Prayer: The Pharisee and the Toll Collector

Prayer: The Pharisee and the Toll Collector

Glynn Cardy (Luke 18:9-15)

Sun 27 Oct

The story of the Pharisee and the Toll Collector is for Luke, most commentators, and most audiences, a simple story with a ‘baddie’ and a ‘goodie’.  The ‘baddie’ is pious, recounting to God his good deeds (as if God didn’t know), and comparing his virtue with the lack thereof in other members of the community.  The ‘goodie’ is humble, aware of his own shortcomings, and deeply sorry about them.  The twist is that the ‘baddie’ is a caricature of a religious man who follows the scriptures (the Torah), and the ‘goodie’ is a trader in extortion and thuggery, as well being seen as associated with the Roman occupying forces in Palestine.  So it’s like a story that begins with the line ‘a pope and a pimp went up to St. Peter’s to pray’[i], with the twist that it is the pimp that turns out to be the one who pleases God, not the pope. 

This interpretation aligns with themes in Luke.  In the Good Samaritan story, for example, the twist is that the hero is not one of the religious people who walk on by, but the despised outsider, the Samaritan.  So too in the story that follows our text today, with Jesus blessing children – children also being low down on the ‘of value’ barometer – and Jesus saying whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. 

This is the theme of the humble (read the outsider) being exalted, and the exalted (read the insider) being humbled.

And, like Luke, w love these sorts of stories.  We love to see the so-called ‘fat cats’ in society, or in religion, be caught out as hypocrites.  We like to see them humbled and shamed.  Our newspapers regularly feed us with such stories.  And we love to see the little fellas, those who haven’t got much, or come from much, do well, and be honoured.  Our newspapers give us plenty of those stories too.  Newspapers reflect our prejudices and desires.

There is though, another theme in Luke that I have alluded to in recent sermons.  Luke is writing towards the end of the first and in the early second century when the Jesus movement is becoming increasingly off-side with its Jewish origins. 

Last week in the Church’s calendar, was the feast day of James the Just (October 23rd).  This is Jesus’ blood brother, James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem and whom Luke (in his second volume Acts) calls one of the pillars of the movement.  He is not though mentioned in the created list of Twelve Apostles (that James is one of the Zebedees).  I say ‘created list’ because ‘the Twelve’ was part of the controlling move of limiting apostleship, and limiting it to men.  ‘The Twelve’ was not instigated by Jesus.  And interestingly, the leader of the Jerusalem church (the oldest Jesus community) and a leader seen as supportive of keeping Torah (like his brother JC), was excluded from that list of twelve.

In Luke’s gospel the Pharisees are often portrayed as the ‘baddies’.  Whereas the Pharisees were by and large good, ordinary people, sincere in their desire to serve God and neighbour.  The Pharisaic movement sought to bring religion down to earth and into every aspect of life.  Instead of travelling up to the Temple to pray, for example, one could pray locally in a synagogue, or even one’s own home.  Of all the religious groups in 1st century Judaism it is the Pharisaic movement that was most formative in Jesus’ religious life, and I suspect in the life of his brother.

We need then to be careful to read past the inherited anti-Semitism that pervades Christian thought.  The origins of the arguments with Pharisees in the gospels need to be heard as ‘in house’ debates.  By the time these arguments were committed to the gospel texts as we know them today, that is some 40 to 90 years after Jesus died, Christian anti-Semitism was alive and deadly.

Some Bible stories are complex, often with more than one author.  If the kernel of the story of Pharisee and Toll Collector originated with the historical Jesus (and there are reasons to suspect it did), in the years between his telling and the writing of the text as we have it today other editors/interpreters have added their spin.  Either Luke or his post-Jesus source added a verse about righteousness to the front (verse 9) and a saying about humility to the end (verse 14b).  Scholars think the only interpretative statement in the original Jesus parable is verse 14a: “I tell you, this man (the Toll Collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other”.  

Which raises the question of ‘why?’  Why was the Toll Collector justified and the Pharisee not?  For Luke writing 70+ years the answer is obvious: the Pharisee was a self-righteous so-and-so (and he probably would have added: ‘like most Pharisees’), and the Toll-Collector was humble. 

When we consider their prayers however the answer is to why one was justified and the other not still eludes us.  The Pharisee’s prayer, while obnoxious to our ears, would not have been considered self-congratulatory and arrogant by Jesus’ audience.   It was of a set (what we might call ‘Prayerbook’ or ‘Worshipbook’) form, giving thanks to God that he was chosen while others were not.  Consider, for example, this Talmudic prayer: “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…”  

The Pharisee’s recounting of his fasting and tithing was declaring his obedience to God, rather than pious zeal.  His prayer was expected, standard, everyday Temple piety.  Jesus’ audience would not have interpreted the Pharisee as being self-righteous, exalting himself, and looking down upon others.

The Toll Collector in the Temple stands away from those gathered for prayer, as one would expect of an outsider.  He beats his breast, a sign of mourning and even deep despair.  He acknowledges he is a sinner.  This too conforms to Jesus’ audience’s expectation. The Toll Collector knows his place in the religious scene, and is simply acknowledging what they all knew to be true.

With Jesus declaring the Toll Collector justified the audience would have responded: “Huh?” “What do you mean?” “Where’s the evidence?” “What sign of repentance has he shown?” “Has he repaid those he’s cheated?” [as Zacchaeus will do in the next chapter].

The problem is that nothing in this parable tells us that the Pharisee is bad and the Toll Collector is good.  There is no lesson to learn.  No behaviour to emulate.  The later addition of “whoever exalts himself will be humbled” is an attempt to rectify that.  But, one person is justified and one isn’t.  Why?  The parable without Luke’s add-ons doesn’t tell us.

This is simply a story about two very different people praying, about us the audience making assumptions, and then us the audience learning that our assumptions have led us to the wrong conclusions.  But there is nothing in the parable to lead us to the right conclusions!

This parable is why some call Jesus an anarchist.  The target of the parable is the Temple – the nexus of religious and social control, the place that was holy and said to be God’s realm; which meant things not associated with the Temple were considered unholy and outside God’s realm.  The parable tells us that there is holiness outside the religious realm, and unholiness within the religious realm.  There is of course still holiness within the religious realm, and unholiness without.  It’s just that the boundaries around holiness are gone.  Oh-oh; anarchy.

Like in the earlier story of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10] we are challenged to reassess what and whom we consider holy.  But this time there is no good deed or bad deed to judge anyone by.

The story of the Pharisee and the Toll Collector invites us to reconsider our boundaries, our judgements about where God is or isn’t, and who God is among or isn’t.  Judging people by how we hear their prayers is fraught.  Judging people because they don’t or do come to church, or say they don’t or do believe in God, is fraught.  Judging people because when they don’t or do want to speak a prayer out loud, or even quietly, to a deity is fraught.

For many years now, as you may have noticed in my written prayers, I’ve worked with a definition of prayer (adapted from a line in Maurice Shadbolt) that goes something like this:  “There is only one reason to pray, and it is not to petition or to please.  It is, as it was in the beginning, to get a grip on our existence.  Or to flag it down for a moment as it flies past.  If we also win a little harmony from the human bedlam, that is serendipity.”[ii]  Prayer is an attempt to ‘get a grip on our existence’, to ‘flag it down.. as it flies pass’. 

Alongside this working definition I would put the vocation of a pray-er (like an artist or prophet) as one whom attempts to unify insights and experience; the one whom for an instant everything connects.  Prayers are about struggling with chaos and in the process building connection.

So prayer, as I understand it, tries to step both inside and outside holy and profane places, baptising each with the grace of the other, dancing across the boundaries.

The three little wisdom stories we heard today from Anthony de Mello do similarly.  The first critiques the ‘God-as-Santa-type-prayer’.  But sometimes, when stumbling, shattered, one cries out to a God one doesn’t believe in, hoping.

The second wisdom story challenges the distance of God.  Where do we stop, and God begins.  As Eckhart said, “Isness is God”.

The third story is a reminder that any insight, ‘Truth’, is tentative.  I, we, could be wrong.  Including, especially, about God and prayer.

So these de Mello stories are boundary stories, inviting us to be slow to judge, slow to presume, open to experience our ‘being-in-god-ness’ differently. 

Lastly, I want to tell you about Tom.   Imagine an evening service.  Subdued lighting.  Dark wood.  Candles.  Anglican.  Tom was a regular.  Sometimes his wife came too.

Tom would kneel like the rest of us.  Yet unlike the rest of us his head would often slump forward onto the pew in front, and he would doze; and then snore.

If his wife was present, he would get the elbow.  (You know what I’m talking about).

Tom was different in church.  On any other day of the week he was a talker.  He talked an awful lot – to anyone and everyone, regardless of whether they were listening.  He would talk to strangers, friends, and people pushing supermarket trolleys.  They all knew him and felt part of his world.  But when it came to church, he would sit there quietly, not talking to God or anyone but soaking in the silence; then slipping into sleep; and then occasionally snoring. 

While we can make all sorts of jokes about sleep-inducing prayers, to say nothing of sermons, and feel empathetic towards Tom, there is a serious theological question to consider: Do we have to be awake to pray?  Or, put another way, does prayer have to be an activity of the conscious mind?

I think in that old church Tom felt the presence of God.  Without saying a word or thinking a thought he felt.  Just to be present was to pray.


Three One Minute Wisdom Stories by Anthony de Mello

The Master never ceased to attack the notions about God that people entertain.  “If your God comes to your rescue and gets you out of trouble,” he would say, “it is time you started searching for the true God.”  When asked to elaborate, this is the story he told:  “A man left a brand-new bicycle unattended at the marketplace while he went about his shopping.  He only remembered the bicycle the following day – and rushed to the marketplace, expecting it would have been stolen. The bicycle was exactly where he had left it.  Overwhelmed with joy, he rushed to a nearby temple to thank God for having kept his bicycle safe only to find, when he got out of the temple, that the bicycle was gone.”


“How does one seek union with God?”

“The harder you seek, the more distance you create between God and you.”

“So what does one do about the distance?”

“Understand that it isn’t there.”

“Does that mean that God and I are one?”

“Not one. Not two.”

“How is that possible?”

“The sun and its light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and his song, are not one; are not two.”


To a visitor who described himself as a seeker after Truth the Master said, “If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.”

“I know. An overwhelming passion for it.”

“No. An unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.”

[i] Crossan, J.D. Raid on the Articulate, p.108.

[ii] Adapted from Maurice Shadbolt’s “reason to write” in One Of Ben’s.