9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 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 (NRSVue)
In the last couple of weeks, the United Kingdom’s socio-economic foundations were shaken to the core. The pound plunged to an historic low against other currencies, driving market uncertainty and, in the process, pushed the national debt to its highest levels since records began. Much of this was due to some of the new monetary policies announced by the new government from the conservative party, which unashamedly favoured the rich and wealthy, benefiting bankers and hedge fund managers. The UK government has resurrected the now discredited trickle down economic model to be the main driver of economic growth. The working class and poor were given a raw deal, pushing them to look at an uncertain future. The chasm between the ultra-rich and poor has further widened.
Recent studies have revealed that in the UK more people are using foodbanks and depending on charities for their daily food consumption. The cost of living crisis is crippling many families, and global fuel and energy price hikes are resulting in people experiencing poverty. It has been suggested that such a situation will push more people to risk their lives by not heating their homes, with more children facing hunger this winter. Further research reveals that the worst affected due to these racialised economic changes are the people from Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic communities. These socio-economic realities indicate how British society is deeply divided, segmented, and unequal. For Christians in this context, if there was a time to seriously consider the theological dangers of privilege, entitlement, and condescension, perhaps now is the time.
The gospel of Luke positions Jesus within a highly fractured and segmented Judean society. There were religiously and socially developed boundaries between Jews, Samaritans, and Galileans, as well as along the lines of slaves, men, and women. These boundaries permeated into every aspect of the society and reinforced the perceptions that shaped them in the first place. Many such perceptions were rooted in religious ritual observances that were distinctively responsible for creating a community identity. In the context of Jewish religious practices, as the Hebrew Bible shows, much of it was developed around the covenantal relationship with God, and the ethical requirements to lead lives of justice, mercy, and compassion. However, as Isabelle Hamley describes, these laws that were developed to help the Israelites in their covenantal relationship became walls of estrangement over the centuries, separating people into various categories and preventing them from being an inclusive community. It is in this context of rigid physical and psychological barriers that Jesus proclaimed the good news of a new community, a subversion of such deeply held views, much to the horror of the privileged and powerful communities of his time. In Luke’s gospel we read that the sinners, lepers, tax collectors, impure and disabled were all excluded from being recipients of God’s blessings.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector underlines Jesus’s convictions and part of his sustained challenge to the Pharisees. This parable is about some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and, in the process, regarded others with contempt. The illogicality of this parable is that a tax collector who was viewed so negatively (due to socio-political and economic reasons) by the people and the established religion, becomes the one “justified” and accepted in the sight of God for his prayer. Similarly, the Pharisee, who is respected among the common public, behaves in a blatantly self-righteous manner. It is not so much about the content of the prayer, but the ‘attitude’ with which they approached God that Jesus draws our attention. The parable portrays how the privileged walked around with arrogance and self-importance because of their status as law-abiding righteous people, while the excluded and despised were forced to embrace moral destitution, like the tax collector. It is also critical to note that both the pharisee and the tax collector were products of the Roman colonial context, which determined their existential responses. The Pharisee responded to the colonial context by preserving his religious roots while the tax collector sought to make a living.
However, by addressing this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (v.9), Jesus intentionally crossed those reified boundaries, inviting criticism and ridicule. Jesus was aware that the Pharisees were seeking to preserve the Jewish religion through strict adherence during the Roman occupation. However, in the process Jesus alerts to their failure to seek the welfare of all people. By exemplifying the tax collector, Jesus reached out beyond the social boundaries and found ways to include the ‘sinners’ in his economy of Grace.
The theo-political impulse of this parable is this: one needs to address the inequality of perceptions that manifest both in society and sacred places. We need to pay attention to the browbeaten and self-aware tax collector, who went home justified due to his attitude. Jesus clearly challenges the widespread popular belief around religious self-righteousness. Jesus’s audience would not have assumed that the Pharisee’s prayer would not be answered and that the tax collector would have gone home justified. Neither the Pharisee is a villain nor the tax collector a saint. According to Jesus, the problem was not Pharisee’s adherence to the law but his self-righteous attitude, which alienated him from God and others.
While responding to the Pharisees, Jesus does not hold back from offering a critique that religious observances need to be accompanied by action fulfilling what God requires: justice, mercy, and love. Jesus firmly stood on the principles of justice and inclusion, challenging the hypocritical foundations of boundaries that excluded and treated people with contempt within the social and religious hierarchy. He particularly aimed his criticism at those who had the power to define and justify such boundaries by confronting their righteous self-perception and pushing to work towards the common good.
The fiscal decisions of the British government, which further unleashed pain and suffering on millions of vulnerable people, stemmed from a place of entitlement and privilege. Much of the political and economic decisions are geared towards helping the rich with the hope that it will eventually benefit the lowest rungs of the society. Like the ‘self-righteous’ in this parable, some of the government’s narcissistic actions might have been deemed as necessary, but instead it reveals their moral and spiritual alienation from the suffering of the destitute. Such an economic policy didn’t work during biblical times, and it may be reasonably concluded now that it may not work now.
Through this parable, and more broadly in Luke’s gospel, Jesus demands a departure from indifference to active compassion before it is too late. Jesus’s position directly critiques socio-religious privilege and the underlying monetary and wealth policies that privilege one group, while robbing the other of their fundamental dignity. Living a life characterised by active compassion to others is a sign that we are responding to God’s covenant. In Jesus’s eyes, the Pharisee failed to display covenantal mercy towards the tax collector.
The message of the parable is a stinging indictment not only of the great confidence one places in their privileges, entitlement, and self-righteous presumptions, but also of the drastic inequalities that are allowed to be perpetuated. In this parable Jesus demonstrates how self-righteousness of the Pharisee becomes a barrier to receiving grace and mercy. For Jesus, privilege gets in the way of recognising humanity. The Pharisee was in the wrong not because he fulfilled his religious duties, but because he became insensitive to the needs of others around him. He lacked compassion and empathy. So much potential for healing and yet – there is the open neglect of the social wounds. During these interactions narrated in the gospel, Jesus was inviting his audience to become more open and vulnerable to the suffering of the wounded, excluded, destitute, and ill-treated. It was an invitation to re-cultivate the ability to see and feel the pain of the most marginalized and excluded, and not become exasperated by their destitution.
As Sunder John Boopalan has argued, the task of a responsible and compassionate society is to heal and anoint the wounded, and not anoint oneself with more riches, and platitudes. If ever there was a time for the church to be ‘prophetic’, now is the time. Call our politicians and hold them accountable – to go after what is just, to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous as God is. The vision set forth by Jesus, grounded in an historical tradition of counter community, seeks the common welfare, desires the creation of a decent society, restrains the evil of hierarchies, curbs violence perpetuated by division, brings down the barriers based on worth, and creates equity and justice for the flourishing of all.