One of Jesus’ most poignant and subversive parables tells about two contrasting individuals — a Pharisee and a tax-collector who find themselves in the Jerusalem temple praying to Yahweh at the same time! This is one of the few parables in which the theme or topic is defined before the parable is presented (Luke 18:9). In this case the parable addressed “those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” The Greek text literally says “those who had confidence in themselves that they were righteous (dikaioi).” Conversely they “despised the rest.”
The parable talks about whom God considers “righteous” regardless of human opinion or evaluation. The person we despise may indeed be classified by God as “righteous” and ready for the age to come, whereas those we regard as “righteous” may be quite different in God’s estimation. Significant debates raged in first century Judaism about which group God considered righteous and which ones he did not. For example, it seems that the Essenes withdrew from participating in the Temple rituals because they regarded administration of the Sadducees to be corrupt and mandating wrong religious practices. Those in charge of the Temple in their view were not “righteous” in God’s eyes. Non-Jews by and large were not and could not be righteous. Those who did not keep the law in accord with the oral traditions taught by the Pharisees were classed as “sinners.” Tax collectors were generally classified as “sinners” and this tax collector admits his own spiritual status (v.13).
Of course, the way Jesus ends the parable gives it a very subversive twist. No one listening would have suspected God would “declare righteous” the tax collector as opposed to the Pharisee. Luke emphasizes the tax collector’s religious status by using the perfect passive participle dedikaiōmenos, which certainly gives the participle syntactical prominence, as well as emphasizing the current condition of the tax collector based upon a prior action. Being passive, it probably indicates that God is the agent without further elaboration. As well, Jesus used a comparative form to contrast these two characters in terms of their spiritual condition — the tax collector was declared righteous “rather than” the Pharisee. The use of the phrase par’ ekeinoi to express this comparison probably suggests that the difference in the comparison is so great that the Pharisee was not “declared righteous” at all.
One of the key issues in this parable concerns the actual “prayer” offered by the tax collector. Jesus does not specifically name this utterance a prayer, as he did with the Pharisee’s petition (v.11), although in the narrative both “went up to the Temple to pray” (v.10). It may be that they went at the time of the daily sacrifice, which seemed to be a more favoured occasion for prayer. The NIV translates the tax collector’s petition as “God, have mercy (hilasthēti) on me, a sinner” (v.13). This verb generally does not have the specific sense of “extend mercy.” Its sense is more “be favourably inclined, propitiate, conciliate” and then people used it in petitions to request that the person addressed act in a conciliatory manner towards the petitioner. Mercy may be one of the elements requested or desired by the petitioner. Because God is the one addressed and the person making this request is “a sinner,” presumably the “favourable inclination” would emerge from God’s mercy and grace.
This is the only place in Luke-Acts where this verb occurs (with only one other use in the entire New Testament — Hebrews 2:17). Recently Dirk Buchner published an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature (129(2010)) entitled “Ἐξιλάσασθαι: Appeasing God in the Septuagint Pentateuch.” He argued that in the case of the simple verb hilaskesthai “the result of the verb’s action is achieved through propitiation, not through purification” (255). He then cites with approval the two definitions offered by Muraoka (A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint, 340) “(1) to be forgiving and (2) to be favorably disposed.” In his lexicon Muraoka refers to Luke 18:13 as an example of the first meaning “to be forgiving,” comparing it with the Greek translation of Daniel (Theodotion) 9:19 and Lamentations 3:42. In other words it seems that the thrust of the tax collector’s petition is that God would extend forgiveness to him based upon some act of propitiation. Luke does not identify what this propitious action would be, but given the Temple context, the daily sacrifice may be that act.
The reason then that the tax collector returns to his house in a state of “declared righteousness” rests upon an action that God takes, not upon anything that the tax collector has done. If God is going to be appeased in his case, it must be because God has taken action to bring this about. The problem with the Pharisee, as Jesus intimates in v. 9 is that he “trusted in himself” that he was in a righteous condition, rather than saw his spiritual status as God’s gift based upon God’s propitious action. That he “despised the rest” indicates his lack of spiritual perception and understanding of “righteousness.”
i. as followers of Jesus do we seek our spiritual relationship with God grounded in his propitious work or do we act as if our actions somehow enhance our “righteous” status?
ii. as followers of Jesus how do we view those who do not yet enjoy “peace with God”? Do we “despise” them? God expects his gracious act in Jesus to provide us with salvation to produce in us a similar graciousness towards others.