Wright on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector

Pharisee and Tax-Collector
This morning I listened to John Piper’s recent sermon on Luke 18. As A.B. Caneday observes, John Piper seems to think that he has N.T. Wright’s view of justification firmly in his crosshairs. Unfortunately, he seems to be seriously off target.

One of the great differences between Wright’s approach to such a passage and the approach adopted by many of his critics is to be found in the meaning that they give to the language of righteousness. For Wright, righteousness is at heart a relational concept, whereas many of Wright’s critics begin with the assumption that righteousness is primarily a matter of conformity to an absolute standard. For Wright righteousness is ‘right standing and consequent right behaviour, within a community.’ This has a very significant effect upon the exegesis of such passages as Luke 18. It is also important to recognize that, for Wright the term ‘justified’ is far more closely related to terms like ‘vindicated’ (see, for example, Jesus and the Victory of God, p.366fn.174). This draws more attention to the eschatology of justification, something that is very much in view in the immediately preceding section of Luke 18.

The Pharisee was confident in himself that he was righteous. We should not presume that this confidence was based on the righteousness that God had ‘worked within him’. That is the wrong meaning of ‘righteousness’. The ‘either imparted righteousness or imputed righteousness’ approach to righteousness language causes all sorts of confusion here. Such terms are far too narrow to give us a real handle on the sense of the language of righteousness in passages like Luke 18. The confidence of the Pharisee was founded upon his conviction that YHWH had marked him out as different through the Torah and its ceremonies. By his possession of and adherence to the Torah his right standing with YHWH was demonstrated. He believed that the Torah gave him a peculiar claim to YHWH’s grace that the tax-collector did not possess.

The problem with the Pharisee was that his confidence was misplaced. His possession of the Torah was no basis on which to claim forgiveness. God reckons righteousness apart from the works of the Torah. Jeremiah observed the same problem in his own day when he warned people against putting their trust in the temple. We can never presume upon God’s grace. God has promised to be gracious to all who call upon Him, but this grace must always be received as a free and undeserved gift.

Abraham received circumcision as a sign and seal of his righteousness — his right standing with God — but he always had to ensure that his faith was in God, rather than in circumcision. The problem that Jesus deals with in Luke 18:9-14 and Paul deals with in Romans and elsewhere is the presumption of many Jews that they had an inalienable right standing with God simply by virtue of their possession and strict observance of the Torah. The point that Jesus and Paul both make is that right standing with God is received, not as an entitlement of the person possessing and observing Torah, but as a free gift given by sheer grace to the person who throws himself upon God’s mercy. The thing that marks out the true people of God is not possession and observance of Torah, but the faith that trusts in the God who raises the dead. This is something that is crystal clear in the writing of N.T. Wright.

It is also something that we frequently find in the Scriptures. Ezekiel 33:13 is a good example. A person’s righteousness (right standing and consequent right behaviour) is no basis for presumption upon God’s grace. God is quite entitled to cut people off, even though they were once declared to be righteous before him. This is what happened to many in Israel in the first century. They trusted in the Torah, rejected their Messiah and were destroyed.

I will conclude with Wright’s comments on the parable from Luke For Everyone (2001), p.213-214:—

The second parable looks at first as though it is describing a religious occasion, but it, too, turns out to be another lawsuit. Or perhaps we should say that the Pharisee in the Temple has already turned it into a contest: his ‘prayer’, which consists simply of telling God all about his own good points, ends up exalting himself by the simple expedient of denouncing the tax-collector. The tax-collector, however, is the one whose small faith sees through to the great heart of God (see 17.6), and he casts himself on the divine mercy. Jesus reveals what the divine judge would say about this: the tax-collector, not the Pharisee, returned home vindicated.

These two parables together make a powerful statement about what, in Paul’s language, is called ‘justification by faith’. The wider context is the final lawcourt, in which God’s chosen people will be vindicated after their life of suffering, holiness and service. Though enemies outside and inside may denounce and attack them, God will act and show that they truly are his people. But this doesn’t mean that one can tell in the present who God’s elect are, simply by the outward badges of virtue, and in particular the observation of the minutiae of the Jewish law. If you want to see where this final vindication is anticipated in the present, look for where there is genuine penitence, genuine casting of oneself on the mercies of God. ‘This one went home vindicated’; those are among the most comforting words in the whole gospel.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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12 Responses to Wright on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector

  1. Pingback: The Boars Head Tavern » Blog Archive »

  2. Reinhard Gerter says:

    If only John Piper and all those other thick dudes would educate themselves by reading all these blogs that are out here. We can but hope! One day they will understand as much as the mighty blog-powered NP movement, some of whose members have been to university!!

  3. Steven W says:

    The “authority trumps exegesis” appeal is a little lame and a lot ironic in a debate over people “on the road to Rome.” If the critique is off then lets see where, but don’t just say that Piper is correct by virtue of being Piper.

  4. Reinhard,

    This sort of comment is tiresome. It is nothing more than a played-out ad hominem argument, coupled with a particularly lame appeal to authority.

    #John Piper is a heavyweight.
    #You are just a blogger.
    #Therefore you can’t possibly have a valid criticism of his theology.


  5. pduggie says:

    blah blah blah Westerholm blah bal Siefrid meaning blah blah righteousness blah blah wright is wrong…


  6. Patrick says:

    Al, you wrote: “The confidence of the Pharisee was founded upon his conviction that YHWH had marked him out as different through the Torah and its ceremonies. By his possession of and adherence to the Torah his right standing with YHWH was demonstrated. He believed that the Torah gave him a peculiar claim to YHWH’s grace that the tax-collector did not possess.”

    How does this comport with Jesus’ message to the rich young ruler? “But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

  7. pduggie says:

    You have to keep the commandments to enter into life, but you can’t be confident in your keeping of the same?

  8. Micah says:

    Alastair: “By his possession of and adherence to the Torah his right standing with YHWH was demonstrated. He believed that the Torah gave him a peculiar claim to YHWH’s grace that the tax-collector did not possess.”

  9. Micah says:

    ooops! 🙂
    wasnt the tax collector a jew? how did the pharisee think that he had a one-up on the tax collector if NOT by his own works?

  10. Al says:


    The Pharisee saw himself as one who upheld the Law. As I wrote: “By his possession of and adherence to the Torah his right standing with YHWH was demonstrated” (emphasis added). The tax-collector was perceived to be ungodly and a law-breaker.

    This, however, is not necessarily the same thing as believing that one is justified by works as Protestants have tended to use that language historically. The Pharisee sought to uphold and be faithful to God’s Law. He was probably clear in his mind that he had no intention of earning or meriting right-standing with God by so doing. He believed that the Law freely granted him right-standing apart from anything that he earned and that all he had to do was live out this right-standing by upholding the Law and not rejecting it like the ungodly tax-collector. To uphold the Law was a matter of allegiance, not of perfect obedience.

    The problem with the Pharisee’s position can be seen in a number of areas: 1) right-standing with God is not ultimately founded upon possession of the Torah and circumcision; 2) what he considered true observance of the Torah was not in fact true observance of the Torah.

    What the Torah most demanded of the Israelites, the Pharisee lacked. His faithfulness to the Torah was lacking. The Torah called for justice, mercy and faith, not only for faithful observance of ceremonies. The Torah called for genuine penitence. For this reason the tax-collector proved to be the better observer of the Torah than the Pharisee.


    I didn’t see your comment until just now. Sorry about the delay in my response.

    The response to the question above should clarify my position here. The Torah can be viewed in a number of different ways. Paul and Jesus both show that observance of the Torah on one level is utterly indifferent to right-standing with God. Observance of the Torah on another is. This is why Paul can speak of Gentiles, who do not naturally have the Torah, doing the things contained in the Torah and manifesting that the Spirit of the New Covenant has inscribed the Torah on their hearts. What the Torah calls for at its deepest level is faith and faith is the fulfilment of the Torah, even in the absence of circumcision and the other rituals of the Torah.

    In talking with the rich young ruler Jesus lists the later commandments, which the rich young ruler claims to have kept from his youth. Jesus then points to the heart of the issue. At the heart of the Torah is the call to love YHWH completely and give one’s complete allegiance to Him (think of various summaries of the Torah). This is what Jesus calls for from the rich young ruler. Allegiance to YHWH will be demonstrated by giving up all and following Jesus. The rich young ruler wanted to serve both YHWH and Mammon. Jesus shows that he cannot have it both ways.

  11. Pingback: alastair.adversaria » More on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector

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