What’s wrong with this picture? Robert Shurtleff (1760-1827) was a former indentured servant who enlisted in the Continental Army to fight against the British in the Revolutionary War. As a member of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, Robert served with distinction. He acted as a scout behind enemy lines in New York. He led an attack against a Tory force and captured 15 enemy soldiers. And at Yorktown, while enduring heavy cannon fire, he stormed a British redoubt. His heroism was not lost on his friends, even though they often made fun of him for his boyish good looks (they even called him “Molly” because he could not grow a beard). During his time of service, he was wounded twice. He received a deep gash on his forehead from a British sword and was shot in the thigh (he removed the pistol ball from his leg by himself). However, in 1783, he caught a fever and lost consciousness. It was the end of Robert Shurtleff. Doctors caring for Robert disrobed him and discovered his secret. He wasn’t a he. He was a she. That’s right. For almost 2 years, Deborah Sampson feigned that she was a man so that she could serve in the army. Sadly, when the powers-that-be discovered this, they released Deborah/Robert from duty. However, she did receive an honorable discharge and a full military pension. Exactly how she pulled this off remains a mystery. Apparently, there must have been a no-peeking rule during the war. This also explains why she removed the pistol ball herself instead of letting a doctor do it. In short, this whole episode gives a whole new meaning to the clause, “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

What’s wrong with this Pharisee? Reading from Luke 18:9-14

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

We all can read. We know that the tax collector went home justified before God while the Pharisee just went home. But exactly what did the Pharisee do wrong? Now, most of us read a lot into his prayer. We see that he uses the personal, singular pronoun “I” five times in 2 verses (that’s a lot of me!). We also see that the Pharisee is self-righteous and rather arrogant, and that is enough for us to agree that he ought to be passed over. But if we look at this passage in a slightly different light, things get a little murky. What happens if we hear his prayer in the same way that the original audience would have experienced it. Yes, he thanked God that he was not like other people, but wasn’t he just thanking God for his grace? He was a member of the Jewish community, a recipient of grace from his birth, and he recognizes that many in the world were not given that privilege. But he goes further than that. He considers the privilege of keeping the law an incredible blessing, a blessing that calls for thanksgiving.  He also knows that these grace gifts should manifest themselves in a gracious response of obedience. In other words, what we see as boasting could in fact be his way of showing a thoughtful and meaningful response to these gifts in much the same way as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 15:10 (although not nearly as complete nor as theologically eloquent): 

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

Reading this parable in a slightly different light (more grace, less negative) reveals a couple of other things. Maybe instead of boasting, he was thanking God that he was not (by God’s grace) like those who had no heart for God’s law. We see that when he says that he fasted twice a week. Interestingly, the law only stipulated one day a year to fast (on the Day of Atonement), but, here, our friend shows us how much he delights in the law of the Lord. We see it also when he says that he gives a tenth of all that he gets. Again, he is responding to the stipulations of the law with joy. While the law required producers to give a tenth back to God, he goes beyond the requirement and even gives a tenth of everything he receives (again, consumers were never required to pay a tithe in the law, just producers). In this prayer, he is underscoring that, by the grace of God (hence, this prayer of thanksgiving), he never once saw the law as a burden. Instead, it was a delight. In short, this whole prayer is a verbal declaration of this particular Pharisee’s love and gratitude for God, a declaration that showed itself in good works–in actuality, going above and beyond in good works. Think about it this way. One of our members is clearly a serious Christ follower. He prays regularly and passionately. His prayers are always oriented towards thanksgiving, especially for God calling him out of darkness and into his wonderful light, a darkness in which so many people remain. His life is full of good deeds. He tithes to the church 20% or more of all he makes; and at the end of the year, he gives a tenth of his net worth to the church. How would you view such a person? I’ll say it this way: If he wasn’t already an elder, he would be tomorrow. And if he wasn’t your pastor, he ought to be. That’s how Jesus’ original audience would have perceived this individual. Let me quote NT scholar Klyne Snodgrass:

“Usually, the Pharisee’s prayer is understood to be pretentious, prideful and self-righteous, particularly with its fivefold reference to ‘I.’ This is understandable for Christians who have become accustomed to negative descriptions of the Pharisees. Centuries of interpretation have led us to see the Pharisee as a negative character, but Jews listening to Jesus would have assumed that the Pharisee was a righteous man.” 

So maybe, the Pharisee’s sin isn’t in the prayer, but in the contrast between him and the tax collector. And the contrast is huge. The tax collector was understood to be one of the worst of the worst. He was perceived as a traitor to his people (since he was employed by the enemies of his country), and he was seen as an extortionist since, after he bought the right to tax his fellow countrymen, he recouped his money by squeezing it out of anyone he could. Let’s face it, the tax collector and the Pharisee were on polar opposites on the “good” scale. We can see that, even in their posture. The Pharisee found a particular spot to pray in the temple that was more secluded (we are not told why– was it to avoid contact with those less holy? Was it to pray in a more prominent place so that he could be seen? We don’t know). Meanwhile, the tax collector also finds a place far away from the crowd (again we don’t know why. Did he fear that no one wanted to be around him? Did he fear that people would call him a sinner? Was he prohibited from entering the inner courts? We don’t know). When our tax collector prayed, his guilt and sin kept him from even raising his eyes towards heaven (unlike the Pharisee). When the tax collector prays, he beats his breast as a sign of deep mourning (unlike the Pharisee). When the tax collector prays, he confesses his sin and his sinfulness (again unlike the Pharisee). Whatever else this contrast is supposed to tell us, it is clear that it is meant to shock us that such a righteous church-going man could be rejected while such a terrible sinner would be accepted by God. At the beginning of the parable, no one would have seen that coming.

So where exactly is the Pharisee’s sin? We get a solid clue in the first verse. In verse 9 we read:

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.”

Two sins are mentioned here. He was confident in his own righteousness and he looked down upon others.   Again, here is some help from Klyne Snodgrass:

“The error of the Pharisee is surely that he thinks he can be obedient to God and still have disdain for people like the tax collector–that is, that he can fulfill what the Torah demands with no attention to the love command. . . .  What may have started as legitimate affirmation that he has kept the covenant has detoured into disdain and self-congratulations.” 

What fault does Jesus find in this Pharisee (and by extension, what fault does Jesus find in all Pharisees, especially the ones gathered around him listening to this parable)? Interestingly, it’s none of the things mentioned in Matthew 23. And it doesn’t seem that Jesus finds any fault in what this Pharisee believes (at least he doesn’t treat this man as if he owned bad theology). Nor does Jesus criticize his approach to the Bible. Nor does Jesus reprimand his zeal, his desire to go above and beyond, or his commitment to doing good. He doesn’t even call him a hypocrite or a sham. The only thing Jesus criticizes here is that he was overly confident of his own righteousness: he lacked humility, and he did not love their neighbor. The Pharisee thanked God that he was already in. The tax collector prayed for mercy. 

Note: Jesus doesn’t condemn the man for being a Pharisee. He condemns him for his lack of love and for his over-abundance of self-righteousness. His problem is not that he is a Pharisee. It is that he has forgotten to be humble and loving and dependent. 

What counts as righteousness before God? Jesus makes it very clear that right deeds done without compassion, without love, without humility are empty deeds. Righteousness always shows itself in many different ways, but its essence is a love of God (expressed in humility) and a love of neighbor. Anything else is a lie. What is wrong with this Pharisee? He lacks humility, love and spiritual hunger. Believing that he has already arrived, he doesn’t feel he needs these things anymore. But he could not have been more wrong. And in this regard, many of us are just like him.

For what it’s worth, Søren Kierkegaard preached on this parable. He offered three points on repentance. First, repentance requires being alone with God, for it is only when we are alone with God that we realize how far from God we are. Second, repentance requires seeing God’s holiness, because it is only when we see that God is holy that we can realize our own sinful wretchedness. And third, repentance requires an awareness of being in danger before God, for it is when we feel safe like the Pharisee did that we really are in peril. 

Here’s the real kicker in this parable. I can’t help but see myself as the Pharisee. Oh, how I wish I was the tax collector. Oh, God have mercy on me, a sinner.