A Parable of Reversal?

This coming Sunday is the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time. So far we have looked in some depth at the role played by the Pharisee and that of the Tax Collector. Jesus concludes the parable by saying: “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.” (Luke 18:14)

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? As we mentioned several days ago, 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 than 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.

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

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