This coming Sunday is the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’ post we considered differing dispositions for prayer. Today we will explore the difference in how this parable might be understood by a first century listener.
We read that Jesus is addressing those “who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” and then we hear “one was a Pharisee.” And we nod our head, “I knew it!” We know how Luke has been describing the Pharisees, thus even at the words one was a Pharisee we are disposed to have this not end well for the Pharisees. We are not surprised 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 let’s 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”. In the Parable of the Persistent Widow we have: ek-dik-eo – render a just decision (18:3, 5); a-dik-ia – dishonest (18:6); dik-aios – righteousness (18:9) and dik-aioo – justified (18:14). This same root also appears in this parable: anti-dik-os – adversary (18:3); ek-dik-esis – grant justice (18:7, 8); a-dik-os – dishonest (18:11).
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?
There is also a more secular meaning associated with dikaios: “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 (11:42-4).
He 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 the identity of those who are the self-righteous people who are despising others in Luke’s time, some 40-50 years after the time of Jesus. Is this parable directed against the leaders of Judaism 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). With this understanding, those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else are also among believers.
Image credit: De Farizeeër en de tollenaar (The Pharisee and Publican), Barent Fabritius, 1661, Public Domain