The Parable of the Pharisee and Toll Collector: Who owns prayer?

The Parable of the Pharisee and Toll Collector: Who owns prayer?

Glynn Cardy

Sun 29 Jan

Prayer is individual and corporate, structured and unstructured, said and unsaid, thought and un-thought.

A working definition [to paraphrase Maurice Shadbolt]: “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, [that is prayer].”[i]

The mother is in the kitchen, adorned in dressing gown and slippers, stirring the porridge, as the little ones upstairs stir awake.  As she gently turns the porridge over with the spoon, she gently turns her soul.  It is a contemplative moment.  Words aren’t necessary.  She is stirring that part of her which feels God-like.  She is at prayer.

The child runs, jumps into the double bed, and cries “I love you Daddy.”  The warmth of uninhibited love floods his soul.  This is food for the spirit, nourishment for the day ahead, a gift from God.  As he lies in that love he is lying in God.  He is at prayer.

Walking around the rocks, rod in one hand, as the day kisses the night adieu. It is a magic time. The lure of the fish is only one of the lures that hook her heart.  The sea, rolling and giggling beside her splashes her soul.  The gods of the dawn, the sea, and the rocks hold her.  She is at prayer.  You can see it on her face when comes home.

The young believer opens his Bible, reads the prescribed text, talks to God, and God listens.  He is sitting on his bed, doing what he has been taught.  He feels better for it.  In another year the same, young believer will tire of talking at God, and stop to listen.  In another year the words ‘stopping’, ‘listening’, and ‘praying’ will become almost synonymous.

Some Bible stories are complex, often with more than one author, like the parable of the Pharisee and the Toll Collector.  You will see in the printed version of the reading today I have placed in italics verses 9 and 14, and I’ve split 14 into A and B.  Literary critics think 9 and 14B are Luke’s additions, and there is some debate on 14A.  They think the kernel of the story, with indicators like having no ‘God’ character[ii] and allowing listeners to draw their own conclusions, originates with the historical wisdom-teacher Jesus. 

Of course it has traditionally been read as an admonishment of religious arrogance [writ large in the Pharisee], and the encouragement of humility [writ large in the toll collector]; with the subtext [or is it the main text?] that one shouldn’t presume that religious people are favoured by God compared with sinners.   

The parable is a story about prayer.  Not so much about the said prayers recorded in the Lukan text, but where prayer begins and ends.  Holiness, God’s realm, prayer, is not the exclusive preserve of the religious, although we have often tried to make it so.  We have often defined prayer in order to suit our needs, and to keep control of God.  As I said last week any map [of God] is not the actual territory.  God is beyond/beneath/other-than any ‘map’.

This parable, in the light of socio-historical analysis, has long suffered from Christian anti-Semitism, and therefore is an appropriate text to reconsider on Holocaust Remembrance Sunday. 

Firstly everyone in this story is Jewish: the Pharisee, the toll collector, the storyteller [Jesus] and the initial audience; rather than the anti-Semitic understanding that aligned Judaism just with the Pharisee.

Secondly, Pharisees were not by definition hypocritical, self-righteous, and legalistic.  That is propaganda.  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’ life.

We need 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 beginning to predominate.

In the parable we should not see verse 11, where the Pharisee thanks God he is not a rogue, or a thief, or a toll collector, as evidence of self-righteousness but rather as reciting a set prayer of thanksgiving.[iii]  The recounting of his fasting and tithing was declaring his obedience to God, rather than pious zeal.  His prayer was expected, standard, everyday piety. 

One further aspect of this Pharisee character we need to consider: Christians are taught [following an interpretation of Paul] to understand the following of the commandments of the Torah [the Law] as a burden.  Yet Judaism saw it quite differently: the Law was an expression of God’s mercy, and the obligation to fulfil the Law was considered a blessing.

Yet of course to our ears the Pharisee seems to be holding himself above everybody else, and for this we look down on him.  Can you see the trap?  We in effect are saying ‘Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee over there!’  The message is, like Miller told the Herald: “Don’t judge people, because every [person] has a story.”  Judging people, then or now, by their prayers or appearance is fraught.

As for the toll collector, Jews regarded them as collaborators who profited by preying on their countrymen and women on behalf of the Roman Empire.  Furthermore the Roman tax system was notorious for its corruption, and toll collectors were viewed as dangerous extortionists.

The toll collector stands away from those gathered for prayer, as one would expect of a despised and dangerous character.  He beats his breast, a sign of mourning and even 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 knew to be true.

Note: ‘sin’ in Judaism was not something inherent in humanity [like a reading of Paul could imply], but choices one made that disobeyed the Law [God’s will].  A sinner was not about being a little bit imperfect, but a fundamental orientation, evidenced by actions, away from God’s will.

This parable seemingly offers us two ends of the moral spectrum.  As John Crossan says, “A Pope and a pimp went up to St. Peter’s to pray” has the same effect.[iv]  One is an obvious insider, and one is an obvious outsider.  Then there’s punch line [if we take verse 14A as original]:  Jesus declares the toll collector righteous. “Huh?” “What do you mean?” “Where’s the evidence?” “What sign of repentance has he shown?” “Has he repaid those he’s cheated?” [like Zacchaeus will do in the next chapter[v]].

Yet is this really a parable about a stuck-up religious zealot and a repentant self-effacing toll collector? There is nothing in this parable that 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 verse 14B “whoever exalts himself will be humbled” is an editorial attempt to rectify that.

The story of the Pharisee and the Toll Collector invites us, according to Brandon Scott,[vi] to reconsider our boundaries.  The Temple was considered holy and God’s realm.  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.  The old boundaries are gone.  Like in the earlier story of the Good Samaritan[vii] 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 ethical lesson maybe is learning tolerance and respect for the prayers, and the faith behind the prayers, of both characters, and leaving the judging to God.

Prayer is not the preserve of the religious, yet nor are we to presume the religious to be self-righteous.  Prayer is not constrained to our boundaries, religious or secular.  Though the old boundaries that kept prayer defined by, and confined to, the religious faithful need to be dismantled so that prayer can belong to all.

In a former life, many years ago, I would meet at six for breakfast every workday morn.  It was a big breakfast, for big men, who laid big slabs of concrete for cars to park upon.  The jovial camaraderie filled the café.  “Your face hurt?”  “Sure hurts me.  Ha, ha, ha.”  The atmosphere spilled over to the staff and other customers.  It was very powerful.  I realised as time went on that this spirit nurtured and sustained these men throughout the day.  It was soul food.  A type of prayer.

On another continent, in another life, we would meet before breakfast – social workers, priests, and locals.  Gathering in the front room, morphed into a chapel, we would use a service full of old words written by others about others.  It didn’t make much practical sense.  Just like the Church back then.  But we would gather anyway and leave feeling spiritually held.

I watch a dog sniff at nearly everything.  It is curiosity incarnate.  It is very sociable, indiscriminately greeting each and every early riser on the city streets.  The woman enjoys being led by the dog into the day, and into her soul.

In darkness and in light, in trouble and in joy, in season and out, knowingly and unknowingly, for ourselves and despite ourselves, we do it.  We pray, in God.

God, deliver us from the temptation to define and control prayer in order to make it the preserve of only a few, and thus rob others of a language that might encourage their recognition of you.  Amen.

[i] I have taken license with Maurice Shadbolt’s “reason to write” in One Of Ben’s.

[ii] Most of the authentic Jesus parables have no God character, but rather are about the Kingdom [or Way] of God.

[iii] Consider, for example, the 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…”

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

[v] Luke 19:1-10.

[vi] Scott, B.B. Hear Then The Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, p.93ff.

[vii] Luke 10.