“Rather-than” or “Alongside-of”?!

Stereotyping the characters in the parables of Jesus will thwart the genius and the purposes of His teachings. In the story of the Pharisee and the Publican [Luke 18:9-14] we must be aware of this tendency. While negative images of the Pharisee may drive our interpretation, we are also guilty of showing pity to a tax collector who does nothing to deserve it. This is not how a first century Jewish audience would have looked at the situation. They would have admired the Pharisee and despised the publican. Also of notice is that neither man appears to be typical. Both are caricatures, possibly representing the best of the best and the worst of the worst.

The context is important. The audience that Jesus is speaking to is described as confidently pleased with their moral performance, resulting in a superiority that held others in contempt. The story begins with each man intentionally coming to the Temple to pray. This is commendable. It can be assumed that both of them believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as the writings of Moses and the prophets. Both probably believed in the need for atonement. The Temple was a place of prayer, worship, community, and restoration. And as in most places of worship, those who are morally confident will gravitate to the center of action while those with questionable character remain at a distance.

The Pharisee sees himself as a Jew under covenant and performs good works (more than required) in obedience to what he believes God requires of him. Keeping the law should humble him, but it may be a subtle source of pride. Perhaps his prayer is something like “There but for the grace of God go I,” spiced, perhaps, with a little self-satisfaction.

Publicans were among the most hated groups in the nation. They showed no mercy for others and did nothing for the community. Would this man return to his job after leaving the Temple? His prayer did reflect an awareness of his standing before God, “Be merciful to me a sinner.”

Jesus then says, “This man, ‘rather than’ the other, went home justified before God.” The actual Greek term here is fluid. It can mean instead of as well as alongside of. The familiar interpretation of only the publican leaving justified is more comfortable. Is it possible that both men left the temple side by side and justified?

Parables also speak about the “breaking in” nature of the kingdom of God. Jesus may be prodding their minds and hearts toward something greater that was already among them, and soon to be inaugurated.

Perhaps the Pharisee (the law and old covenant fulfilled) walked alongside the Publican (the grace and provision of the new covenant) and they both left the Temple justified and at peace with God.