The Tax Collector

This coming Sunday is the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’ post we considered the Pharisee in the context of 1st century religious practice. Today we turn our attention to the tax collector – viewed as a sinner against God and traitor to his people. But the we need to be attentive to Luke’s portrayal of sinners at several key junctions:

“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)

With that it mind we turn to the Sunday Gospel:

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.’ (Luke 18:13)

Four aspects of the tax-collector’s 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 cried 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 straightforwardly 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.

Image credit: De Farizeeër en de tollenaar (The Pharisee and Publican), Barent Fabritius, 1661, Public Domain

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