More on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector

I recently commented on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector on this blog. I remain convinced that the parable has little or nothing to do with classic legalism at all. Those who read it to prove such a position simply import their assumptions into the text. The text does not demand such a reading at all. In fact there are all sorts of good reasons to read it otherwise.

The Pharisee believed that God had marked out Israel as His special people by graciously giving them the Torah and that his upholding of the Torah (not at all the same thing as perfect obedience or meritorious obedience, for that matter) marked him out as one that God would justify.

The question about who is ‘righteous’ is the question of the identity of those who belong to the true Israel that God has marked out by the gift of the Torah. Let’s give some sort of modern-day analogy. The question of who is righteous is the same sort of question as one which seeks to ascertain the identity of the true Americans.

The Pharisee is like the patriot who is thankful that he is a true American. He raises the stars and stripes every day. He sings the national anthem before every meal. He has fought for his country and has the medals to prove it. He celebrates Independence Day and Thanksgiving. He can name all the American states according to ten different ordering principles and has an exhaustive knowledge of American history. He visits Washington DC at least once every year to see the great government buildings.

The tax-collector is like the recent immigrant. He speaks his own language at home and can only speak broken English with a thick foreign accent. He has forgotten the words for the national anthem. He has no interest in American sports and knows the history of his country of origin, but not of the US. If the two teams played in sport, he would not be supporting the US. Some have even rumoured that he once burnt the American flag in protest over the war in the Middle East.

The ‘works of the Torah’ function like the national anthem, Declaration of Independence, stars and stripes and celebration of Thanksgiving do within American life. No thoughtful person believes that one ‘earns’ one’s American identity by observing such things. These things rather ‘demonstrate’ a status that one never earned.

However, those who abandon the boundary markers of American identity will often be looked down upon by those who still adhere to them. This explains the Pharisee’s attitude to the tax-collector. The Pharisee regarded the tax-collector as one who had abandoned Israel’s God-given identity and was not fit to be regarded as a true son of Abraham.

God accepts the tax-collector because the fundamental thing that really marks out the true heirs of Abraham is not possession of the Torah and the symbols of Jewish national identity but an attitude of penitence and faith towards God. This was lacking in the Pharisee, but present in the tax-collector.

If we were to claim that the recent immigrant in the illustration above was the true American and the arrogant patriot was not — that true Americanism consisted in, say, a determination to resist tyranny and practice freedom, charity and maintain an open and welcoming attitude to people from all nations, rather than a nationalistic arrogance — many people would be shocked. Jesus’ redefinition of Israel was no less radical.

This observation, I believe, exposes the error of those who wish to answer the claims of Sanders, Wright and others within the NPP about Second Temple Judaism by reintroducing Pelagianism at another level. Yes, they will grant, works of the Torah were not seen as the means of getting in, but they were the means of staying in. The Reformers’ reading of Paul’s arguments against the Judaizers is more or less correct and the New Perspectivists are just pastorally naïve, not recognizing semi-Pelagianism when they see it. The chief problem with such claims is that they mistake what is meant by ‘staying in’. They presume that it must mean some sort of works-righteousness. I believe that the language is not the most helpful, but I completely fail to see how it must be works-righteousness.

Perhaps one of the deepest problems that I have with all such approaches is that they tend to reduce the primarily object of Paul’s attack to some more general sin (e.g. earning one’s own salvation, self-righteousness) that can be completely abstracted from the redemptive historical context in which he is operating. The Judaizers simply had the wrong form of religion. A number of NPP readings seem to fall into this trap themselves; Paul’s argument becomes concerned with the general sin of nationalism, exclusivism, ritualism, or use of boundary markers to mark out the people of God in general. Many of these thigns are legitimate overtones of what Paul is saying. However, Paul’s fundamental point is firmly rooted in the historical context. It does not have to do with general sins, but with the appropriate way to act at a particular moment in redemptive history. It has to do with the way in which we read the OT story. What was God’s purpose for the covenant with Abraham? What was the role of the Torah?

The problem has to do with the role that we see the narrative to be playing. Is the narrative the important thing, or is the narrative merely designed to illustrate timeless and abstract truths that exist independent of it? Is the Bible concerned with the narrative of God’s salvation and maturation of humanity and the cosmos, or is its chief concern conveying a timeless form of religion and way by which individuals can get saved? Is the story of Israel merely given as a set of examples and a repository of helpful metaphors for some reality outside of it, or is the story of Israel God’s great historical plan of salvation already in action? Do we find ourselves within the story told by Scripture, or is the story of Scripture to be reduced to serving us with nice parallels and illustrations that help us to live our lives, which are quite detached from it?

These are probably the most important questions that theologians like Wright are raising for us today.

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.
This entry was posted in What I'm Reading. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to More on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector

  1. Excellent analogy at the beginning!

  2. Daniel says:

    Terrific illustration. I wish that Piper could have discussed this with you before slaughtering this text in order to attack Wright.

  3. Michael says:

    It seems to me that there is a large mis-understanding of what a pharisee would be looking to recieve as part of the covenant people. A pharisee would care very little about righteousness for its own sake. Jesus very specifically points out exactly what the problem with the pharisee was. Twice in matthew he quotes Hosea 6:6. Taken in context this verse points to the manner in which the Israelites of Hosea’s time would turn to God, but were rejected by him because their reason for going to him was the same reason they went to idols. They wanted earthly blessings. So their problem was they would seek God for blessings, but without a heart for the things that God desires (as a result of not having a heart for God).

  4. Dave says:

    You advance your exegesis without any connections to the actual text of Lk 18! Everything is assumption…

    What about the Pharisee’s actual words, “adulterers, murderers, etc”? How do such sins function as “boundary markers?”

  5. Al says:


    I had no intention of presenting any sort of close exegesis of the parable. My point was to illustrate a different way of reading the parable, one that shows that the common reading that one finds in many conservative evangelical circles is wholly unnecessary.

    It is my belief that the reading of Luke 18 advanced by most conservative evangelicals is no less a matter of assumption as mine is, and quite a bit more so.

    The difference between the two readings has to do with the role that works are presumed to play with regard to the justification. For the approach that most evangelicals take, the works in question as regarded as somehow earning or meriting the status of righteous. If we do good works we can apparently be right with God.

    For the approach that I am advancing, the ‘good works’ in question are things that demonstrate the right relationship that one enjoys with God. They are not perceived as earning anything.

    We will be judged according to works on the final day. Faithfulness and obedience in relationship to God in the present, imperfect and incomplete though it is, is something that genuinely marks us out as His true people. Righteous behaviour is supposed to be characteristic of true Christians, those who are in right relationship with God. By such behaviour we are marked out from sinners who are not in right relationship with God.

    Most Christians would believe that an impenitent adulterer is not in right relationship with God, much as the Pharisee did. However, we do not believe that we are right with God because we have not committed sins like that of adultery. Nor, I believe, did the Pharisee.

    It should be observed that the Pharisee is not thanking God that he has never committed adultery, been unjust or extorted (although he may well believe that he hasn’t). He is rather comparing himself with other individuals who are characterized by such sins. For instance, a person who fell and committed an act of injustice and immediately repented of it is not necessarily an unjust person. To be an unjust person is not merely a matter of having fallen into a particular sin at one time in the past. It is to have a life that is characterized by the sin of injustice.

    When we are talking about ‘boundary markers’, the focus is not on detached and discrete acts. Such acts mark people out only to the degree that they are part of a broader pattern of praxis. The comparison between the Pharisee and others is a comparison between people committed to or characterized by different forms of praxis.

    The extortioners, unjust and adulterers that the Pharisee refers to would have been regarded as having apostatized from the covenant. This wasn’t because they had failed to uphold an ideal standard of obedience (the Law provided means by which the penitent could make atonement and be brought back into right relationship), but because they were perceived to have turned their backs on the Torah altogether.

    The ‘boundary markers’ in Luke 18 are not so much the ‘negative’ boundary markers of adultery, injustice and extortion (although there is a degree to which such things could function as such) as the ‘positive’ boundary markers of fasting twice a week and giving tithes. These are the boundary markers that mark the Pharisee out from the sinners he contrasts himself with. The sinners mentioned are not so much mentioned as examples of ‘negative’ boundary markers as they are mentioned as the sort of people that the positive boundary markers of fasting and tithing serve to mark the Pharisee out from. The sinners had rejected the Torah, but the Pharisee practiced a detailed loyalty to it.

    The problem with the Pharisee is not that he believed that he could earn his own salvation as that he was confident that he was in right relationship with God without reliable basis.

    The Pharisee is not really very similar to the Roman Catholics that I know. Many of the Catholics that I know have problems with assurance of salvation. The Pharisee’s problem was totally different. He was more like the fundamentalist who has no doubt whatsoever that he is in right relationship with God.

    Such a person looks at the homosexuals, the abortionists, the drunkards and the Roman Catholics and thanks God that he is not like them. He reads his Bible every morning and will not even touch intoxicating liquor. He is crystal clear that his relationship with God is not founded upon anything that he has done, or continues to do. In fact, his believe in the doctrine of justification by faith alone is one of the things that he most prides himself in.

    However, such a person can be arrogant and so confident in his right-standing with God that he fails truly to be humble before God. As he becomes more puffed up he becomes less aware of his own sinfulness and his need for divine forgiveness.

    The idea that his right-standing with God is on the basis of his obedience is far from the mind of the fundamentalist. The idea would utterly appall him. What he believes is that his right-standing with God is demonstrated — but never earned — in such things as his regular Bible reading, holding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone and avoidance of alcohol. However, in all of this he has forgotten some of the things that are central to the Christian faith. In the midst of his many ‘boundary markers’ the key boundary marker of humility before God may have been lost. The chain smoker or the Roman Catholic that he looks down upon may well have the very reality that he lacks.

  6. Dave says:

    Thanks very much for the helpful comments. I must say I quite agree with the general flow of your thought here. However – and this is perhaps where the line demarcating NP/OP begins to blur – I wonder why you would not call that fundamentalist Christian you refer to as a “legalist.”

    I can fully accept that the Pharisee in Lk 18 did not believe himself to be a legalist. The analogy to today’s fundamentalists is quite apt. And of course, you are correct: they know and are convinced of justification by faith alone.

    However, just because the Pharisee and fundamentalist do not believe they are legalists does not extricate them from actually being so. They may that their works are not the basis but only the demonstration of their righteous status. However, often they live otherwise – they live carrying out these works in order to stay right with God. As you say of the Pharisee, “he was confident that he was in right relationship with God without reliable basis.” The fundamentalist’s confidence was in what demonstrated his righteous standing, rather than earned it: “his regular Bible reading, holding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone and avoidance of alcohol.” Exactly right. But do you not see this as legalism?

    Legalism is not a sin of Judaism, it is the sin of the human heart. Man wants to accomplish his own salvation. Jesus exposes it for what it is in this parable. You correctly point out that legalism occurs even without a blatant legalistic sytem – in fact, in the Christian tradition, that is when it most frequently occurs. There is a lot of legalism in fundamentalist evangelical Christianity today – “I go to church, I’m ok.” Generally as a religious system, it’s not consciously adopted, but slips in under the radar whenever man does not truly see his place before God.

    To me, what the NP is saying is so related to the classic position on the texts that I don’t see how it can’t simply be incorporated within our thought framework. Sure: 1st century Judaism did not believe itself to be legalistic. So? Ultimately, we all are, but for the grace of God. Because we are human, and proud, Jesus came to show us the way of humility and grace.

  7. Al says:


    Thanks for your response. I don’t believe that the more traditional Protestant reading is so close to that of the New Perspective. The parable is not about seeking to accomplish one’s own salvation. I don’t believe that the first century Pharisee was trying to accomplish this, nor do I believe that the contemporary fundamentalist is. They could certainly both be called ‘legalists’, given a loose sense of the term (recognizing that the Law in the NT is not some general moral standard but the Jewish Torah). However, not all legalists are erring by seeking to accomplish their own salvation.

    Some legalists are legalists who impose unnecessary and unbiblical requirements upon people. Such legalism can exist without any attempt to earn one’s salvation. Those who condemn Christians who drink alcohol are legalists, but unbiblical prohibitions are not necessarily indicative of a desire that fundamentalists have to accomplish their own salvation, although it does point to other deeper spiritual problems.

    I don’t believe that the first century Pharisee and the contemporary legalistic fundamentalist necessarily carry out the works that they do in order to stay right with God (though, quite possibly, some subconsciously do, given the treachery and deceitfulness of the human heart), anymore than the American patriot sings the national anthem and raises the stars and stripes in order to remain American. The problem that Jesus draws attention to is the proud presumption that one is righteous and the despising of others. The problem was that the presumption was ill-founded. The righteous are marked out by a humble faith that the Pharisee lacked.

    The misplaced confidence of the Pharisee was not in the salvific power of his own works. The misplaced confidence of the Pharisee was a misplaced confidence in the status that he had been given by God. Much of the things that he placed his confidence in were not directly related to his own actions. His confidence was in the Temple and the Torah as things that marked out Israel as different from the nations and he was studiously observant of the Torah and the worship of the Temple given this belief. His confidence was in the fact that he had been circumcised. He confidence was in his Jewish nationality. The sin of the Pharisee was presumption, not the belief that he could accomplish his own salvation. His confidence was not necessarily in his own moral achievement. Rather, the fasting and tithing were sources of confidence as they were a living out of a God-given distinctness, not necessarily as things founded in his own superior moral character.

    I suppose that if one were willing to trace the strict logic of every sin, one could argue that every sin constitutes an attempt to accomplish our own salvation, our something like that. If this were the case then Luke 18 would have to be about this sin. However, so would every other passage about sin in the Bible. It seems to me that there comes a point when the category of earning one’s own salvation is stretched beyond breaking point. In the attempt to salvage a historic reading of such passages as Luke 18 we lose sight of the particular issue that is addressing and reduce it to the ‘universal sin’ of trying to accomplish one’s own salvation. This, I believe, is deeply unhelpful.

    The issue of Luke 18 will be lost sight of if distinct sins are too easily lumped together and mashed into the homogenous paste of ‘trying to accomplish one’s own salvation’. Jesus is speaking into a very specific historical situation, to Jews who presume themselves to be true members of God’s people, over against sinners such as the tax-collectors. Jesus challenges such people that God knows and judges the heart and that the humility of a penitent tax-collector is far more valuable in God’s sight than the rigorous Torah-observance of a proud Pharisee. It will be the poor in spirit who will inherit the coming kingdom of YHWH.

    As Wright points out, we must get the fundamental note of the NT message right. He argues that the Reformation traditions have often misidentified the fundamental note. However, once we have got the fundamental note right we will hear a range of different overtones. The chief of these overtones is, I believe, that of the sin of presumption. There are many people who presume that they are OK with God because they hold to a Christian worldview and to Reformed doctrine and were brought up in an orthodox Presbyterian church background. They despise the handwaving and untaught Charismatic who may have the humility before God that they lack.

    If we make the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector to be about the general sin of trying to accomplish one’s own salvation, such people will not recognize how clearly their presumption is addressed by the Scripture. They believe that they are largely immune from the sin of trying to earn their own salvation and I believe that it is fair to say that that particular sin is not the most dangerous one that they face. We can continue to preach over their shoulders to the Roman Catholics who are supposedly trying to ‘earn their own salvation’ (as all too many Protestants have used this parable to do), merely hardening them in their sin of presuming that they are OK and everyone else is wrong, or we can speak directly to them and show that it is their sin that the Scripture has in focus. Given the great reputation that Reformed people have for doctrinal pride in the wider Church, it would be great to see this being done more often. Perhaps we might even recognize that God is more happy to receive the humble but confused Roman Catholic than the arrogant Reformed Christian.

    I am more than ready to acknowledge, as is N.T. Wright, that seeking to earn one’s own salvation is utterly unbiblical and that the Reformers were completely right to attack it. However, I am also agreed with Wright that we should not read this sin into the biblical text when it is not in view. We must get the fundamental note of Scripture right. If we do not, in attacking one error, we may well leave ourselves open to many others.

  8. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.