9 Also, to some who were relying on their own righteousness and looking down on everyone else, he told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Parush and the other a tax-collector. 11 The Parush stood and prayed to himself, ‘O God! I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, immoral, or like this tax-collector! 12 I fast twice a week, I pay tithes on my entire income, . . . ’ 13 But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes toward heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God! Have mercy on me, sinner that I am!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home right with God rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This parable is recorded only by Luke who uses it as bridge between a section on the ultimate hope of the kingdom and material derived from Mark chapter 10 which is about humility.
Luke understands this parable as Jesus’ way of redefining the Jewish concept of the just person. The Pharisees believed that a person’s justice or righteousness consisted in obedience to the Torah and membership of Israel. Luke notes that this led to some of them being sure that they were just ( dikaios). In Jesus’ story, both men speak the truth about themselves – the Pharisee lives a decent life and the tax-collector is a collaborator who works for the occupying power. But the Pharisee only knows what he has, whereas the tax collector knows what he lacks. The latter accepts God’s justice, (Jesus says he goes home ‘straightened out’) whereas the former steps into God’s place and awards himself full marks. The tax-collector can become just but the Pharisee cannot until he throws away his arrogance.
Jesus redefines justice / righteousness as submitting to God’s judgement, to the God of the Torah as well as its commandments. Jesus is not suggesting any relativism with regard to the life-style of the two men, but in his eyes the Pharisee is a possibly damned, decent man; while the tax- collector is a possibly rescued sinner.
Even a decent religion can become a barrier between a person and God when its customs and commands are used to shield the worshipper from God’s goodness.
Clearly this is a dangerous teaching which could easily lead people away from concrete obedience to moral rules and introduce a measure of individual waywardness into the life of believers which might be worse than the spiritual arrogance Jesus was attacking. One can see why Judaism ultimately rejected this view of the Torah, choosing to develop its own safeguards against self-righteousness. It is nevertheless the teaching of Jesus and of his great interpreter, St. Paul, both of whom insist that submission to God’s judgement is the beginning of wisdom.
A modern adaptation of this teaching can be seen in the twelve -step programme of Alcholics Anonymous, a rule-based therapy which insists that a person begin by letting go of pride and confessing that a sober life is beyond his own strength. Such a person can be straightened out, while alcoholics who refuse this humility, cannot. Paul goes so far as to say,”When I am weak, then, I’m strong,” contrasting a false strength to an honest weakness that opens a person to the sources of true strength. These fundamental insights can build a communal nurture that helps people to grow.