The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Parable Trap

Is the Pharisee’s self-justification built on the Law or his comparison to others?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Luke 18:9-14

For Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010: Year C – Ordinary 30

Jesus continues with his qualifications of prayer parables this week. But first the author of Luke messes with our heads a little bit. Not only do we get more of the tumbling logic of the-first-shall-be-last-but-the-last-are-first variety, but this entire pericope is set up to contradict its implied central point.

Contemptuous Regard

Before I get into that fun at the end, I want to begin with, well, the beginning (if that’s OK). I don’t know what to make of, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt . . . .Does that mean that he was telling the previous parables to people who regarded others with contempt, and now tells them this one?

That would include the both the Pharisees and the disciples. Is Luke purposely equating the two groups? Is there something about being a religious leader that makes one susceptible to self-righteousness and contempt for others? (Sorry, that’s really an obvious statement placed in the form of a question in an attempt to distance myself from its sting.)

Straw Man-of-God

Is this about prayer or justification? I think the former. Prayer is the plain meaning. When you pray, do not justify yourselves; ask for mercy. But really, have you ever heard anyone pray like the Pharisee? Thank you for not making me like the bad people. I can’t even imagine the people I regard with contempt praying like that.

The Pharisee is a straw man-of-God. It’s one of those parable traps. The hearer is supposed to get sucked into judging the Pharisee, to regarding him with contempt. At least I’m not like you — I didn’t fall for it. So by judging the Pharisee you become like the Pharisee, but by identifying with the tax collector do you also become like the tax collector? Or do you still end up like the Pharisee?

This is a parable in which Jesus points out that by pointing to someone else’s sin the Pharisee condemns himself. And the tax collector who looked only at his own sin was justified. So, in order to get Jesus’ point the hearer has to point to the Pharisee’s sin, thus condemning one’s self.

Also beyond the plain meaning of this Gospel reading is this: the Pharisee counts himself righteous because he believes his adherence to the Law justifies him, and elevates him above others. What Jesus is pointing out however, is that justification does not elevate but lowers. I think. Or maybe Jesus is pointing out that the Law is not capable of justifying anyone. The Law is a negative revelation of our righteousness.

The Hardest Question

So, I think I have avoided the traps in the text and read it correctly, or I have at least seen the trap that I have fallen into. But there is one question that trips me up: Is the Pharisee’s self-justification built on the Law or on his comparison to others? The text is explicit about his comparison to others. A Pharisee, however, would find righteousness in the Law. I think this distinction matters.

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Carla Reed says:

    I am new to the site and actually did not read Russell’s hardest question about Psalm 119 to which there was a video response. I don’t know if I would hazard preaching it, but to me Russell’s comment on the Luke passage and the longing for the ordinances of God could be connected by the human desire for absolutes. We like to adore the Publican and demonize the Pharisee and thus fall into the trap Russel spoke of, because we want to see in shades of right and wrong, much as the necessary components of legalese dictate. A law is a law and to obey it is right and to ignore it is at best a sin of omission. How we would like to know God’s black and white, plain spoken dictates. How frustrating it is for Jesus to not comply with our desires!

  2. Pastor Nadia says:

    Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Evangelical who neither accepts the gays nor sees the aesthetic abomination of Praise bands….

    Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Republican who neither recycles nor cares for the poor….

    While I may not do this is prayer I certainly do it in snide conversations.

  3. Drew Downs+ says:

    Great question!

    It says that the pious were those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” which leads me to see the issue as not the Law, but the spirit with which they felt justified by it. I see many reasons that this is the case, but most especially that they have created an interpretation of the Law that benefits them personally and those people that they like while doing disservice and destruction to others. And therefore, I take my place in the tangle.

    I am worried, though that the tangle as you laid out for us causes us to make an implication about sin and salvation that that is too simple. As an Episcopalian, I answer the question of salvation by grace and works with “yes.” I am wondering if part of the deal is that we must travel through sin (judging and self-righteousness) to encounter something else: humility I suppose. Maybe I’m just rambling now. Any other thoughts?

  4. Rev. Russell says:

    Drew, I think you are right. That is the fun part of the trap–the notion that you can never get out of the trap–it will get you. It is the recognizing that you are in the trap ( I don’t mean to say You, I am sure you are fine) of course where the beauty of grace happens–we are being transformed, not just to realize we are like the Pharisee or to claim that we are like the tax collector, but to a place of Be-ing inside the plea for mercy. What do you think about that, how do you [re]ad?

  5. Tim Seitz-Brown says:

    Do you see any parallel between Parable of the Two Lost Sons (or the Compassionate Father) and this Parable?

    Is the younger son and the tax collector the same character?

    Is the older brother and the Pharisee the same character?

    I see a thematic connection between these parables. Do you?

  6. Mark says:

    There’s yet another trap in this parable, or rather in the way that the parable continues in my imagination. I don’t know if Jesus wants us to finish the story, but sometimes I just can’t help it:

    Did the older brother ever lighten up and party down?

    Did the father write the younger son back into his will?

    Was the Publican transformed by God’s declaration that he was completely acceptable to God?

    Did he actually change his behavior and become a better person, you know, more like the generous and devout Pharisee?

    That’s what we expect isn’t it? The happy ending we’re looking for in the story isn’t justification – it’s changed behavior. We don’t want to see the same guy coming back to the temple next week with the same prayer. We want the tax collector to return next week with a smile on his face, filled with optimism because of all that God has done for him.

    That’s what we want. But I wonder – What does this parable tell us about what God wants? If justification is enough for God, why isn’t it enough for us?

  7. Ed says:

    “Is this about prayer or justification?” You say, “I think the former.” But in the end you seem to say, “It is about what the prayer is about”, that is, justification.

  8. Karl Kroger says:

    Lots to discuss and interpret with this one.

    Mark, I appreciate your comments because they resonate with me. I’m very curious to know how this story would have continued. I’d like to think that the justification the tax collector experienced led to some sanctification. Nikki Hardeman over at Faith Element suggests that a “humble righteousness” is the “optimum” that we should seek.

  9. David Powell says:

    On the “grace vs works” theme, you can get some honest dealing from Luther! (He even treats James fairly!) No time to source the link, but I got it through The publican’s self-denouncing prayer was public and had a social benefit: it was itself a “work”, leading others to God. The justification was for him personally. So it’s natural that we’d be dissatisfied if there were only one harvest of fruit from his faith.

How do you read?