Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 18.9-14
Proper 25 - Year C

Other texts: 


(This section was also presented in last week's notes. If you read it then, you can skip it here.)

This parable is unique to Luke, as is the preceding parable on prayer (18:1-8 -- last week's text). Luke has a greater emphasis on prayer than the other gospels. Many times in synoptic events, Luke adds a comment that Jesus is praying that is not found in the other gospels:

The following parables about prayer are unique to Luke:

A possible reason for this is that "Most Excellent Theophilus," to whom this writing is addressed may have been a Roman official (even though he has a Greek name). As such, he, and those with whom he might share this "gospel," may not have known how to pray. Part of Luke's presentation of Jesus and those who follow him is the importance of prayer for Jesus and his followers.

Luke Timothy Johnson [Luke, Sacra Pagina] concludes his comments on these two parables with:

The parables together do more than remind us that prayer is a theme in Luke-Acts; they show us why prayer is a theme. For Luke, prayer is faith in action. Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety, carried out to demonstrate one's relationship with God. It is that relationship with God. The way one prays therefore reveals that relationship. If the disciples do not "cry out day and night" to the Lord, then they in fact do not have faith, for that is what faith does. Similarly, if prayer is self-assertion before god, then it cannot be answered by God's gift of righteousness; possession and gift cancel each other. [p. 473]


Besides the topic of prayer, our text and the following parable are also connected by a number of words with the Greek root -dik- = generally referring to "what is right".


One of Luke's ongoing themes is the inclusivity of the Gospel. In these two parables, prayers are answered by God for a (saintly and probably poor) widow and the sinful (and probably rich) male tax collector.

From Culpepper (Luke, NIB):

By reading these two parables together, the reader is instructed to pray with the determination of the widow and the humility of the tax collector. Peter Rhea Jones has characterized the complementary themes of the two parables as "The promise of persistent prayer" (18:1-8) and "The peril of presumptuous prayer" (vv. 9-14). [p. 340]


Our text might be outlined as:


I don't believe that we would read this introduction as they did in the first century. Because we know how the parable ends, we assume that the Pharisee must represent the one who put his trust on himself that he was righteous and the one who despised others. However, my guess is that the first hearers or readers had opposite impressions of the characters. Pharisees often prayed and went to the temple and did all the proper religious duties -- so they certainly must be trusting God not themselves. Tax collectors were considered traitors to their fellow Jews -- so certainly they must be the one who despised others. Tax collectors were often rich -- cf. Zacchaeus (19:1-10 -- the gospel for Nov 4) -- and since they were usually disliked -- they could and often had to rely on themselves -- even to being "righteous" as the second definition below might indicate.

However, within the narrative, 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 (11:42-43).

According to the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains by Louw & Nida [L&N]: dikaios can mean "pertaining to being in accordance with what God requires," and thus "righteous" by doing what God requires, or we might say, "Doing right by God.". 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?

dikaios also has a more secular meaning: "pertaining to being proper or right in the sense of being fully justified" -- I image that tax collectors or 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). Of course we would never do something like that, would we? <g>

The use of exoutheneo -- "to despise" raises an interesting question of who are the self-righteous people who are despising others in Luke's time. Is this parable directed against Pharisees 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 (Lk 23:11; Ac 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 (Ro 14:3, 10; 1C 16:11; 2C 10:10; Ga 4:14; 1Th 5:20 -- one exception is 1C 1:28 where God chooses what is "despised" in the world; the other is 1C 6:4 about a judge who "has no standing" in the church). With this understanding, it is a problem that affects believers, and thus it might also be a problem in us ... or in me.


Considering how these characters were probably viewed in the first century, Crossan has suggested an interesting equivalent: "A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter's to pray." I think that this picture is closer to the original understanding of a Pharisee and a publican -- especially in relationship to the temple. What might people think if a pastor started a sermon with those words: "A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter's to pray"? What would they expect next? Would they, in their wildest imaginations, think that the pimp would be the one who left justified? At the same time, I wouldn't want to give the impression that the pope's prayers are not heard by God, nor that he leaves the cathedral unjustified.


The Pharisees were not villains. They were dedicated to observing the law -- and our pray-er actually exceeds the laws demands. Fasting twice a week rather than once a week. Tithing on all he gets rather than just the foods and animals for which it is required. According to temple standards, Pharisees are the "good guys" -- the "righteous" -- and this Pharisees does even more "good" stuff than the ordinary Pharisee.

Tax collectors were not heroes. They were considered traitors and religiously unclean. According to temple standards, they are the "bad guys" -- the "unrighteous".

Luke Timothy Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina) writes about v. 11:

The phrasing in Greek is awkward. How should one render the preposition pros + the accusative? One reading is neutral: he prayed quietly to himself. Two readings are negative: he prayed to himself rather than to God; or, he prayed "with reference to himself" but with an eye on the tax-agent! [p. 271]

We have records of ancient prayers similar to the Pharisee's and such prayers were not considered self-righteous boasting. The following prayer of thanksgiving from the Talmud was prayed by the rabbis on leaving (and perhaps entering) the house of study.

I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou has set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash [the house of study] and Thou has not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward and they labor and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction. [b. Ber. 28b (Soncino 1: 172), quoted in Hear Then the Parables by Bernard Brandon Scott]

A similar ancient prayer is quoted by Scott from Eta Linnemann in Jesus of the Parables -- (I am certain that most of my readers will find something offense in this prayer):

R. Judah said: One must utter three praises everyday: Praised (be the Lord) that He did not make me a heathen, for all the heathen are as nothing before Him (Is 40:17); praised be He, that He did not make me a woman, for woman is not under obligation to fulfill the law; praised by He that He did not make me ... an uneducated man, for the uneducated man is not cautious to avoid sins. [t. Ber. 7.18] [p. 59]

So it would seem that the Pharisee's prayer thanking God that he is not like the rest of humanity was not all that unusual. He is the model of the pious man, both by what he did do (fasting and tithing -- which were both beyond what the law required); and by what he didn't do -- acting like swindlers, evil people, adulterers, and tax collectors. Shouldn't we be thankful that we are Christians and that we are walking down the paths of righteousness God has set before us? Or can we only confess that we have failed to walk down all the paths of righteousness God has set before us?

Green (The Gospel of Luke) comments about the temple as "cultural center" that is, "that place in Jewish society where the world is ordered through its layout of courts that segregate Jews and Gentiles, men and women, priests and nonpriests, clean and unclean; and thus the divinely legitimated hub that mirrors as well as communicates and sustains the boundaries of social relations and experiences of fictive kinship among the Jewish people" (pp. 646-7).

There is an aspect of Jewish religion that is meant to keep people separated -- and especially from the understanding of the Pharisees -- a name that may mean "separate ones".

Culpepper notes: "The Pharisee is aware of the presence of the tax collector in the Temple, but the only link between them is the Pharisee's contempt for the tax collector." [p. 341]

Frequently I hear comments about the coldness in congregations towards visitors (or even some members). While the feelings towards others may not actually be contemptuous, I have frequently heard members talk about visitors, e.g., "Do you know who that is?" or worse "What are they doing here?" rather than talk to visitors. What frequently happens is that members visit with their (church) friends, and then think that they are a friendly church.


The tax collector prays with the actions of mourning or despair. He begins his prayer with the same supplication as the Pharisee: "O God." He then uses a word that only occurs twice in the NT: hilaskomai (Lk 18:13 & He 2:17). The two definitions of this word in Lowe & Nida are:

"to forgive," with the focus upon the instrumentality or the means by which forgiveness is accomplished.

"to show mercy," "to show compassion" and concern for someone in difficulty, despite that person's having committed a moral offense

They add a comment about Lk 18:13: "It is inadequate simply to indicate an attitude on the part of God. Having mercy or showing compassion must involve some act of kindness or concern."

We may consider translating the word with "bring about forgiveness" or "show mercy". It involves asking God to do something. Note also that it is an imperative: this sinner is commanding God! And the tax collector doesn't even say "please!" What kind of prayer is that!?!? At least the Pharisee said, "Thank you." <g>

The tax collector calls himself a sinner -- and probably all of society would have agreed with that; but they probably would agree that the Pharisee was the ideal righteous person.


dedikaiomenos -- a perfect, passive, participle = "having been justified"

perfect = something that happened in the past that continues into the present.

It can be translated as a perfect: "he has been justified"
or as a present: "he is justified"

passive = a reversal of subject and object in sentence position


e.g., active = Jack has built a house;
passive = A house has been built by Jack

our sentence:

passive = "The tax collector has been justified (by God)"
active = "God has justified the tax collector."

In contrast to the "self-justification" in the introduction (v. 9), this grammar indicates that it is God who justifies the tax collector. It is not something he did for himself.

What does dikaioo mean? Lowe & Nida make a distinction between "definitions" and "glosses". Most dictionaries give "glosses" -- suggested English terms e.g., "to justify", rather than defining the word. The definitions they give for dikaioo are:

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

I think that 1 & 3 best fit the context. The tax collector goes home being in a right relationship with God, because God made the relationship right. It was not something the tax collected did for himself (self-justification -- note also that this verb is related to the noun for "righteous" in v. 9). 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, will do next week). This appears to be very cheap grace. I'm not sure that I want to make this prayer a model of confession.

This parable probably should not be understood as an example story, but a story of reversal, as the final saying indicates.

The exalting/humbling reversal presented in v. 14 is also found in Lk 1:52; 14:11; Mt 23:12. I commented on this when Luke 14:11 was part of the Gospel text (Proper 17 C).

Just a few comments from the earlier note:

I think that we need to be careful about the way we approach this verse. I've heard it suggested that the big sin of many males is to try to be super-human -- to proudly become too god-like (inappropriate exaltation of one's self). In contrast, the big sin of females is often being sub-human -- not being the gifted people God has created and called them to be (inappropriate humility of oneself). We are the crown of God's creation. Each one of us has been gifted by God. So -- how can we promote godly self-esteem without self-exaltation or arrogance? And how can we promote humility without self-degradation or shame?

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) 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. [p. 211]


Culpepper concludes his comments with:

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, contrary to some interpretations, is a two-sided parable. To read it as simply a warning against pride, self-sufficiency, or a relationship with God based on one's own works is to miss the other side of the parable, which connects the Pharisee's posture before God with his contempt for the tax collector. To miss this connection would be tantamount to emulating the Pharisee's blindness to the implications of his attitude toward the tax collector. The nature of grace is paradoxical: It can be received only by those who have learned empathy for others. In that regard, grace partakes of the nature of mercy and forgiveness. Only the merciful can receive mercy, and only those who forgive will be forgiven (6:36-38). The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble. As a result, his religion drove him away from the tax collector rather than toward him. [p. 343]

"We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another." written by Jonathan Swift in 1711.


Although my above comments suggest that the purpose of Jesus' parable is on reversal of fortunes rather than prayer, I like this following parable on prayer from A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel, Copyright, 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York

Once there was a rabbi who was at the point of death, so the Jewish community proclaimed a day of fasting in the town in order to induce the Heavenly Judge to commute the sentence of death.

On that very day, when the entire congregation was gathered in the synagogue for penance and prayer, the town drunkard went to the village tavern for some schnapps. When another Jew saw him do this he rebuked him, saying, "Don't you know this is a fast-day and you're not allowed to drink? Why, everybody's at the synagogue praying for the rabbi!"

So the drunkard went to the synagogue and prayed, "Dear God! Please restore our rabbi to good health so that I can have my schnapps!"

The rabbi recovered, and it was considered a miracle. He explained it in the following way: "May God preserve our village drunkard until he is a hundred and twenty years! Know that his prayer was heard by God when yours were not. He put his whole heart and soul into his prayer!" [page 161]

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364