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Kenneth Bailey on Luke 18:9-14

by pastorjuhl ~ July 29th, 2008

Kenneth Bailey, “Through Peasant Eyes

Middle Easterners read [this logion] and assume a parable about public worship…. A part of our problem in the West is that the English verb “pray” is almost exclusively applied to private devotions, and the verb “worship” is used for corporate worship. However, in biblical literature, the verb “pray” can mean either…. The mention of the temple adds considerable weight to the assumption that corporate worship is intended. (p. 145)

The Pharisee’s reasons for standing apart can be easily understood. He considers himself righteous and indeed “despises others,” as we see from his description of them. Those who kept the law in a strict fashion were known as “associates” (haberim). Those who did not were called “people of the land” (am-haaretz). These latter Danby defines as “those Jews who were ignorant of the Law and who failed to observe the rules of cleanness and uncleanness and were not scrupulous in setting apart Tithes from the produce (namely, Heave-Offering, First Tithe, Second Tithe, and Poorman’s Tithe).” [from Danby’s translation of The Mishnah] In our parable, paying the tithe is specifically mentioned. In the eyes of a strict Pharisee the most obvious candidate for the classification of am-haaretz would be a tax collector…. If he accidentally brushes against the tax collector (or any other am-haaretz who might be among the worshipers), he would sustain midras-uncleanness. His state of cleanliness is too important. It must not be compromised for any reason. Physical isolation, from his point of view, would be a statement and an important one at that. Thus the Pharisee carefully stands aloof from the others gathered around the altar. (p. 148)

The officiating priest (as we have observed) is most likely in the Holy Place offering up the incense. At this particular point in the service the delegation of Israel was responsible for making the unclean stand at the eastern gate (Mishna Tamid 5:6, Danby 587). The Pharisee may be wondering why this publican was not ushered out. In any case, during this pause in the liturgy, the Pharisee probably takes advantage of the opportunity to instruct the “unrighteous” around him…. Prayer in Jewish piety involved primarily the offering of thanks/praise to God for all of His gifts, and petitions for the worshiper’s needs. This Pharisee does neither. He does not thank God for His gifts but rather boasts of his own self-achieved righteousness. He has no requests. Thus his words do not fall under the category of prayer at all but degenerate to mere self-advertisement…. The third word, “adulterers,” is thrown in by the Pharisee for good measure (like the older son in Luke 15:30). It tells us nothing about the tax collector but does inform us regarding the mindset of the speaker. (p. 149-150)

The prayer comes through as a ruthless attack on a stereotype, a public accusation of a fellow worshiper at the great altar, that is based on preconceived notions formulated by the Pharisee’s own self-righteousness, which he then proudly displays…. His acts are works of supererogation… Indeed, we have a picture of a man who prides himself on his more than perfect observance of his religion. (p. 152)

The accepted posture for prayer was to cross the hands over the chest and keep the eyes cast down. But [the publican’s] crossed arms do not remain immobile. Rather he beats on his chest. This dramatic gesture is still used in villages all across the Middle East from Iraq to Egypt. The hands are closed into fists that are then struck on the chest in rapid succession. The gesture is used in times of extreme anguish or intense anger. It never occurs in the Old Testament, and appears only twice in the Gospels, both times in Luke. The remarkable feature of this particular gesture is the fact that it is characteristic of women, not men…. Women customarily beat on their chests at funerals, but men do not. For men it is a gesture of extreme sorrow and anguish and it is almost never used. It is little wonder that in all of biblical literature we find this particular gesture mentioned only here and at the cross (Luke 23:48). There we are told that “all the multitude” went home beating on their chests. The crowd naturally included men and women. Indeed, it takes something of the magnitude of Golgotha to evoke this gesture from Middle Eastern men. (p. 153)

For centuries the Church, East and West, has translated hilastheti moi in this text as “have mercy on me.” Our word hilaskomai occurs as a verb only here and in Hebrews 2:17. As a noun it appears four times (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:5; 1 John 2:2, 4:10), and it clearly refers to the atonement sacrifice…. The tax collector is not offering a generalized prayer for God’s mercy. He specifically yearns for the benefits of an atonement…. On reading Dalman and Edersheim (The Temple) one can almost smell the pungent incense, hear the loud crash of cymbals, and see the great cloud of dense smoke rising from the burnt offering. The tax collector is there. He stands afar off, anxious not to be seen, sensing his unworthiness to stand with the participants. In brokenness he longs to be a part of it all. He yearns that he might stand with “the righteous.” In deep remorse he strikes his chest and cries out in repentance and hope, “O God! Let it be for me! Make an atonement for me, a sinner!” There in the temple this humble man, aware of his own sin and unworthiness, with no merit of his own to commend him, longs that the great dramatic atonement sacrifice might apply to him. [Luke 14:14a] tells us that indeed it does. (p. 154)

The original self-righteous audience is pressed to reconsider how righteousness is achieved. Jesus proclaims that righteousness is a gift of God made possible by means of the atonement sacrifice, which is received by those who, in humility, approach as sinners trusting in God’s grace and not their own righteousness. As Jeremias has succinctly observed, “Our passage shows…that the Pauline doctrine of justification has its roots in the teaching of Jesus.” (Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, p. 114) (p. 156)

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