Sunday, October 16, 2022

Prayer as a Tool for Self-Righteousness

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Luke 18:9-14, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. I will blather a bit at the end of the verse-by-verse translation. 

Εἶπεν δὲ καὶ πρός τινας τοὺς πεποιθότας ἐφ' ἑαυτοῖς ὅτι εἰσὶν δίκαιοι καὶ 
ἐξουθενοῦντας τοὺς λοιποὺς τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην: 
Yet he also said this parable to certain ones who have confidence in themselves that they are justified and who are contemptuous of the rest. 
Εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
πεποιθότας : PerfAP amp, πείθω, 1) persuade  1a) to persuade, i.e. to induce one by words to believe 
εἰσὶν: PAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐξουθενοῦντας : PAPart ampl, ἐξουθενέω, 1) to make of no account, despise utterly
1. Like the last parable, Luke frames the parable with the conclusion at the beginning. I struggled with Luke’s commentary in the last parable, but find the commentary to be more consistent with the parable this week. 
2. The perfect participle, “have confidence in themselves” leads to the present participle, “are contemptuous of the rest”. That seems to suggest the direction of the parable for Luke: Cultivating a sense of self-assurance about righteousness leads to having a contemptuous view of others. 
3. Not all of the translation options for πείθω (believed, trusted, assured, etc.) lend themselves easily to the perfect active intransitive form of πεποιθότας.

10  Ἄνθρωποι δύο ἀνέβησαν εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν προσεύξασθαι,  εἷς Φαρισαῖος καὶ  
ἕτερος τελώνης. 
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 
ἀνέβησαν: AAI 3pl, ἀναβαίνω, 1) ascend  1a) to go up  (see κατέβη v.14)
προσεύξασθαι: AMInf, προσεύχομαι, 1) to offer prayers, to pray 
1. Luke commented on the first parable (vv.1-8) that the widow’s demand for justice was actually about prayer. In this parable, the activity of prayer itself is part of the parable. 
2. One way of looking at it is that when one is self-assured and contemptuous of others, prayer is one of the places where that assurance and contempt plays out. Another way of looking at it is that the ongoing activity of prayer is one way that one cultivates the self-assurance of righteousness and contempt of others. 

11 Φαρισαῖος σταθεὶς πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ταῦτα προσηύχετο,  θεός, εὐχαριστῶ 
σοι ὅτι οὐκ εἰμὶ ὥσπερ οἱ λοιποὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἅρπαγες, ἄδικοι, μοιχοί, ἢ καὶ ὡς οὗτος  τελώνης: 
The Pharisee having stood off to himself was praying these things, ‘God, I thank you that I am not as the rest of humanity, ravenous, unjust, adulterous, or even like this tax collector;’ 
σταθεὶς : APPart, nms, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set 
προσηύχετο: IMI 3s προσεύχομαι, 1) to offer prayers, to pray 
εὐχαριστῶ : PAI 1s εὐχαριστέω, 1) to be grateful, feel thankful  2) give thanks 
εἰμὶ: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. The Pharisee is described as “having stood off to himself” while the tax collector will be described as “standing far off” – both with ἵστημι as the verb. 

12 νηστεύω δὶς τοῦ σαββάτου, ἀποδεκατῶ πάντα ὅσα κτῶμαι. 
I fast twice per Sabbath, I tithe everything that I possess.’ 
νηστεύω : PAI 1s, fasting 
ἀποδεκατῶ : PAI 1s, ἀποδεκατόω, 1) to give, pay a tithe of anything  2) to exact receive a tenth from anyone
κτῶμαι: PMI 1s, κτάομαι, 1) to acquire, get, or procure a thing for one's self, to possess 
1. The words “ravenous, unjust, adulterous” of v.11 are adjectives that the Pharisee uses to show his contempt for the rest of humanity. One could say that ‘ravenous’ is the alternative to ‘fast’ and ‘unjust’ is the alternative to tithe’ in v.12. Then v.12 does not offer an alternative to ‘adulterous.’ (Thank goodness.)
2. I’m appreciating the essay “The Temple, a Pharisee, a Tax Collector, and the Kingdom of God: Rereading a Jesus Parable (Luke 18:10-14a), by Timothy Friedrichsen (JBL 124/1 2005 89-119). In it, he quotes the prayer, presumably from the 3rd century C.E., that thanks God for not making the pray-er a heathen or a woman (because a woman would not be obliged to fulfill the law, according to the prayer), and another prayer that thanks God that one is not like the unrighteous. His argument is that while those prayers (and the Pharisee’s prayer here) sound pretentious and self-righteous, they were actually intended to give God the credit for any righteousness that the pray-er might claim. Think of the saying, “But for the grace of God, there go I,” and you see Friedrichsen’s point. 
It seems to me that Luke’s way of shaping this parable – with v. 9 and then v.14 – would say that Luke’s intention does not see the Pharisee’s prayer as giving God the glory. Still, it may be that this part of the original story had an independent use that was not intended to portray the Pharisee as exalting himself. 
Like last week’s parable of the widow and judge, it seems to me that one can tease apart – or at least see the possibilities – that the original story and the way Luke is framing the story might be different. 

13 δὲ τελώνης μακρόθεν ἑστὼς οὐκ ἤθελεν οὐδὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἐπᾶραι εἰς
τὸν οὐρανόν, ἀλλ' ἔτυπτεν τὸ στῆθος αὐτοῦ λέγων,  θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ 
But the tax collector who was standing far off was not willing to lift up his eyes to the heavens, but was beating his chest, while saying ‘God, be merciful to me the sinner.’ 
ἑστὼς: PAPart, nms, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set 
ἤθελεν : IAI 3s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend  1a) to be resolved or determined, to purpose  1b) to desire, to wish 
ἐπᾶραι : AAInf, ἐπαίρω, 1) to lift up, raise up, raise on high  2) metaph. to be lifted up with pride, to exalt one's self 
ἔτυπτεν : IAI 3s, 1) to strike, beat, smite  
λέγων: PAPart, nms, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἱλάσθητί : APImpv, 2s, ἱλάσκομαι, 1) to render one's self, to appease, conciliate to one's self  1a) to become propitious, be placated or appeased  1b) to be propitious, be gracious, be merciful  
1. The tax collector’s prayers is shaped by distance, posture, gesture, and word. 
2. The definite article for “the sinner” (τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ) makes me wonder if – within the parable - he is offering this prayer having heard the Pharisee’s prayer. Perhaps like, “Yes, I am that one.” 
3. The verb ἱλάσκομαι intrigues me. It is part of a family of terms, with ἱλασμός and ἱλαστήριος, that tend to be translated into terms of reconciliation, like "propitiation," "appeasement," or "expiation." Visually, to me, it looks like it ought to be related to ἔλεος, the term we commonly translate as "mercy," and transliterate into the Kyrie Eleison, although my on-hand resources do not make that connection. Perhaps I am just (mis)led to imagine that relationship by the fact that ἱλάσκομαι is typically translated as "have mercy" here.
4. One reason I want the term ἱλάσκομαι to be related to ἔλεος is because that would connect this parable directly with the conclusion to the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:27, when Jesus asks which of the 3 respondents to the injured man is a neighbor and his interlocutor answers, "the one who shows him mercy." The two who did not show mercy were religious leaders. 
5. Is this a good time to quote Luther? “The curse of a godless man can sound more pleasant in God’s ears than the Hallelujah of the pious.” I know of that quote from the introduction to Life Together, which tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer inserting that quote into a discussion in a class taught by Karl Barth, much to Barth’s delight, which was when Barth first noticed Bonhoeffer. I don’t know where the quote is in Luther. Table Talk? … Anyone? … Bueller? 

14 λέγω ὑμῖν, κατέβη οὗτος δεδικαιωμένος εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ παρ' ἐκεῖνον: 
ὅτι πᾶς  ὑψῶν ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται,  δὲ ταπεινῶν ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται.
I say to you, this one went down into his house having been justified rather than that one; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
κατέβη: AAI 3s, καταβαίνω, 1) to go down, come down, descend  (opposite of ἀνέβησαν v.10)
δεδικαιωμένος: PerfPPart, nms, δικαιόω, 1) to render righteous or such he ought to be 
ὑψῶν: PAPart nms, ὑψόω, 1) to lift up on high, to exalt  
ταπεινωθήσεται: FPI 3s, ταπεινόω, 1) to make low, bring low  1a) to level, reduce to a plain  1b) metaph. to bring into a humble condition
ταπεινῶν: PAPart nsm, ταπεινόω, 1) to make low, bring low  1a) to level, reduce to a plain  1b) metaph. to bring into a humble condition
1. The key term in this verse is “justified” (δικαιόω), which defines as “By a judicial decision to free a man from his guilt (which stands in the way of his being right) and to represent him as righteous.” (I apologize for the exclusive language). It is the same term as in v.1 as “those who are self-assured that they are justified.” And the root, dike, is very much at play in vv. 1-8 of this chapter. 
2. Questions that arise from this verse for me are: Is justification the point of prayer? Or, does this conclusion about justification arise out of the nature of the Pharisee’s prayer? I take it that, with Luke’s framing commentary in v.1, ‘going home justified’ is not necessarily the point of prayer per se, but is the issue here because the Pharisee uses prayer as a way of cultivating and/or expressing his self-assurance about righteousness. 

I. Like last week’s reading (Lk.18:1-8) we have another parable that is framed by Luke with instructions on how to hear it, then explained by Jesus afterward. I find it helpful to outline the text, in order to isolate what the narrator says about the parable, the parable itself, and what Luke’s Jesus says about the parable. Just for kicks here are side-by-side outlines of the two readings. 
Luke 18:1-8                                                              Luke 18:9-14
I. Narrator’s Introduction, v.1                              I. Narrator’s Introduction, v.9      
II. The Parable, vv.2-5                                             II. The Parable, vv. 10-13 
                                                                                                A. Both men, v.10 
B. The Pharisee, vv.11-12
C. The Tax Collector, v.13
III. Jesus’ Interpretation, vv.6-8                            III. Jesus’ Interpretation, v.14  

Re: Luke 8:9-14
- The introduction, v.9, seems to be about the coincidence of confidence in one’s justification and contempt for all others. 
- The parable itself, vv.10-13, does not include a moment of justification, only the differing dispositions, postures, and words of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. 
- Jesus’ interpretation, v.14, circles back to question the confidence in v.9, by declaring that the Tax Collector, the object of the Pharisee’s contempt, is actually the one who goes away justified. 

II. Besides structure, the thematic connection between last week’s parable and this week’s parable is the word “justice” (δίκη). 
Luke 18:1-8
V.3 the widow demands that the judge “vindicate” (Ἐκδίκησόν) her from her “adversary” (ἀντιδίκου). 
V.5 the judge says to himself that he will “vindicate” (Ἐκδίκησόν) the widow. 
V.6 the judge is called, by Jesus, “unjust” (ἀδικίας). 
V.7 Jesus asks if God will not produce vindication (ἐκδίκησιν). 
V.8 Jesus says God will indeed produce vindication (ἐκδίκησιν). 

Luke 18:9-14
V.9 the parable is directed at those who believe they are “justified” (δίκαιοι). 
V.11 the Pharisee thanks God that he is not “unjust” (δικοι). 
V.14 Jesus the tax collector went home having been “justified” (δεδικαιωμένος).
The reference to “justified” in the first and last verses of our Lk.18:9-14 could indicate that, for Luke, the question “who is justified?” is the point of the parable. 


  1. Great work, I read Left Behind weekly. I am a lay speaker with the UMC. These two guys seem to be a product of their environment. Rome has its' foot on both their necks. The Pharisee has gotten twisted trying to hold his position and the tax collector probably needed a job and now finds himself out of community with his own people and God. So many things corrupt us ever so slowly. Thanks for all you do. Blythe

  2. Excellent post, as always, and Blythe, great comment. I hadn't though of the two men in that light - thanks!

  3. Your commentary raises some very interesting questions. What indeed is the 'point' of prayer? If not being justified, then what? Is either man in conversation with God or only there to speak? In short, what do they think they are doing? So much to think about. As ever, I'm grateful to you!

  4. Why is "para" in v. 14 translated as "rather than?" I find it often translated as "alongside of" or "close beside."If in fact Luke did not intend "rather than" the meaning of the parable changes entirely because they are both justified, which of course happens to fit with a wide view of grace. Thoughts? Thanks for your work.

    1. David, thanks for your note. I think the particular shading of 'para' here comes from the chiastic statement that follows. It does not sound like "justified together" in the first part would fit with the exalting/humbling in the second part. That's why I went with "rather than."

    2. Thanks for following up Mark- much appreciated. I still wonder if the reversal (exaltation turns to humbling and vice-versa) is a suggestion ( a radical one for first century Jews) that the tax collector is justified without knocking the Pharisee's piety. The opening sentence creates an ugly anchor-point for us readers- the parable is addressed to those who are contemptuous of others while at the same time most Christians have an idea that Pharisees were these loathsome figures that everyone despised. That opening anchor-point may frame the story for us in a way that traps us into making assumptions about both the Pharisee and the meaning of the Parable. But in fact, the Pharisee does nothing wrong. He simply tells the truth. He does more than he needs to do in order to be virtuous and faithful. Without the anchor point that is created by Luke and without our cultural prejudices towards the Pharisee, it seems to me that he's an exemplary figure who first century Jews would have respected a great deal. I'm not saying that "rather than" is a worse translation b/c i think you know better than I do if that's true. I simply wonder if we peel back the onion a little bit, note the bias Luke leads us toward, then the "alongside of" approach to their justification may be just as faithful an approach to the parable. I'm positive we could go back and forth all day so if you refute my interpretation, no problem, i won't engage in an online debate about it. That's the beauty of the parables after all- we could talk about them in many ways that could be faithful. Thanks again for getting back to me. A.J. Levine in "Short Stories about Jesus" has lots to say about Christian prejudice toward Pharisees- it's a great read.

  5. Thank you so much for this. After doing this work for way too long, I’ve only recently discovered you and I’m grateful for your work. My only comment is that I can’t help feeling that we tend to read a heavy dose of Paul’s insecurity into this sort of text which has changed the nature of our reading of it. The tax collector wants to be made right with God, sins forgiven, praise the Lord!

  6. I’m struck that the Pharisee tells God the manner in which he is righteous — or perhaps, how God has made him righteous — whereas, the other asks God for mercy (or to be gracious to him) and is justified through the request.


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