The physical circumstance: The Temple in this story is the building which sits on a large platform the size of a soccer field. The Temple’s rearmost part is God’s dwelling place and opens outward (and eastward) to still other sacred rooms. All the Temple opens onto the Court of the Men, where male Israelites gathered to worship God; females were not allowed into this Court. Jesus’ parable, then, places the Pharisee and the tax-collector most likely in the Court of the Men, whence their prayers rise to God.
The parable, without Luke’s introduction and without Jesus’ comment, might seem difficult to understand. As for the Pharisee, he is reciting a series of pious acts which have their parallels praised in the Psalms, and clearly he is keeping the Law. Indeed, he exceeds the Law’s demands when he fasts, not just once a year as per the Jewish Law, but very often. That he is grateful to not be like the sinful tax-collector is nothing more than a prayer of everyone who knows deep down that he could be a sinner, if he let himself go in that direction. As for the tax-collector, who was publicly known to be dishonest and unjust in his profession, his request for forgiveness is welcomed by the audience who hears his prayer of sorrow. But wherein lies the lesson? Is it simply that we should be good like the Pharisee and pray for mercy for our sinfulness?
Jesus’ immediate comment after the parable is that the tax-collector returns home ‘justified’ and the Pharisee not. To be declared ‘justified’ is to be called ‘just’ by the judge, or righteous or upright; it is the term used of the person who is able to pass the Final Judgment. In the case of the tax-collector, his sorrow for sin and God’s forgiveness have made the man able to pass this Final Judgment. So far, all makes sense, given what mercy God is ready to show the repentant.
But what of the Pharisee? Can we determine anything of his words which would leave him ‘un-justified’, unrighteous, unjust? Luke apparently did not think so, and that is why he wrote his own introduction to the parable. This introduction describes the Pharisee about to take the stage as one who trusts that he is righteous (thus, making himself his own judge without a glance at the opinion of the true Judge) and at the same time holds others (the unrighteous) in contempt.
It is with this Lucan introduction that I can understand the mentality which produces the Pharisee’s words. His words may be good, but the soul which produces them is not. Contempt of others is the contradiction of righteousness and needs forgiveness so that one might be just. Thus, the Pharisee exalts himself, but should ask God if he is truly worthy of exaltation; indeed, the Pharisee should know himself better, should know himself as God knows him – but he seems incapable of looking at himself properly. The tax-collector is right to ask for forgiveness and to say nothing else. He knows his true self and leaves it to God to forgive and heal.
In a section of the Gospel taking up the theme of prayer, the tax-collector becomes a model, not of moral comportment, but of one who knows his sinfulness and asks for forgiveness. Can one ever reach the stage where he is not a ‘tax-collector’, not in need of forgiveness?
Two questions are not answered in this Lucan story. First, what if one is not as sinful as a tax-collector, but commits only ‘little’ sins? Can he at all boast of what goodness he has? Second, can we say that the tax-collector will change his life, and that he will be saved at the Final Judgment? Or is he ‘just’ at this moment, but must carry through his remaining life as repentant as he is now? As I say, these questions are not dealt with in this parable (and thus one sees the limitations of ‘moral teaching by parable’), but perhaps there is enough of the rest of the Gospel (and of the rest of the New Testament) to give proper answers.