Empathy and grace: tax collector

Pharisee-n-Tax Collector3The Tax Collector. 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.’

Consider what Luke has already recorded about Jesus vis-a-vis “sinners”

  • “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)

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.

A Parable of Reversal? I tell you, the latter [tax collector] went home justified. The verb tense makes it clear that it is God who has justified this person. What does dikaioo mean? Lowe & Nida give the following for dikaioo:

  1. to cause someone to be in a proper or right relation with someone else
  2. to demonstrate that something is morally right
  3. the act of clearing someone of transgression
  4. to cause to be released from the control of some state or situation involving moral issues

It seems that 1 and 3 best fit the context. The tax collector goes home in a right relationship with God, because God made the relationship right. It was not something the tax collected did for himself (self-justification). The word also implies that he went home having been freed (by God) of his sin or guilt. He came to the temple “a sinner” and went home forgiven.

We might object to God forgiving the tax collector. He doesn’t actually confess any sins. He makes no statement of repentance. He doesn’t offer to change his life. He doesn’t make any reparations for his sins (as the tax collector Zacchaeus does). This appears to be very cheap grace. This parable probably should not be understood as an example story, but is it simply a story of reversal, as the final saying indicates. If the Pharisee is viewed as a villain and the tax collector a hero, besides the historical inaccuracies, the parable loses its power. They have only received what they deserved. There is no need for the reversal in this last verse.

The parable as a whole is a challenge to our normal expectations. If “justification” comes because of either the Pharisee’s righteous life-style or the tax collector’s prayer, then aren’t they, in some way, justifying themselves? If “justification” comes in spite of one’s life-style or prayer, then it is totally dependent upon God’s graciousness. Our motivation for living rightly or praying honestly needs to be something different from to “get something from God.”

Craddock (Luke, 211) concludes his comments on this text with:

For this parable to continue to speak with power, the preacher will need to find in our culture analogous characters. The Pharisee is not a venomous villain and the publican is not generous Joe the bartender or Goldie the good-hearted hooker. Such portrayals belong in cheap novels. If the Pharisee is pictured as a villain and the tax collector as a hero, then each gets what he deserves, there is no surprise of grace and the parable is robbed. In Jesus’ story, what both receive is “in spite of,” not “because of.” When the two men are viewed in terms of character and community expectations, without labels or prejudice, the parable is still a shock, still carrying the power both to offend and to bless. But perhaps most important, the interpreter of this parable does not want to depict the characters in such a way that the congregation leaves the sanctuary saying, “God, I thank thee that I am not like the Pharisee.” It is possible that the reversal could be reversed.


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.

Luke 18:14 the latter went home justified: “the latter” referring to the tax collector was justified. The verb tense makes it clear that it is God who has justified this person – God now sees him as justified.


  • Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 340-43
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 643-49
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 269-74
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. ©

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter 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.