is not necessarily intuitively easy to understand in the context of contemporary American culture, which tends toward a strong—even radical—individualism.
It also contrasts with the strong individualist strain in Protestant Christianity. Protestantism emphasizes the individual's relationship with God.
Almost all Jewish prayers are phrased in the plural, not the singular. On Yom Kippur, we all confess to every sin that might have been committed by anyone in the community, and we request forgiveness for the community rather than for ourselves as individuals.
While we certainly have individual relationships with the Absolute, they are situated in the context of the relationship between God and Jews as a people.
The Covenantal Relationship
The Jewish relationship with God is largely framed in contractual terms: the people and God both have rights and obligations in the covenant and everyone to be bound by it. Part of that is that it’s atemporal: all Jews, past and future, of every generation, are considered to have stood at Sinai and agreed to it. The contract isn’t with any one generation: it’s with all of us simultaneously.
And because of that, a lot of Jewish petitionary prayers involve—to be blunt—attempting to shame God into helping us. We like to point out that if God lets us get wiped out, what will the rest of the world think of God? Also, God agreed to take care of us if we held up our end of the agreement (multiple rabbinic courts actually sued God for breach of contract during the Holocaust).
Part of the argument put forth in these prayers is the concept of the merit of our ancestors: the idea that even if this generation or particular community of Jews isn’t living up to our end of the bargain, our ancestors’ goodness should earn us some leniency (because on balance, as a people, that should even things out).
There’s also a similar (but non-generationally focused) concept in the Jewish legend of the lamed vavniks, the 36 hidden, perfectly righteous people whose existence sustains the world (Jewish Twitter is in agreement that Mr. Rogers was one). The idea is that God can’t wipe us all out without wiping them out, and that would be unjust because they're completely good, so as long as they’re around we’re safe.
Just as God is described throughout the Tanakh as punishing Israel collectively, God also rewards Israel collectively in Jewish thought—assuming there are enough good people within it.
To really grasp this concept, I think, we need to go back to Sodom and Amora (often transliterated as Gomorrah).
A Trip Through Sodom
The smoke from the burning city of Sodom drifts even into the present day, where it's a choking presence in the lives of many LGBT people, a story that continues to be cited to justify hate and violence against them. While in Christian society, the sin of Sodom seems to have been reduced to sexual corruption (to the point where our legal code still references the name in describing sexual crimes), in some ways, the foundations of Jewish self-conception are built upon the ruins of that mythical ancient city.
First off, in Jewish readings, the problem with Sodom isn’t sexual immorality, it’s greed and exploitation of the vulnerable (the sexual component is just part of that exploitation).
Far more important is what the Sodom story says about Abraham, our founding father.
The fact that Abraham is willing to argue with an actual deity because he thinks that deity is being unjust is foundational to our sense of identity as a people. I see the nature of this argument get misrepresented so often.
Abraham’s argument (“will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?”) isn’t an argument about protecting the innocent. If the problem is simply ensuring that the innocent don't get punished with the guilty, the solution isn’t to refrain from destroying Sodom—it’s to get the innocent out of there (which, it should be noted, is what eventually happens).
While he phrases it in terms of not harming the innocent, Abraham's actual argument is that the presence of the innocent in the city should protect the guilty. (Hence the legend of the lamed vavniks described in the previous section.)
The “innocent” who eventually get shepherded to safety by angels are, of course, Lot and his family, and it’s worth noting that they aren’t particularly innocent. When we first meet him, Lot is portrayed as greedy, he offers his daughters up to a mob to be violated in place of his guests, and those same daughters will later incestuously violate him. In Jewish tradition, however, the rest of the inhabitants of Sodom had no redeeming qualities (and, in fact, murdered any of their number who did).
So, while in Christianity, any sin might be enough to condemn you to hell, in Abraham’s argument, any merit should be enough to save not just you, but everyone around you.
It’s also significant that Abraham bargains God down to 10 innocent people being enough to save the entire city, but after they get down to 10, the argument stops. Ten is the minimum number of people necessary to say prayers like Kaddish, because in essence, it’s the dividing line between what's just a handful of Jews and an actual Jewish community. That difference is important in Jewish thought, where this story is used as a prooftext for the idea that a critical mass of good people can change a toxic community. If, however, the number of good people dips below that critical mass, that community will change the good people for the worse faster than they can change it for the better.
If you’re like Lot and his family, the tradition says, a handful of people in a thoroughly broken society, you get out as soon as you can, before you fit too well into that toxic community.
On the other hand, community matters. If members of the community are good enough, they can save their neighbors from themselves.
A closely related concept to that of communal merit or failing is that of zichut avot, the merit of our ancestors.
Some expressions of this concept hold that, in modern terms, nurture matters on the level of peoplehood as well as that of the individual. A virtuous community instills that virtue in the next generation, while a toxic one brutalizes the moral compasses of its children.
A more supernaturally oriented expression of this concept is the idea that the merit of our ancestors gives us a little extra credit with God. (Jesus references this, negatively, in Matthew 3:9.) While this interpretation was prevalent in the Middle Ages, in modern times it has largely been subsumed into the idea that the covenant God made with our ancestors still applies to us, and we are both protected and obligated by it.
Credit and Debt
Rather than the tax collector being “justified” over and above the Pharisee, or instead of the Pharisee, the parable may point to a meaning more in keeping with the Jewish concept of community virtue.
I don’t read Greek, so I’m just going to quote Dr. Amy-Jill Levine's Short Stories by Jesus here:
More intriguing and truer to the provocation of the parable is [Timothy Friedrichson’s] proposal that the phrase be taken in an inclusive sense: “Para + accusative can mean ‘because of’ or ‘on account of.’” Thus the last line could be understood as suggesting that the tax collector received his justification on account of the Pharisee.
That pesky Greek preposition para, as in “paradox,” “parallel,” “Paraclete,” and “parable,” can mean “rather than”; it can also mean “because of.” Another meaning, and the one most familiar from the use of the prefix in English, is “to set side by side.” Its primary connotation is not one of antagonism (“rather”), but one of juxtaposition (“next to”). Therefore, without Luke’s tag line about those who humble themselves, the parable should conclude, “This man went down to his home justified alongside the other” or even “because of the other.” Why is it that so many interpreters find both compelling and congenial readings that damn figures identified with Jews and Judaism?
In other words, rather than reading it as saying the tax collector is more justified than the Pharisee, you can read it as saying they both went home justified, or even that the merit of the Pharisee is what justifies the tax collector.
I think both of those readings make more sense for a Jewish man speaking to an audience of Jews, and I also think that they make more sense for Jesus specifically. I don’t really see an interest on Jesus’s part in dividing the world up into good Jews and bad Jews. Rather, he seems to be trying to help a fractious family remember that it is a family.
That’s why he spends so much time restoring people to states of ritual purity (by exorcising, resurrecting, or healing them), so that they can rejoin normal Jewish society. That’s why he eats meals (an intimate activity) with other Jews from so many different walks of life. That’s why he collects, as followers, people who don’t have family or are estranged from it. If I had to explain how I see Jesus’s relationship to his larger community, he’s the cousin who makes sure to keep visiting and eating with and communicating with estranged family members, making sure that they never forget that both they and the family members they won’t speak to are still part of the family, making sure the channels of communication stay open if they want to return to a closer relationship.
What Comes Next?
The Pharisee isn't off the hook here. Just as a community’s merit can protect its members, the wrongdoing of individuals reflects on their communities. Jews have an obligation to one another, and part of that obligation is tochecha, rebuke. We are our siblings’ keepers, to answer Cain’s question, and Torah tells us that if we don’t speak up when a member of our community harms others, blood is on our hands. So is the Pharisee going to act in regard to the tax collector? Are the listeners?
Similarly, if the tax collector is truly sorry, what’s he going to do next?
Part of what makes this parable so enigmatic is that it seems more like the setup for the story than the story itself.
The Moral of the Story
I don't think the point of this story is Which are you, the Pharisee or the tax collector? The two men are mirrors, and we are all both of them. Jewish stories hardly ever have only one meaning, and I think what Jesus would have wanted, in telling this story, is not for his listeners to walk away with an answer, but with questions.
Is the tax collector going to stop being a tax collector? If he doesn’t, what does his prayer mean? Are there things in your life you know are making you miss the mark, mistreat other people, mistreat yourself? What are you doing about them?
Is it ethical to pray for mercy/absolution if you can’t or don’t intend to stop committing the behavior? What are you actually saying about yourself if you ask for forgiveness for something you intend to keep doing?
Is it wrong to give thanks you’re not in a position where you’re tempted to behave harmfully (“there but for the grace of God…”)? Is it okay to be grateful that you're not being challenged as much as other people? Is it possible to be thankful you're not in their circumstances without looking down on them? What does awareness of the difference in your circumstances spur you to do?
Does our community have enough people devoted to doing the right thing to prevent the people devoted to doing the wrong thing from remaking it in their image, rather than vice versa? Are you being made a better person or a worse one by the company you keep? Are you making the people around you better or worse? Have you established for yourself where the line is between trying to improve a toxic or broken relationship or community and getting out? Are the challenges you face in your community opening your heart or hardening it?
Are we leaning on the merit of others rather than contributing our own? How much are you asking others to do for you? How often are you leaning on their reputation or the trust they've earned? Are you putting in the effort to learn from people you admire? Are you recognizing the people who hold your community together?
What would true teshuvah for the tax collector involve? When it's your job to hurt people, or when you have privilege and power and decide to profit by abusing it, what does it take to actually repair the harm you've done? What do we as victims need from the people who've harmed us? What do we as a community need?
What’s the Pharisee’s responsibility to the tax collector? What do we owe to people who use their power to harm their own communities? If we disapprove of someone's profession (feel free to insert "cop" or "ICE agent" or "medical collections agent" for "tax collector"), what are we doing to help them get out of it? Are we offering them help changing as well as shame? How do we balance trying to bring people back into community with protecting the community from the harm they have done or might still do and not pressuring their victims to forgive?
The kingdom of heaven is a state of being in which community is family, and in which no relationship is broken beyond repair, in which everyone gets what they need because no one gets left behind, in which we don't ignore, resent, or deny our interconnectedness and interdependence, but glory in it.
The very Jewish question that the Torah—and Jesus—seems to always, always be posing to me is:
How do we create the kingdom of heaven here on earth?
In addition to the sources mentioned and links in the text above and the other articles on this site, you may find the following resources helpful in understanding this parable and the other concepts I've been talking about.
Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus
Anson Hugh Laytner, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "Two Concepts of Teshuvah"
The art on this page comes from two sources:
Barent Fabritius, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, 1661. I've used the entire painting for the header, and details throughout the article. See it in HD at the Rijks Museum.
Wall paintings from the Dura Europos synagogue, which may have been destroyed by ISIS.