Have We Misread the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector?

I’m reading Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine. My copy is an advanced reader copy so my page references may not match the final print edition. Levine examines some of the parables of Jesus and looks at them the way a first-century Jew might have heard it. One of her major themes is to correct the contemporary manner in which the parables are interpreted in such a way as to contrast “what Jesus taught and what ‘the Jews’ generally understood.” Many of these interpretations “make Judaism look hardhearted and exclusivist. . . Such teachings not only get Jesus wrong, and they not only get Judaism wrong; they inculcate and reinforce bigotry.” (20-21) She interacts with some of the best in Christian scholarship on the parables showing numerous fallacies, unsubstantiated assertions and unwarranted interpretations. Among those she takes issue with are Kenneth Bailey, Klyne Snodgrass, Craig Blomberg, Arland Hultgren, and Luke Timothy Johnson

Many of her interpretations turn the typical Christian interpretation on its head. Take for example the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The common interpretation which sees the Pharisee as a hypocrite and the tax collector as the good guy, she says, is completely off. “The saint is not a sinner, the sinner is not a saint, and our conventionally unconventional reading about a reversal of status in the long fun gets us nowhere.” (170) This type of interpretation shows “Jesus emerg[ing] less as a first-century Jew than as a Young Man Luther, the Pharisee and the Temple represent (bad) Judaism, and the sinful tax collector is the redeemed (gentile) Christian.” (170-71) The traditional interpretation starts from the very start with comments made by Luke. Here Christians may object to the way in which Levine is critical of Luke’s added commentary. To a first-century Jew the Pharisee was only doing what God wanted him to do. “The problem with his prayer is not in his personal religiosity; it is in negatively judging someone else. The Pharisee has the information to speak to his own status, but he cannot and therefore should not judge the hearts of others.” (173) A first-century reader would have been fairly positive towards the Pharisee and the tax collector “would have been presumed to be corrupt.” (174) But here he is in the temple where forgiveness may be found. The crux of her interpretation lies with her translation of verse 18. “To you I say, descending to his house, this one is justified, alongside that one. Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Most versions translate this “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” Levine notes that the Greek preposition, para, can mean “rather than” but that it can also mean “because of.” “Thus the last line could be understood as suggesting that the tax collector received his justification on account of the Pharisee.” (Emphasis mine. 192)

The standard translation actually poses another problem since it may lead someone to think “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.” “Once we negatively judge one character and promote the other, the parable traps.” (192) What’s the punch of the parable? “They [first-century Jews] knew that the tax collector could be justified. The problem was, they would not have like the idea. Nor would they have liked how this justification took place. Were we in their system, neither would we—and that is the punch of the parable.” (192)

Levine explains that Jewish tradition believed in what was called the “merits of ancestors.” That is to say, “even if we sin, and we will, the good deeds of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other ‘fathers’ could be transferred to us.” (193) This Pharisee indicated that he had more than he needed. “First-century Jews then might conclude that the tax collector has tapped into the merit of the Pharisee as well as, given the location and his use of atonement language, the communal aspect of the Temple system.” (193)

Levine offers a personal example of a student project where four students are involved. Three of the four are hard-workers, smart, and have various gifts to offer to the project. The fourth contributes nothing but still benefits from the work of the others and receives a high score as well. Levine says, “I found this system unfair. I was justified (I got the ‘A’), but along side me, indeed because of me, so was the slacker. My sense of justice then was too narrow, my sense of generosity too constrained, my sense of self-import too great. But that fourth person believed in the system; that fourth person, whom we dismissed as lazy, as stupid, or as unable to contribute, may well have done what he could. He may have felt himself unworthy; indeed, we three others may have signaled to him that we were disappointed he was assigned to our group. He trusted in us; he trusted in the system. Had we been more generous with him rather than resentful, we could have learned more as well. And what if he didn’t care at all? What if he depended on us, even thought we were fools for doing his work for him? What we do is still worthwhile. We can afford to be generous. There are other systems of justice (e.g., test grades, a final judgment) in which his contributions or sins will be assessed.” (195)

It’s something to think about.

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Science in Nashville, Tennessee; Affiliated Professor, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge, UK.

Short Stores by Jesus will be released in September. It will be a hardcover with 320 pages and sell for $25.99.

Short Stories by Jesus

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