482: THE PARABLE OF THE PHARISEE AND THE TAX COLLECTOR

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[London graffiti]

“A warm welcome to the only religious blog on the reading list of New York University’s politics dept. Zingcreed maintains that Jesus was a gay communist, whose words only survived until today because of the false belief that he rose from the dead. Once you’re dead, you’re dead, and that’s that! His words and deeds are worth considering though, along with those of other ancient teachers of wisdom such as Aesop, Diogenes, Plato and Epictetus. Ignore the false claims of Jesus’ divinity (a meaningless term, anyway) and read the lot. How does Yeshua (Jesus) compare? Would anybody bother with him today if they didn’t believe he was the son of God? Compare what he is reported as saying (and less than 20% of his recorded words are probably authentic) and see how it matches what is in the Hebrew Scriptures (O.T.) He wasn’t very original, was he? Here’s another of Jesus’ parables from Herzog’s book “Parables as subversive speech. Jesus as pedagogue of the oppressed” John Knox Press (1994). (i)

Enjoy!
In solidarity,
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”

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The parable contrasts 2 types of figure and their behaviour. Herzog maintains that “The parable is set in a specific place, and its characters are not abstract types but representatives of a social faction and a social group.” Here it is:-

(9) Then for those who were confident of their own moral superiority and who held everyone else in contempt, he had this parable: (10) ‘Two men went up to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a toll collector. (11) The Pharisee stood up and prayed silently as follows: “I thank you, God, that I’m not like everybody else, thieving, unjust, adulterous, and especially not like that toll collector over there. (12) I fast twice a week, I give tithes of everything that I acquire.” (13) But the toll collector stood off by himself and didn’t even dare to look up, but struck his chest, and muttered, “God, have mercy on me, sinner that I am.” (14a) Let me tell you, the second man went back to his house acquitted but the first one did not. (14b) For those who promote themselves will be demoted, but those who demote themselves will be promoted.’

(Luke 18;9-14; Scholars’ Version translation from the Jesus Seminar.)

Luke gives the parable an interpretive framework with his editorial introductory (v.9) and concluding (v.14b) remarks.
The toll collector was neither a tax collector nor a publican. He was a Jew employed by the foreign Roman oppressor. The collection of indirect  taxes such as tolls, imposts, tariffs and customs was leased out by means of contracts. The relatively rich lessee had to pay the amount of the contract in advance and then recoup his investment and make a profit as best he could. He employed a staff to help him do this. The system was rife with extortion and dishonesty. With good reason the population hated the toll collectors and often grouped them with robbers. The judgement on toll collectors remains harsh throughout the Talmud. The reason for the hostility is nowhere clearly stated, but it did not have to do with their employ by a foreign oppressor, as much as  the arbitrary quality of their imposts and the dishonesty which characterises their activity. They do not seem to have been considered ritually defiled by virtue of their work, but toll collecting was listed among despised trades and they were deprived of certain civic rights, for instance they were unable to be witnesses at a trial and could not become Pharisees.
Our toll collector’s place in this system was probably a relatively humble one as he was probably a low level functionary who sat at a toll centre, a man who could find no other work and who was glad of even this thankless task. He was a subsistence-level wage employee used by a toll contractor and despised by everyone else. He had no bargaining power and could easily be replaced by others as desperate for work as he was.

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The Temple: the setting of the parable in the temple precincts is important “because the Temple was the primary place where the redemptive media of Palestine were institutionalized.” The temple dominated the life of people not only in Galilee and Judaea but throughout the Diaspora, as the collection of the temple tax from every observant Jewish man clearly indicated. Herzog quotes Lenski as saying
“Technological advance creates the possibility of a surplus, but to transform that possibility into reality requires an ideology that motivates peasants to produce more than they need… and persuades them to turn that surplus over to someone else … A system of beliefs that defined peoples’ obligations… to the  supernatural was best suited to play this critical role.” (ii)
In this setting tax collecting became an act of devotion. Paying tithes meant you acknowledged your debt to Jahweh who brought you out of slavery in Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey. It was also a way of ensuring good crops for the following year, because any laxity towards Yahweh cold produce dire consequences. Conversely, not to render to  God what is God’s left one stigmatized and forever indebted. Whatever fate befell a debtor in this context was little more than the just retribution of God for failing to participate in the redemptive media. Thus while peasants lived in squalor, the priestly elites and their families lived very well, and a second tithe, which was supposed to be spent in Jerusalem, enriched he other elite families of the city, who lived lives of conspicuous consumption.The people were expected to pay this price and if they didn’t they were vilified and stigmatized. Simultaneously, Rome extracted a poll tax and a land tax from the same people. These taxes were simply for the benefit of the elites: none of it was ploughed back or used for the common good in any way. These taxes could not be got out of, but the temple ones were sometimes avoided by the poorest to stave off famine! (even though non-payment was considered  shameful.) They were labelled as irreligious reprobates, and no longer the people of God. There were also myriad lesser taxes.

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The Pharisee was also at the heart of the tax system. Like our toll collector who is a functionary in the Roman system, the Pharisee and his faction participated in efforts to enforce the collection of tithes but their major role was ideological as reflected in their polemics and rhetorical efforts to persuade. Within the framework of the Torah purity codes, the Pharisee represented the clean and the toll gatherer the unclean. He stood apart in the Temple courtyard most probably to avoid getting contaminated by brushing against the clothing of the less observant Jews. The toll collector stood apart because he was a deviant shunned by the faithful. At the precise moment the officiating priest is entering the Holy Place to burn the incense, at the very moment the people believe prayer to be the most efficacious, the Pharisee steps forward to pray aloud, proclaiming his own honour while shaming the toll collector. In both his fasting and his tithing he evidently goes above and beyond the requirements of the law, at some personal cost, plus what he says about the toll collector is no more than popular sentiment. He has thanked God and declared his love for the Torah, i.e. he has done nothing wrong!

The toll collector on the other hand cannot even repent under the existing system, as this would require restitution of all extorted funds plus one fifth and the abandonment of his occupation. There’s no way he could track down all those from whom he had extorted funds, and on his meagre income he could never hope to repay them let alone adding one fifth. Nevertheless Jesus’ verdict is an acquittal. How has the toll collector found favour?

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An explanation: the toll collector does not go quietly. Hearing the worst the Pharisee could throw at him, he beats his breast and appeals to a higher source! He refuses to accept the Pharisee’s labels but speaks directly to God seeking mercy, thus challenging the Pharisee’s readings of God’s judgements. By his audacious prayer he challenges the claim of the Pharisee, and the Temple and claims God’s ear for himself.
Jesus’ hearers might have asked How could God speak outside of official channels?
If the toll collector is justified by a mercy as unpredictable and outrageous as this, then who could not be included?
And if toll collectors and sinners are justified in the very precincts of the Temple itself, then how is one to evaluate a Temple priesthood and its scribes who declare that nothing of the kind is possible?

No wonder Jesus was stigmatized as a friend of toll gatherers and sinners and why he was eventually crucified by Jerusalem elites with the assistance of Roman provincial officials.

His pedagogy of the oppressed was designed to enable peasants to demystify the temple and the role of the redemptive media and, more specifically, the name calling of the of Pharisaic rule enforcers and moral entrepreneurs, so that the peasants could name oppression as a prelude to renaming their world. In the process, the parable provided a model of a figure who refused to be silenced but found his voice in the process of discovering God.

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Sources:
(i) Herzog, William “Parables as subversive speech. Jesus as pedagogue of the oppressed” John Knox press (1994)
(ii) Lenski, G.E.  and Jean Lenski “Human Societies: An introduction to Macrosociology” McGraw Hill (1982) p. 173

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Social divisions in Jesus’ time and today (directly linked to this Post)
Parables are subversive
Parable of the unmerciful servant
Parable of the rich man and Lazarus
Parable of the wicked tenants
Parable of the vineyard labourers
Church and Empire. or why was Jesus crucified?

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