Luke’s story of the pharisee and the tax-collector may be one of the most popular preaching texts in the Christian Bible, but it is not an easy text. The artworks in this exhibition span three continents and nearly a millennium. They show how Luke’s story, intended to castigate contempt has, in no small way, taught contempt for Jews and Judaism. They also show some ways in which that reading might be repaired.
The story and its sculpted heir(esses) constitute a twisting and twisted story of contempt. Under Roman occupation, the general populace, here represented by the pharisee, held tax collectors in contempt. Jesus’s story is Luke’s way of turning that contempt on its head in Jesus’s name, as he (Luke) says in his introduction to it (18:9).
Luke’s lesson to his readers to hold the pharisee in contempt instead of the Roman employee presents itself as an imitation of Jesus. Jesus’s closing admonition at verse 14b says (in yet another reversal of social convention) that the last and first will change places (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31). In relating this story, Luke reverses the object and subject of contempt in similar vein. But he does not criticize contempt itself.
Three daily morning thanksgivings that are still part of every Jewish prayer book thank God that the pray-er is not a pagan, a slave, or a woman. (In various later editions of such books these have been revised to emphasize what is being positively affirmed and to set aside the negative contrasts through which the affirmations are made.) Luke ridicules and distorts these thanksgivings, placing them as contemptuous words in the pharisee’s heart.
Paul also objected to these thanksgivings (they are in the subtext of Galatians 3:28) echoing them in the order in which they appear in the prayer book. But Paul does not deride them; he simply does away with the apartness that the thanksgivings cultivate. Both Paul and Luke were interested in Gentiles, but angry ridicule and contempt belong to Luke.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the oppositional first–last reversal should result in the very contempt the story intended to criticize but with different occupants in the respective seats. Reversal of convention begins in Genesis and is pervasive in Paul. We see it here in Luke. Unfortunately, the Church chose to carve it in stone against the Jews. The personified figures of Church (Ecclesia) and Synagogue (Synagoga) on the façade of Strasbourg Cathedral are paradigms of this divisive and pervasive tendency in Western Christian art. It is a road all too well travelled.
The Byzantine illuminator and the twentieth-century painter whose work we see here suggest that history did not have to go that way. Our Byzantine illuminator takes the road less travelled. The Pharisee’s arms extended in an ‘L’ shape (facing left) suggest that repentance and prayer work together. The one weakened by sin is so distraught that he needs his currently stronger neighbour to send his prayers aloft. The Pharisee, perhaps knowing that he will be the morally needy one at some future time, prays on his chagrined companion’s behalf. Contempt can be painted out of this text and care read in.
The painting made in Cameroon as part of the Life of Jesus Mafa project is ambiguous. It can certainly sustain the conventional interpretation of the text about the self-justifying pharisee. But, viewed alongside the Byzantine illumination, this work may also allow an opening for us to ‘read care’ into it (as we may into the text of Luke). What if this were a court of law or perhaps of public opinion, with the pharisee functioning as an attorney for the defendant standing behind him? Perhaps the defendant lacks the articulacy needed even to sort through the painful thoughts and emotions that confuse him. No one should ever represent themselves in a court of law or even of public opinion. The competent pharisee may be indicating that he has the authority and information needed to speak on the defendant’s behalf. Relocating the biblical story to a contemporary setting, the Jesus Mafa project ensures that we ask these questions not only of characters in an ancient story, but of ourselves. However much like the pharisee of Luke 18 we are, there may be redemptive choices for us. It will depend on how we use our voices, who we speak to (and for), and what we say.
A realistic theology will hold that everyone can and indeed will likely sit in all the seats available in this story: the penitent too chagrined to beseech, the self-righteous citizen looking down on others, the caretaker of neighbours, and the neighbours needing care. If contempt is in the eye of the viewer, may not care also be found there?
Doran, Robert. 2007. ‘The Pharisee and the Tax Collector: An Agonistic Story’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 69.2: 259–70
Friedrichsen, Timothy A. 2005. ‘The Temple, a Pharisee, a Tax Collector, and the Kingdom of God: Rereading a Jesus Parable (Luke 18:10–14a)’, Journal of Biblical Literature, 124.1: 89–119
Holmgren, Fredrick Carlson. 1994. ‘The Pharisee and the Tax Collector: Luke 18:9–14 and Deuteronomy 26:1–15’, Interpretation, 48.3: 252–61
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 10“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”