Empathy and grace: Pharisee

Pharisee-n-Tax Collector3The Righteous Who Despise. He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.(Luke 15:9)

The use of exoutheneo – “to despise” (v.9) raises an interesting question about who are the self-righteous people who are despising others in Luke’s time. Is this parable directed against Pharisees and others outside the community of believers who despise those inside the church? In Luke’s other uses of the word, it refers to those who despised or rejected Jesus (Luke 23:11; Acts 4:11). With this understanding, it might be easier for (self-righteous) Christians to assume that the problem is with “those people out there,” but not with “us”.

However, looking at the other uses of the word – all in Paul, it is usually directed towards those inside the church who despise other members of the community of faith. In all but two instances, Paul uses the word in this way (Romans 14:3, 10; 1Corinthains 16:11; 2 Corinthains 10:10; Galatians 4:14; 1Thess 5:20).[1] With this understanding, those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else are also among believers.

The Pharisee. The Pharisees were not villains. They were dedicated to observing the law. The Pharisee in our text actually exceeds the laws demands. Fasting twice a week rather than once a week. Tithing on all he gets rather than just the foods and animals (Dt 14:22) for which it is required. [see Note on Luke 18:12 below] According to temple standards, Pharisees are the “good guys” –  the “righteous” – and this Pharisees does even more than the ordinary Pharisee.  Are the “temple standards” the correct ones? Clearly there is some merit as the traditions of fasting and tithing continue into the Christian spiritual practices.

What about the Pharisee’s prayer? There are records of ancient prayers similar to the Pharisee’s and such prayers were not considered self-righteous boasting. The following prayer of thanksgiving from the Talmud was prayed by the rabbis on leaving the house of study.

I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou has set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash [the house of study] and Thou has not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward and they labor and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction. [b. Ber. 28b]

A similar ancient prayer (with something offense to our modern sensibilities) is found in the Talmud:

Judah said: One must utter three praises everyday: Praised (be the Lord) that He did not make me a heathen, for all the heathen are as nothing before Him (Is 40:17); praised be He, that He did not make me a woman, for woman is not under obligation to fulfill the law; praised by He that He did not make me … an uneducated man, for the uneducated man is not cautious to avoid sins. [t. Ber. 7.18] [p. 59]

So it would seem that the Pharisee’s prayer thanking God that he is not like the rest of humanity was not all that unusual. He is the model of the pious man, both by what he did do (fasting and tithing); and by what he didn’t do – acting like thieves, evil people, adulterers, and tax collectors. The word Pharisee (“those set apart’) is reflected in his posture of prayer – apart from the others.

Then he spoke this prayer to himself.  The phrasing in Greek is awkward, lending itself to several possible understandings. One understanding is neutral: he simply assumed a posture of prayer and prayed quietly to himself. Two other understandings are negative: he prayed to himself rather than to God, or he prayed with reference to himself but with an eye to the tax-collector.

The Pharisee asks nothing of God. Why? Is he satisfied that his fasting and tithing are sufficient – reflecting a works-salvation mentality? Does he assumes these actions reflect his piety and that he is not a sinner? What is clear is that his prayer gives no evidence of humility or contrition.


[1]    One exception is 1Corinthains 1:28 where God chooses what is “despised” in the world; the other is 1Corinthains 6:4 about a judge who “has no standing” in the church.


Notes

Luke 18:9 He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else: This verse echoes Ezek. 33:13, a text in which the prophet had criticized his contemporaries for trusting in their own righteousness: “Though I say to the righteous [tō dikaiō] that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness [pepoithen epi tē dikaiosynē autou] and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.”

convinced…righteousness: The Greek pepothoitas (from the verb root péthō ) normally means “to convince” or “to persuade;” however, it can also secondarily mean “to seduce,” “to corrupt.” The word is used to translate the Hebrew bṭḥ, which expresses confidence, hope, trust, security, and peace. The word for used for “righteousness” (díkaioi) refers to what is right in the context of the covenant and in relationship to God.  A dynamic translation might be “those who seduced themselves that they were in right relationship to God.”

Luke 18:11 took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself: The phrasing in Greek is awkward, lending itself to several possible understandings. One understanding is neutral: he simply assumed a posture of prayer and prayed quietly to himself. Two other understandings are negative: he prayed to himself rather than to God, or he prayed with reference to himself but with an eye to the tax-collector.  not like the rest of humanity: hoi loipoi, referring to the people generally has an elitist edge in reference to the speaker, made all the more plain by the context of its use herein. greedy, dishonest, adulterous: In the Greek nouns are in use versus the NAB’s conversion to adjective. A more literal translation of these nouns would be “thieves, the unrighteous, adulterers.”

Luke 18:12 I fast twice a week…pay tithes: The reference to fasting in 18:12 echoes the stipulation to fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29, 31; 23:27, 29, 32; Num. 29:7), during Purim (Esther 9:31), and during further annual days of fasting (Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19), as well as OT passages that report fasting by individuals as an expression of mourning (2 Sam. 12:21), penance (1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 10:6), and supplication (Neh. 1:4; Dan. 9:3) (see Fitzmyer 1981–1985: 1187; Nolland 1989–1993: 876). Verse 12 is the earliest text that attests the Jewish custom of fasting twice a week. Fasting involved eating only bread and drinking only water. The reference to tithing recalls Lev. 27:30–32; Num. 18:21–24; Deut. 14:22–27.


Sources

  • R. Balz & G. Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) – Broer, exoutheneo, 2:9–12
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