The Pharisee and Taxman Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 June 2022

Luke 18.9-14.

Immediately after the Persistent Widow Story, Jesus tells this one. It likewise touches upon prayer… but it’s more about people who consider themselves devout, yet are jerks.

Luke 18.9-14 KWL
9 Jesus also says to certain hearers
who trust in themselves that they’re righteous
—and despise everyone else—this parable:
10 “Two people go up to temple to pray.
One’s a Pharisee, and the other a taxman.
11 The Pharisee, standing off by himself, is praying this:
‘God, thank you that I’m not like every other person!
those greedy, unjust fornicators!
Or even like this taxman!
12 I fast twice a week.
I tithe whatever I get.’
13 The taxman, who’d been standing way back,
didn’t even want to raise his eyes to heaven,
but beat his chest, saying,
‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 I tell you this taxman comes down from temple,
made righteous in his house, along with the other man.
For everyone who raises themselves will be lowered.
And those who lower themselves will be raised.”

Sometimes this is called the Pharisee and Publican story, ’cause “publican” is how the KJV translates τελώνης/telónis, “collector of tolls, customs, or taxes.” But “publican” is an anachronism at this point in history. Yep, it’s history lesson time, kids. Gather round and I’ll tell a story.

Before the Caesars took over, Rome was a republic. Not a democracy; it had democratic parts to it, but it was mostly an oligarchy run by patricians, the Roman nobility. At some uncertain point in their past, the patricians overthrew their king and ran Rome collectively. Every year, patricians elected two consuls to run things; the consuls picked senators, and these senators ruled for life. But senators weren’t permitted to collect taxes, so they hired lower-rank patricians to do it for ’em. These tax-gatherers were from the publicani rank, and over time, publicani became synonymous with taxmen.

The publicans practiced tax farming: Different companies applied for the job of collecting taxes in a certain town or county, by offering the government an advance—say, 𐆖10,000. (The 𐆖 stands for denarii; it’s like our dollar sign.) If they outbid everyone they got the contract—and had to pay the government the 𐆖10,000 advance. Now they had to make it back: Collect rent, charge tolls, demand a percentage of merchants’ profits. They shook everybody down to make back that 𐆖10,000.

And everything they made beyond that 𐆖10,000, they got to keep. So the more unscrupulous the publican, the higher taxes would be, and the richer they got.

Richer, and corrupt. They’d bribe government officials to get their contracts, bribe their way out of trouble if they were charged with over-taxing, and bribe their way out of trouble for any other crimes. When Augustus Caesar took over the senate in 30BC, he tried to eliminate tax farming, figuring it’d lower taxes and reduce bribery. He took it away from the publicans, who switched careers and got into banking and money-lending. He put government officials in charge… but lazy officials who didn’t want this job, simply hired other tax farmers to collect for them.

Since you no longer had to be of publicani rank to be a taxman, any wealthy person could bid for the job, and get it. And that’s what happened in first-century Israel: Rich Jews became tax farmers, and did the Romans’ dirty work for them. Their fellow Jews saw them as traitors—as greedy, exploitative sellouts. Which, to be fair, they totally were.

Messiah and taxmen.

Most of the time, Christians assume all Jews were Pharisees. No they weren’t. Jews could be of any denomination… or none; they might be completely secular. But if you were particularly devout, you were probably Pharisee. They’re the devout Jews; the ones who follow God so closely, they go to synagogue every Friday, go to temple three times a year, wash themselves all the time, and follow all the commands. Or try to. Or try to look like they do; Pharisees were notorious for their loopholes.

The coming of Messiah was a uniquely Pharisee belief. Not every Jewish denomination believed it; Sadducees certainly didn’t. Pharisees believed in the End Times, Messiah would come to earth—descend from the clouds of heaven with a full angelic army—and restore Israel to its full strength, at the height of David and Solomon’s reigns. Oh, and conquer the whole world too. This reign would last forever. This was the “age to come.”

(Yeah, it has a lot of parallels with Christian popular views of the End Times. Christians swiped some of the core ideas from Pharisees. They claim they got ’em from bible, but not entirely.)

Anyway, if you were Jewish and absolutely fed up with the Roman occupation, the idea of Messiah coming to take over the world was a really appealing one. Messiah would free Israel from the Caesars, then Messiah would overthrow the Caesars and Roman senate, and reign over Rome in their place. Some of us like to imagine Jesus doing the very same thing with our various governments. Sounds good to me, anyway. But Jesus had no such plans back then… and I’m not entirely sure it’s gonna look like that at his second coming either. It could… but I could be wrong. I’m not gonna make a doctrine out of things which could happen any which way. Jesus will rule the world, but how he does it is up to him.

Tied together with overthrowing Romans, was of course overthrowing taxmen. Because they were quislings; they weren’t just supporting the oppressors, but robbing the people to raise money for the oppressors—and doing it so they themselves could get rich. Those greedy, unjust f---ers.

So when the Pharisee in Jesus’s story refers to “greedy, unjust fornicators,” I guarantee you Jesus’s audience would’ve immediately thought, “Ah, you mean taxmen.”

And then Jesus turns round and has the Pharisee say, “Or even like this taxman!” Surprise! Woulda got a big laugh from the crowd; Jesus made a joke! Too bad the joke goes right over the heads of people nowadays. But then again—much as some of us absolutely hate taxmen—we don’t share the Jews’ experience with taxmen. We don’t think of ’em the same way. Our taxmen aren’t trying to rob us for personal gain, aren’t conspiring with a foreign government, aren’t evil traitors. They’re just government employees trying to make sure we pay our fair share so we can have working roads and clean water; so our soldiers and first responders have support, equipment, and healthcare. (And because billionaires aren’t paying squat, ’cause tax loopholes. But that’s another rant.)

Pharisees commonly saw themselves as better than taxmen. For obvious reasons: They supported their nation, not oppressive foreigners. They sought God, and even though there were many hypocrites among them—same as there are among Christians—they felt they were following him; certainly better than taxmen were. Taxmen were despoiling and ruining their people; they pursued its glorious future. And shouldn’t Messiah feel the very same way as they?

Except, y’know, Messiah himself told this parable. In which the Pharisee prayed the very same thing any Pharisee would, and the taxmen prayed for mercy… and God justified the taxman. Wait, what?

The Pharisee’s self-righteousness.

The Pharisee in this story listed two of his good works: Fasting and tithing. These are far from the most challenging of Pharisee good works. Just about any Pharisee could do ’em, and even the biggest hypocrites among them did do them.

According to the Didache, Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday. But since Jewish days run from sundown to sundown, this is what it looked like:

SUNDAY. Eat breakfast and a big evening meal. No food after sundown.
MONDAY. No breakfast, no lunch. After sundown, big evening meal.
TUESDAY. Ordinary day.
WEDNESDAY. Same deal as Sunday.
THURSDAY. Same deal as Monday.
FRIDAY. Ordinary day… but no cooked food after sundown, ’cause it’s Sabbath.
SUNDAY. No cooked food till sundown.

So, two days of the week you gotta skip two meals. Followed by big ol’ Monday and Thursday night feasts. Fasting’s more of a real challenge when you go to bed hungry.

As for tithing, that’s just setting aside 10 percent of your produce… so you can feast with it. (Except for every third year, when it went into the community storehouse for the poor and the Levites.) No it’s not the same thing Christians do when we tithe. And even though Pharisees would nitpick all the stuff they figured they were supposed to tithe, all the way down to the very herbs in their gardens, Lk 11.42 tithing wasn’t hardship. At all.

Y’notice neither of these “good works” really do anything for others. They’re entirely about making this guy feel righteous. And they’re both about food—about putting stuff in his stomach—or not. I figure you already know the stomach is one of the more popular idols in every culture.

Jesus is way more interested in the justice and love of God, Lk 11.42 in mercy and humility Mc 6.8 and fruit of the Spirit. Good works are nice, but they ain’t fruit. You actually can do them without fruit—and as a result they’re not good anymore.

Yet for all that, Jesus doesn’t say the Pharisee isn’t righteous; he says he is. Seriously: Read the story again. He doesn’t. “I tell you this taxman comes down from temple, made righteous in his house along with the other man.” The other man being the Pharisee.

I had the darnedest time translating verse 14 because I had my own prejudices about the Pharisee: He isn’t as good as he imagines himself, and is kind of a dick. I presumed Jesus has nothing good to say about him. And really Jesus doesn’t. He warns those who raise themselves will be lowered, and this Pharisee is certainly raising himself above the taxman—so heads up, lest we get similar ideas. But at the same time, when both men leave temple, Jesus says the taxman is δεδικαιωμένος εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ παρ’ ἐκεῖνον/dedikeoménos eis ton oíkon aftú par’ ekeínon, “rendered righteous in his house along with that one.” Along with the Pharisee. Righteous like the Pharisee.

Where do we get the idea the Pharisee’s not righteous? Like I said, prejudices about the Pharisees. We assume they’re all hypocrites who faked their devotion. But that’s not at all true of all of ’em! The apostle Paul wasn’t faking a thing. He was overzealously going the wrong way, but he absolutely did believe in God, did follow the Law, did strive to be at the top of his class. And while the Pharisee in Jesus’s story is definitely majoring in the minors, Jesus never says his devotion isn’t real. It’s immature, and unfair to the taxman. But dude’s still righteous in God’s eyes—because we’re justified by faith.

Oh, and I should also mention the fact the King James Version added a word to the text: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified [rather] than the other.” Lk 18.14 KJV Seems the translators’ anti-Pharisee prejudices got ’em to alter the meaning of the scriptures, and that tradition leaked into an awful lot of other translations, which don’t bother to bracket nor italicize the “rather.” Whoops.

Humility and justification.

But regardless of whether the Pharisee’s right with God, Jesus largely ignores him and points at the taxman. Remember, we’re justified by faith. And even though the taxman is a Roman collaborator, probably a bit of a thief, and we’ve no idea how much he fasts or tithes, he’s in temple praying—and he’s beating his chest because he feels bad, and wants to physically feel bad too. He’s a sinner. He knows it. He’s begging for God’s mercy.

His prayer has become the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Which we call the Jesus Prayer instead of the taxman’s prayer, ’cause you do realize Jesus made up this story, right? He approves of this behavior. He approves of this prayer. It’s a good prayer. Sometimes we oughta pray it!

Often we oughta pray it, ’cause we certainly shouldn’t be praying the ridiculously proud prayers of the Pharisee. Seriously, “thank you that I’m not like every other person”? Yes we are like every other person: Sinners who need grace. Who are doomed if we don’t receive it. Who, thank God, do receive it, and oughta be grateful we do, and never take it for granted.

Contrary to popular belief, Pharisees did know they were saved by grace, not works. God didn’t free the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery because they were righteous, y’know. They weren’t. It was always grace. But like too many of us, we sometimes take God’s grace for granted, and thank God for his blessings, and presume he’s blessing us because we’re such good people—after all, we believe all the correct things and tithe to our churches. And sometimes we make the Pharisee’s mistake of thinking this makes us better than others—better than heathens, better than sinners, certainly better than people who voted for the opposition party. We unwittingly become jerks like this Pharisee. We receive God’s grace nonetheless—just like this Pharisee—but we’re still jerks, and that still needs fixing.

So whenever we get this way, this parable’s for us. Gotta be humble, like the taxman. Gotta pursue God’s justification, not self-justification. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.