Arrogance, not works-righteousness

On Sunday, the Gospel reading is Luke 18.9-14. In this parable, two folks are praying at the Temple. One gives thanks that they are not like other people, better than them in fact, and the other merely prays for forgiveness. Jesus says that the one who prays for forgiveness is the one who goes “down to his home justified” rather than the other.

Traditionally, this reading gets a rather anti-Jewish reading. The self-righteous Pharisee and the repentant tax collector are set in contrast. The Pharisee keeps all the regulations of the law, and presumably this tax collector doesn’t. The Pharisee can’t works-righteousness himself to God and the tax collector can reach God by acknowledging his sin which is another kind of works-righteousness if you think about it…? Ok. Let’s chat.

First, as a Jew, Jesus was not anti-Jewish. As a Pharisee, Jesus was not anti-Pharisee. And as a devoted Temple-worshiper, he was not anti-Temple. But that is often the tone of people’s commentary. Why do so many read this parable in an anti-Jewish way? What is going on here?

I would argue that what we have here is a failure to communicate… with God. The Pharisee was not wrong to do the things he was doing. Fasting can be a spiritual practice. I personally find it very useful. Giving 10% of one’s income can be good, if aspirational, for many. Living according to the commandments in the Torah has brought about a lot of good in this world. On the other hand, the tax collector is still a sinner when he goes down from the Temple. We have no evidence that he is better or worse than other tax collectors, but most were charging extra fees and living extravagant lifestyles compared to many of their contemporaries. How is he justified and the other is not?

The Pharisee in this case misses the point of prayer. He is standing there, telling God how great he is. In his arrogance, he is ignoring God. The heart of the Pharisees’ message was bringing the holiness of the Temple to everyday life: God is present everywhere, if we keep up our holiness, not just at the Temple, but this one, single Pharasee seems to have missed the mark. From Jesus’ perspective, his sin is arrogance, not works-righteousness. His sin is not listening to God in the Torah or the Prophets. He cannot be justified until he says: “God, I do all these amazing things, and I still miss the mark, but I’m glad you are with me to strengthen and comfort me. Thank you.” The tax collector may know he’s a sinner, but I’ll bet as much as Jesus approves of his prayer, he would still say that he needs to repent and put away all that tax collecting.

So what lesson can we learn from the parable. 1) Antisemitism is bad. Though we should all already know that, so we’ll count that as a bonus lesson. 2) Arrogance is far more dangerous than thinking we can work our way to righteousness. God can work with our good works, but God can’t work with our arrogance in thinking we don’t need divine support. And maybe 3) we can learn how to pray and live a little better.

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