He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 – NRSV)
Of this parable and the one immediately preceding it – the persistent widow (18:1-8) – Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “No less than the parables of the ‘lost and found’ in Luke 15:2–32 are these parables polemical instruments”. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 274.) Jesus is speaking specifically to the Pharisees present in his audience. The parable contrasts the behaviour of two characters – see also 15:11–32; 16:19–31; Mt. 21:28–32. In this instance it is the Pharisee – the respectable, knowledgeable one who lives according to the law – and the tax collector – the outcast who makes a living by collecting taxes for the Roman occupiers.
The tension is tangible. Jesus is confronting the keepers of the law very directly, contrasting them with the people they are supposed to be guiding in the ways of God. This is a common theme in Luke – see especially the three parables in chapter 15. One scholar sums it up concisely: “Here the whole, subjectively honest concern of Pharisaic Judaism to fulfil the Law correctly and thereby to contribute to the coming of God’s kingdom is radically set aside in favour of the attitude of those who expect nothing of themselves and their works but everything from God”. (H. F. Weiss in G. Kittel and G. Friedrich (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (translated by G. W. Bromiley), IX, 42, Grand Rapids, 1964–76.)
some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous: This is the ultimate form of idolatry and the most serious of offences. Everything in the history and tradition of the people reminds them that God took the initiative, it is God who sustains them and they find their identity in obedience to God. St Paul sums it up: “we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2Corinthians 1:9). And the capital sin of the pagans, according to St Paul, is “not to have rendered to God either glory or thanksgiving” (Romans 1:21).
regarded others with contempt: The Greek verb exoutheneō is very strong. For example, it is used again by Luke in the passion narrative – “Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt” (23:11).
The Pharisee, standing by himself: Standing was in fact a normal posture for prayer. It was also common enough for individuals to go to the temple for personal prayer and the prayer would be said out loud but quietly. However, there does seem to be an implication of something pompous about the Pharisee here. As so often happens in the Gospels, Jesus cuts through practices and customs that are taken for granted and, as such, can hide much dishonesty and hypocrisy. The truth of one’s relationship with oneself can be lost amidst the impetus of routines and habits of our taken for granted worlds.
God, I thank you that I am not like other people etc: Thanksgiving is at the core of Jewish life. Thanksgiving suggests a disposition that is self-transcending – the very opposite of those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous”. There is therefore a good deal of irony in the fact that this Pharisees is giving thanks, not to God for blessings, but for his own triumphs and “that I am not like other people”. What a travesty of the thanksgiving prayers! And in listing his triumphs, he is documenting, as it were, the way he has fulfilled Torah and added a bit besides: His fasting (5:33) takes place twice a week, thus going well beyond legal requirements (5:33–39). …. the Pharisee went beyond the letter of the law in paying tithes on what he bought …. the Pharisee’s prayer is disqualified because of its pride and contempt for other men.” (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Paternoster Press, 1978, 679-680.)
But the tax collector etc: The focus is utterly on God. The tax collector knows his need for forgiveness and seeks it wholeheartedly. There is no pretense here, just raw honesty. This is a truly humble man. The Pharisees in the audience would not have missed the fact that this tax collector does not show “works of repentance”, which is required by the law. The absence of this legal requirement simply drives home the point: forgiveness depends on the mercy of God rather than the works of the sinner. We cannot earn God’s love or forgiveness. It is given superabundantly and unmerited. We must simply open our hearts and show our desire to receive the gift. “Jesus’ lesson is precisely that the attitude of the heart is ultimately what matters, and justification depends on the mercy of God to the penitent rather than upon works which might be thought to earn God’s favour; when Zacchaeus restores his ill-gotten gains—a responsibility from which he is not excused!—this follows his acceptance by Jesus and does not precede it.” (I H Marshall, op cit, 681.)
The statement, “he who exalts himself etc” is also found in Luke 14:11, where Jesus speaks of those claiming the first place at the table.
Why would I exalt myself? Why would I want to be what I am not? There has to be something amiss here. What is happening? Perhaps I am thinking – at some level, consciously or unconsciously – that being me is not as good as being an idealized image of me. Being the one God has made me to be is not as good as being the one I am seeking to be. This looks very much like we are dealing with a deep-seated fear – a fear that muddles our thoughts and draws us into an upside down view of the world.
St Teresa of Avila represents the best of the Tradition when she writes near the beginning of her little classic, The Interior Castle:
The fears come from our not understanding ourselves completely. They distort self-knowledge; and I’m not surprised if we never get free from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared. (St Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle 1: 11, translated by Otilio Rodriguez OCD and Kieran Kavanagh OCD, The Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila – Volume 2, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1980, 293.)
Let us pause there. Teresa has said something profound. She is saying, in a word, that we fear what we ought to embrace – namely the truth of who and what we are in God – and embrace what we ought to fear – namely the fiction of an exalted self. In this context she even counsels against “extremes of virtue” (1:10) and “intense zeal for religious observance” (1:16). Grace has its pace – surrender to it. Nurture a true awareness of the self, one that will set you free from yourself, by constantly remembering the relationship with Jesus Christ. Teresa continues:
…. set our eyes on Christ, our Good, and on His saints. There we shall learn true humility, the intellect will be enhanced, as I have said – see 10 above – and self-knowledge will not make one base and cowardly. (Ibid.)
The more deeply that relationship with Christ grows, the more the relationship with self grows and the more the relationships with other people and the world will grow. This is the path of freedom! On that path the conviction will emerge: There is no need for me to exalt myself!
The Pharisee – like anyone else who feels drawn towards self-exaltation – needs to ask the simple question: “What’s happening with me?” The question is asked, not to seek an intellectual analysis but simply and honestly to listen and face the fear that is there. Paradoxically, the healing is in the disease. The truth of the fear holds the key to our freedom. Humility is nothing else than walking in truth. Let the self that God is creating do the talking.