Empathy and grace: what is right

Pharisee-n-Tax Collector3We 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”.


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?

dikaios also has a more secular meaning: “pertaining to being proper or right in the sense of being fully justified.” The tax collectors (and sinners of all stripes) have ways of justifying their actions – convincing themselves that what they have done is proper and right (regardless of what God or others might think).

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).


  • R. Balz & G. Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) – Schneider, dikaios, 1: 324–325

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