By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
Prayer is central to Luke’s Gospel. The opening scene has the assembly of the people in Jerusalem praying while Zechariah is doing his priestly duty (1.10). The adult Jesus’s first appearance in the gospel is while he is praying (3.21). Luke regularly shows us Jesus at prayer as he discerns the Way (5.16; 6.12; 9.18; 9.28-29).
But not all prayer is equal, as we hear in this Sunday’s passage, contrasting the prayer of a Pharisee and a tax collector (18.9-14). Our passage picks up the theme of prayer from last week’s gospel (18.1-8), which focuses on the call to embody “tenacious agitation,” as Ched shows. Luke begins our passage by telling us that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves (Gk, pepoithotas ep’ heautois) that they were just (Gk, dikaioi) and regarded others with contempt” (18.9). Tracing the three key words in this introduction—“trusted,” “in themselves,” and “just”— leads us deeply into another aspect of true prayer.
The word NRSV translates as “trusted” (peithō) has the root meaning of “to persuade” or “to convince,” as we hear in its use earlier: “…’If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced (peisthēsontai) even if someone rises from the dead'” (16.31) Both the rich man across the chasm from Lazarus and the Pharisee in our current parable are concerned with making a case that is persuasive. Abraham contrasts the rich man’s call for convincing evidence with “listening” to the Word of God.
But the Pharisee in our passage is not listening to God at all. He is caught up in himself, like other characters Luke uses as foils (e.g., 10.29 [the scribe seeking to “justify” himself]; 12.17 [the rich fool]). More specifically, the Pharisee seeks to convince God that he is “just” and “not like other people” (18.11). Among those with whom the Pharisee contrasts himself are the “unjust” (adikos, obscurely translated “rogues” by NRSV). At the end of the parable, Jesus claims that it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who “went down into his house justified (dedikaiōmenos).” Thus, we can reframe this passage as addressing the question, “What kind of prayer leads one to be seen by God as just?”
Another element of Jesus’ conclusion helps us to answer this question: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This is repeated verbatim from Lk 14.11, where it comes after Jesus’ advice about one’s place at a banquet and leads directly into the call not to invite one’s family or rich neighbors but rather, to invite the poor to one’s celebrations. Again, it is the Pharisees (along with the lawyers) who are the audience for Jesus’ word (14.1-3). The connection reveals that being “just before God” has an inner and an outer aspect. That is to say, one’s inner disposition matches one’s behavior: one who makes oneself humble hangs out with the humble; one who is self-exalted is comfortable only among one’s fellow elite.
This leads to a further link: our passage echoes Luke’s reflection at 7.29-30. There, Jesus told the crowds that the “least in the kingdom of God” is greater than John the Baptist. Luke then notes:
And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, declared God just (ekidaiōsan), because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose (boulen) for themselves.
Throughout the Gospel, the Pharisees have challenged Jesus’ table fellowship with tax collectors, his forgiving of sins, his acceptance of the caresses of a sinful woman, and his violation of the Sabbath. They have embodied the meaning of their name: “separatists.” Rather than enter into the journey of repentance that leads to the practice of jubilee justice, the Pharisees have grumbled and resisted Jesus’ Way, which is, of course, God’s “purpose” (cf. Acts 4.28; 5.38; 13.36; 20.27).
Thus, in the current parable, the Pharisee, “standing by himself,” speaks, but does not listen, convinced in himself that he is the just man (compare 5.32). His self-praise includes his twice-weekly fasting. If he were listening to the prophets, he might recall this word from Third Isaiah:
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers….Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to YHWH? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of YHWH shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and YHWH will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. (Isa 58.3, 5-9)
That is, to “humble oneself” is not to engage merely in public rituals that express external humility, but truly to listen to God, who is calling us to come down to the level place where those with bread and clothing meet and share with those who are lacking (Lk 3.11).
But, one might suggest, the Pharisee claims to tithe. Isn’t that participating in jubilee justice? A closer look challenges this suggestion. While the NRSV specifies that the Pharisee tithes “all of my income” (panta hosa ktōmai) the phrase is perhaps better rendered, “all that I acquire.” We can then hear it against Jesus’ earlier condemnation of the Pharisees’ tithing: “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice (krisis) and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others” (11.42). In other words, the Pharisees tithe in place of practicing justice, much like a church donor who puts a nice check in the collection but never breaks bread with the marginalized.
Curiously, the Pharisee’s prayer includes that he sees “this tax collector,” unlike Simon the Pharisee who cannot “see this woman” (7.44) or the rich man who completely ignores Lazarus at his gate. But his seeing serves only to solidify the distance between them. He is much like a white liberal who claims before God not to be racist, comparing themselves to someone who looks like a racist.
But, of course, the one for whom the Pharisee expresses open contempt is the one who knows that he is a sinner and willingly says so before God. His prayer is not self-justifying, but instead, seeks to be “reconciled” with God (18.13; Gk hilastheti, “merciful” in the NRSV). His prayer is much like Sue’s favorite prayer petition: “Change me, change me, change me!” It recognizes that we are never “there” in terms of standing justly before God, but are always in need of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. One’s ongoing, inner relationship with God is the foundation of one’s ability to practice radical discipleship. As Jesus said earlier in Luke, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (6.45; also, 12.33-34).
Standing alone, it can be easy to justify one’s own life. But anyone who dares to seek community with others knows all too well the need for ongoing humility and prayer for transformation. The tax collector in our parable is also alone, but in next week’s passage, we will hear of another tax collector, Zacchaeus, who finds salvation in being reconciled with those he has defrauded and welcomes Jesus into his house.
May those of us who so yearn for God’s justice and peace to break forth in the world continue to seek to be transformed and reconciled with God and others. It is through daily, prayerful entry into the realm of God’s humbling Love that we are empowered to come down from our privileged perch to the level place. We conclude with the morning prayer that was part of the adapted Benedictine tradition through which we first met each other:
New every day is your love,
O great God of light.
And all day long you are working for good in the world.
Stir up in us a desire to serve you,
And to live peaceably with our neighbors,
Through Christ our Lord,