We shall continue to explore Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus. Levine turns to the topic from Luke 18 in chapter six where the Pharisee and tax collector appear in the parable. In her typical sensitive fashion, she denounced the typical model of interpreting the Pharisee as being just a horrible hypocrite. She’s right in her caution because in reality, the Pharisee was a righteous person who followed the Torah. In fact, we must do well to notice that Jesus never said that following the Torah was a bad thing in this parable. Certainly, the tax collector was a sinner. There’s no denial of the sin of the tax collector in a stereotypical fashion. The Pharisee was stating the obvious. In arguing her case, Levine makes a thorough investigation of the tax collectors in Luke’s Gospel. Even at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the tax collectors were trying to do better. Now, were these typical tax collectors? Probably not. Thus, we simply must assume that Jesus was talking about an unusual case here.
Based on what she said and what we know, the Pharisees were accomplished in righteous deeds, and the tax collectors were despised and wealthy traitors the Jews. The Pharisees had every right to be proud of what they did. They were after all, the caretaker of God’s law and lived exemplary lives. The tax collectors though were unrepentant sinners who made a living off ripping off fellow Jews.
What then was the parable about? Based on the beginning in Luke 18.9, we must ask that hard question instead of working off our stereotypical understanding of the hypocritical Pharisee and the horrible tax collector.
In reading this story, we can be sure of its ethical relevance. Jesus was addressing those who were confident of their righteousness while stepping on others. If we were to reflect on the current state of Christianity, both conservatives and progressives were equally guilty at time of committing the same trespass. Many think that their job is to be prophetic against the society and in so doing, feeling satisfied with our own righteousness. Levine lays out a very convicting scenario that these days, we could well thank God that we aren’t the Pharisees. Well, that’s a blind spot! To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being righteous and doing a lot of good. We must note what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say that good works were bad in the parable. The problem is when we feel superior to others in our denouncement, and we celebrate how we aren’t like our inferiors before God. Surely, all things we do as believers are before God. This, above all, was the problem Jesus was addressing.