Pharisee and Tax Collector – Righteousness

Pharisee-n-Tax Collector3Luke 18:9-149 He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. 10 “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ 13 But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Commentary. We hear this parable differently that the first century listener.  We know how the parable ends and we also know how Luke has been describing the Pharisees, thus even at the words one was a Pharisee we know how this will end. Won’t it be that the Pharisee will represent the one who trusts himself and his own righteousness rather than God and the one who judges others and holds them in contempt? But lets consider how the first century listener might have heard this narrative.

These two parables are connected linguistically by a number of words with the Greek root –dik– = generally referring to “what is right.”

Parable of the Persistent Widow Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector
ek-dik-eo – render a just decision (18:3, 5) anti-dik-os – adversary (18:3)
a-dik-ia – dishonest (18:6) ek-dik-esis – grant justice (18:7, 8)
dik-aios – righteousness (18:9) a-dik-os – dishonest (18:11)
dik-aioo – justified (18:14)

According to the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains by Louw & Nida: dikaios can mean “pertaining to being in accordance with what God requires,” and thus “righteous” by doing what God requires. Wouldn’t the first century people assume this meaning applied to the Pharisee and not to the “sinful” tax collector? Didn’t the Pharisee do what God required and the tax collector not?

It is likely that the first century hearers had opposite impressions of the characters. Pharisees often prayed, went to the temple, placed themselves under the Law, were exemplars of right behavior – so they certainly must be trusting God not themselves.  Yes? Tax collectors were considered traitors to their fellow Jews. The collected exorbitant levies for the Romans and for their own profits. How could they do such a thing unless they despise their own people.  Clearly their actions placed them outside the “chosen ones” – as if lepers to any “right believing” Jew.

However, within the gospel, Luke has already reversed the picture of Pharisees and tax collectors. Tax collectors are baptized (by John – 3:12; 7:29); one, Levi, will follow him (5:27); Jesus eats with them and is called their friend (5:29-30; 7:34); they listen to Jesus (15:1). In contrast, Pharisees (sometimes with others), question and criticize Jesus (5:21, 30; 6:2, 7; 7:39; 11:38; 11:53; 15:2; 16:14; 17:20); they refuse John’s baptism and reject God’s gift (7:30); yet, Jesus eats with Pharisees (7:36; 11:37; 14:1), but pronounces woes on them (11:42-43).

The Righteous who DespiseHe then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. The use of exoutheneo – “to despise” (v.9) raises an interesting question about who are the self-righteous people who are despising others in Luke’s time. Is this parable directed against Pharisees and others outside the community of believers who despise those inside the church? In Luke’s other uses of the word, it refers to those who despised or rejected Jesus (Luke 23:11; Acts 4:11). With this understanding, it might be easier for (self-righteous) Christians to assume that the problem is with “those people out there,” but not with “us”.

However, looking at the other uses of the word – all in Paul, it is usually directed towards those inside the church who despise other members of the community of faith. In all but two instances, Paul uses the word in this way (Romans 14:3, 10; 1Corinthains 16:11; 2Corinthains 10:10; Galatians 4:14; 1Thess 5:20).[1] With this understanding, those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else are also among believers.


Luke 18:9 He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else: This verse echoes Ezek. 33:13, a text in which the prophet had criticized his contemporaries for trusting in their own righteousness: “Though I say to the righteous [tō dikaiō] that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness [pepoithen epi tē dikaiosynē autou] and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.”

convinced…righteousness: The Greek pepothoitas (from the verb root péthō ) normally means “to convince” or “to persuade;” however, it can also secondarily mean “to seduce,” “to corrupt.” The word is used to translate the Hebrew bṭḥ, which expresses confidence, hope, trust, security, and peace. The word for used for “righteousness” (díkaioi) refers to what is right in the context of the covenant and in relationship to God.  A dynamic translation might be “those who seduced themselves that they were in right relationship to God.”

[1]     One exception is 1Corinthains 1:28 where God chooses what is “despised” in the world; the other is 1Corinthains 6:4 about a judge who “has no standing” in the church.

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