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 look up 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.”
If the second half of Luke 17 is concerned with the manner of the coming of the kingdom of God, much of the chapter that follows addresses the manner in which people will receive its blessings. In a series of parables and teachings, Jesus presents this in terms of a number of different categories: vengeance (vv.1-8), vindication (vv.9-14), reception (vv.15-17), inheritance (vv.18-23), and entrance (vv.24-30).
While it might be easy to read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector merely as a teaching concerning the contrasting private relationships individuals have with God, when we situate the parable upon the broader canvas of Jesus’ teaching regarding the coming kingdom, further dimensions emerge.
In particular, it underlines that fact that the actions of the various characters in this parable and the teachings that surround it—the persistent widow, the rich young ruler, the tax collector and Pharisee, the disciples—are oriented towards the horizon of a future and public action of God within Israel’s and the world’s history. This day would bring both vindication and judgment: there would be deliverance and reward for some, and exclusion and shame for others. It would publicly reveal where everyone stood relative to God’s purposes in history.
For the Pharisee, this future is awaited with a blithe assurance that he will be vindicated within it. When he looked at his life, all of the signs were propitious that he was in the right, a fine specimen of a true and faithful Israelite, a guardian of the nation’s holiness, leaving him free to engage in self-congratulation under the guise of a prayer of thanksgiving. His self-confidence was powerfully bolstered by how favourably he appeared against the foil of the extortioners, unjust, adulterers, and the tax collector, his high self-regard being inseparable from his habitual judgment of others.
If the Pharisee is confident in his righteousness, the tax collector openly addresses God from a position of moral destitution and unrighteousness, throwing himself upon divine mercy. Facing the prospect of God’s coming just kingdom, the tax collector is well aware of where he stands relative to it.
The need to receive God’s kingdom from a position of lack or destitution is a recurring theme within Luke 18. The widow addresses the unjust judge from a position of social powerlessness. In receiving the kingdom as little children, we do so as those who are weak and dependent. In the light of the kingdom, the rich young ruler’s paradoxical ‘lack’ is his abundance, something that he must surrender in order to inherit the kingdom aright. Finally, the disciples are promised a reward in the age to come as they have left houses, parents, brothers, wives, and children. The tax collector who seeks God’s mercy from a position of moral unworthiness is the true heir, rather than the Pharisee who presumes his entitlement.
In recognizing this parable to be one about historical vindication, something of its relevance to our contemporary situations is revealed. As those who are concerned with seeking and establishing a just society we can also understand ourselves in terms of a coming order, awaiting vindication, recognition, and reward. However, this parable exposes the dangers inherent in many prevalent ways of doing this.
While we may be less likely in our age to speak of a coming day of judgment and establishment of the kingdom, the vision of public historical vindication is still a potent one. While the envisaged just society may arrive less as an eschatological irruption than as a gradual development, it is still widely believed that history is headed in its direction.
This hope is a feature of our political rhetoric that enjoys considerable traction in the popular consciousness. We speak of ‘the arc of the moral universe’ bending toward justice or of ‘being on the right side of history.’ We understand ourselves and perceive our moral duty relative to this arrival of justice in history.
Yet, like the Pharisee, we are prone to self-righteous presumption. We all too easily think of ourselves as ‘being on the right side of history,’ as those who can be assured of future praise and vindication. In the assumption of our own justice, we can become like those to whom this parable was addressed, persons ‘who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.’
As with the Pharisee’s twice-weekly fasting and tithing, practices that were originally designed to be emancipatory can become means of oppression, judgment, and exclusion, requisitioned for the bolstering of our self-righteousness. For instance, rather than pursuing actual liberation on the ground, discourses concerning justice can become absorbed with policing the boundaries of privileged social or academic cliques, cocooning them in a moral superiority, excluding or condemning those who are not adept with the jargon. The arc of history’s movement towards justice just so happens to pass right beneath our feet.
By contrast, the vision of the kingdom of God in Luke is one within which we all find ourselves on the wrong side of history. If the blessings of God’s justice are to be received, they must be received as pure mercy and grace, from a position of weakness, dependence, lack, and confessed injustice. As we find ourselves in such a position justification no longer provides us with the grounds for condemning others in self-assured righteousness.
The tax collector goes home justified for, although unworthy, as one who appreciates his utter lack he is able to receive the divine gift of the kingdom’s fullness. To the degree that we resist perceiving ourselves as radically unjust, morally insufficient, subject to condemnation, and as wilfully and extensively complicit in evil, we disqualify ourselves from entry into the justice of the kingdom. Truly to pursue the justice of the kingdom, we must resist any attempt to present ourselves as standing on the ‘right side of history’ and, like the tax collector, learn to pursue it in humility from our moral destitution, breast-beating mendicants of divine mercy.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.