Pharisee and Tax Collector – In Prayer

Pharisee-n-Tax Collector3Luke 18:9-14. 9 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.”

The Pharisee The Pharisees were not villains.

They were dedicated to observing the law. The Pharisee in our text actually exceeds the laws demands. Fasting twice a week rather than once a week. Tithing on all he gets rather than just the foods and animals (Dt 14:22) for which it is required. [see Note on Luke 18:12 below] According to temple standards, Pharisees are the “good guys” –  the “righteous” – and this Pharisees does even more than the ordinary Pharisee.  Are the “temple standards” the correct ones? Clearly there is some merit as the traditions of fasting and tithing continue into the Christian spiritual practices.

What about the Pharisee’s prayer. There are records of ancient prayers similar to the Pharisee’s and such prayers were not considered self-righteous boasting. The following prayer of thanksgiving from the Talmud was prayed by the rabbis on leaving the house of study.

I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou has set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash [the house of study] and Thou has not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward and they labor and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction. [b. Ber. 28b

A similar ancient prayer (with something offense to our modern sensibilities) is found in the Talmud:

R. Judah said: One must utter three praises everyday: Praised (be the Lord) that He did not make me a heathen, for all the heathen are as nothing before Him (Is 40:17); praised be He, that He did not make me a woman, for woman is not under obligation to fulfill the law; praised by He that He did not make me … an uneducated man, for the uneducated man is not cautious to avoid sins. [t. Ber. 7.18] [p. 59]

So it would seem that the Pharisee’s prayer thanking God that he is not like the rest of humanity was not all that unusual. He is the model of the pious man, both by what he did do (fasting and tithing); and by what he didn’t do – acting like thieves, evil people, adulterers, and tax collectors. The word Pharisee (“those set apart’) is reflected in his posture of prayer – apart from the others.

Then he spoke this prayer to himself.  The phrasing in Greek is awkward, lending itself to several possible understandings. One understanding is neutral: he simply assumed a posture of prayer and prayed quietly to himself. Two other understandings are negative: he prayed to himself rather than to God, or he prayed with reference to himself but with an eye to the tax-collector.

The Pharisee asks nothing of God. Why? Is he satisfied that his fasting and tithing are sufficient – reflecting a works-salvation mentality? Does he assumes these actions reflect his piety and that he is not a sinner? What is clear is that his prayer gives no evidence of humility or contrition.

The Tax Collector

  • “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” (Luke 5:32)
  • …there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.” (Luke 15:7)
  • ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”(Luke 18:13)

Four aspects of the tax-collectors humility are briefly indicated by Luke: (1) he stood far off, (2) he kept his eyes lowered, (3) he beat his beast as a sign of repentance, an (4) he cries out for mercy. Unlike the Pharisee the tax collector gives at least some evidence of humility and contrition. He stands apart not because of his worry about defilement, rather he knows his unworthiness.  Rather than suggest that he himself is daikaios (righteous), the tax collector self-identifies with exactly what the Pharisee considered him to be: a sinner (hamartōlós). Further, rather than speak to God via a reference to the Pharisee, the tax collector straight forwardly begs for mercy.

Culpepper (Luke, 342) notes:

If the Pharisee asks nothing of God, the tax collector boasts nothing before God. His prayer echoes the opening words of Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God.” The crucial addition to the words of Psalm 51, however, is the tax collector’s self-designation: “a sinner.”  Nothing more is said of the tax collector’s prayer. It is complete as it stands, and nothing more needs to be said of his character.


Luke 18:11 took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself: The phrasing in Greek is awkward, lending itself to several possible understandings. One understanding is neutral: he simply assumed a posture of prayer and prayed quietly to himself. Two other understandings are negative: he prayed to himself rather than to God, or he prayed with reference to himself but with an eye to the tax-collector.  not like the rest of humanity: hoi loipoi, referring to the people generally has an elitist edge in reference to the speaker, made all the more plain by the context of its use herein. greedy, dishonest, adulterous: In the Greek nouns are in use versus the NAB’s conversion to adjective. A more literal translation of these nouns would be “thieves, the unrighteous, adulterers.”

Luke 18:12 I fast twice a week…pay tithes: The reference to fasting in 18:12 echoes the stipulation to fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29, 31; 23:27, 29, 32; Num. 29:7), during Purim (Esther 9:31), and during further annual days of fasting (Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19), as well as OT passages that report fasting by individuals as an expression of mourning (2 Sam. 12:21), penance (1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 10:6), and supplication (Neh. 1:4; Dan. 9:3) (see Fitzmyer 1981–1985: 1187; Nolland 1989–1993: 876). Verse 12 is the earliest text that attests the Jewish custom of fasting twice a week. Fasting involved eating only bread and drinking only water. The reference to tithing recalls Lev. 27:30–32; Num. 18:21–24; Deut. 14:22–27.

Luke 18:13 would not even raise his eyes to heaven: The tax collector’s reticence echoes Ezra’s prayer upon hearing of the numerous mixed marriages in Jerusalem: “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6). Both of the situational comments in 18:13a—the downward gaze and the breast-beating—speak of a deep sense of unworthiness and embarrassment. be merciful: The verb used is from hiláskomai used to translate the Hebrew kipper.  The use of these words occurs in relation to the offerings prescribed by the OT Law and along with such terms as “to free from sin,” “to purge,” and “to sanctify” – all leading to the concept of “expiation” the offering and the act of offering a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.