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. 11The 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. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But 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!” 14I 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
What if everything you thought you knew about success was wrong? Would you have the courage to reimagine your life in light of this new information about your previous—and apparently flawed—paradigms? In Luke 18:9–14, Jesus offers us a parable about the meaning of worth and success, using the vastly divergent perspectives of a Pharisee and a tax collector. Through the lens of this story, Jesus offers us a reflection on this question, and a reminder of how God’s perspective on the world is so vastly different from our own.
The Shema, a centerpiece of Jewish prayer services, states the core theological concept upon which the monotheism of Judaism rests: “Hear, Oh Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This phrase declares a truth—God is the sole foundation upon which all life depends. Alongside that truth is an inherent corollary: human life finds its meaning and purpose when it is rooted in God. This means that the entire focus of a human life should be on one thing, and one thing alone: serving God by seeking to bring about God’s will for the world. God’s will for humans is encapsulated, according to Judaism, in the Law, which, through constant attention, study, and commitment, should transform the person into one who reflects the will of God through their very being—every action, every breath. The Law touches on every aspect of human existence, and is intended to ensure that people place God alone as their sole priority above every other pursuit and concern.
The Law cannot be “completed” like a checklist of specific actions one could set out to complete as if it were some achievement of human effort. The Law is also certainly not a measuring stick against which to judge one’s ability to follow “perfectly.” Following the Law inherently means losing oneself in the Law. The more committed one is to following the Law, the more one becomes conformed to the will of God and ceases to concern themselves with anything other than God’s will. The true sign of someone NOT following the Law would be someone who sought to gain power over others through a public declaration of their skill at following the Law.
Such as, for example, the Pharisee.
It’s likely that both the tax collector and the Pharisee mentioned in verse 10 began their prayers with the Shema. It’s also clear from the text that only one of the people in the story truly comprehended its meaning, and understood its implications for their life. The text plays with conflicting and overlapping definitions of power and righteousness through its setting and characters. The Temple was a highly public place, where the entire city could see who prayed, and even hear what was said. People were welcome to congregate and pray in the outer court of the Temple, and were expected to participate in the life of the Temple, at least to some degree.
Pharisees were one of a variety of Jewish sects extant during Second Temple Judaism (the Judaism of Jesus’s time). This social movement placed the utmost value in strictly following the entirety of the Law. The Pharisees actually made a significant subsequent impact on Rabbinic Judaism, which emerged after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. Tax collectors during this time were drawn from the local population, and were expected to gain their income through the taxes they collected for Rome; unfortunately, they often took advantage of their power to gain wealth and status—“success”—in the social strata of the Roman soldiers, officials, and the Jewish puppet rulers. As a result, Jewish people viewed tax collectors as collaborators with the colonial oppressor, and Pharisees as generally respected scholars and upholders of the Law.
The parable on its surface maintains those representations. In verses 11–12 the Pharisee proudly mentions the uprightness of his conduct, highlighting his adherence to the Law, while the tax collector in verse 13 is bereft, overwhelmed by shame, repentantly begging God for forgiveness. This is as the world “should” be, the righteous rightly reveling in his “success,” while the unrighteous wallows in his “failure.” Yet, in verse 14 Jesus declares that the Pharisee is all wrong, and only the tax collector is truly justified. Why?
This parable demands that we answer the questions inherent in the text: are we doing what God deems righteous, or what the world does? What is the will of God? How do we discern that will for our own lives and follow it? Finally: what is God’s definition of failure?
In a series of parables in Luke 18:1–30, Jesus explores the concepts of success and failure in relation to how these definitions intersect with issues of power. Luke 18:1–8 explores the imbalance of power between a judge who was unjust—as verse 2 states, he “neither feared God nor had respect for people”—and a widow who was seeking to redress an injustice. The judge, as can be expected, simply refuses to consider the case. The judge could keep ignoring the widow as long as he liked, because there were no repercussions for his intransigence and frank dismissal. By societal measurements, the judge was successful due to his position of power and, likely, wealth. Yet, the widow doesn’t accept failure, and the inherent “failure” of her station: a widow with no official power in society. Instead, she claims the power of faith in the inherent justice of her claim—a justice that even the judge accepts—and succeeds in her claim through her single-minded pursuit.
The widow refuses to accept the narrative of power which rigidly defined her position, and instead claimed a power rooted in a faith in something beyond herself. She forced the judge to accept a power beyond his own self-interest, and even beyond the power granted him through his societal position, through her complete faith in the ability of “justice” to move the judge’s injustice. This complete faith in something beyond herself reflects the complete faith of children, which Jesus holds up in verses 15–17 as the only way to gain entrance into the reign of God.
By placing these stories alongside each other, a definition of the way that a “little child” enters the reign of God emerges. A child is more open to accepting what might seem impossible to an adult, and does not base their sense of worth in their own personal achievement or place in society. As a mirror example to this lesson, the rich ruler in verses 18–30—echoing the Pharisee—takes great pride in his strict adherence to the specifics of the Law.
Yet, Jesus surprises him, stating categorically that worth does not lie with the ability to successfully perform the tasks of the Law, or really with performing any tasks whatsoever. Only God can grant any sense of worth or value and, thus, the ruler shouldn’t seek to “gain” the power of eternal life through performance. Instead, he is to give up his faith in the outer framework of success, and the power which comes with it, and to instead place his faith in something beyond himself, thus gaining the “success” that comes from living the Law through one’s entire being, manifested in a direct action of redistributive justice and divestiture of worldly power from the ruling class.
When verses 9–14 are read through the lens of this pericope on success and power, certain themes emerge. As verse 9 states, God has little patience for those who claim righteousness based on their own definition. Instead, God claims the sole right to define human worth, and desires that we keep it that way. The Pharisee’s problem in verses 11–12 is NOT the focus on law, but instead his focus on self-aggrandizement. The Pharisee doesn’t seem to “need” God in any way; instead, all he need do is follow the dictates of the Law, and he feels perfectly comfortable claiming his superiority in a decidedly public place. The Pharisee proudly wears his “spiritual success” like a robe, twisting the spiritual into the worldly, and thus exalts his “success,” dismissing any need for dependence upon God. The tax collector, however, publicly acknowledges his guilt in verse 13, and repentantly throws himself upon the mercy of God, begging for forgiveness. The tax collector dismisses his worldly “success” and instead humbles himself before God.
We all want to think that we’d be more like the tax collector and the little children. That’s the easy answer. Yet, if we’re honest, we’re actually more often like the Pharisee. I’m specifically thinking about those amongst us who are certain about our righteousness in the political debates of the moment, who might be guided into our work by a true desire to serve God and to make the world a better place.
The question we all face is: how am I to serve? It is disturbingly easy to be tempted by the need to do the work that we might think is the “most important” and that the “most impactful,” “relevant,” and “necessary” work is the work that seems the most “sacrificial” somehow. There’s a hierarchy amongst “do-gooders,” and there is significant social capital to be gained by “performing” sacrifice to the greatest extent possible.
Thus, we can see the value of humility, and can discern its true definition: we aren’t humble when we proclaim our sacrifice to the world, or even—especially—if we seek martyrdom, and the social capital that comes with it. We are only humble when we truly follow God’s will, doing so without judging our actions against the world’s ever-shifting definition of “success.” How can we ever gauge success or failure in the divine economy when we can’t truly ever gauge what is “success” in human terms, let alone measured against God’s will for the creation across the scope of kairos, God’s scale of time?
The only true way to achieve success—even success in bringing justice to those who seek it, redistributing wealth towards the poor, and divesting oppressive hierarchies of their power—is to place our faith in God’s will for the world, and to follow God’s will for our lives, no matter where it leads. We might labor in obscurity for a long time, or we might be called to serve in an uncomfortably public way. If we trust God, and open ourselves to the seemingly impossible, we are very likely to find ourselves achieving success far beyond our wildest dreams.