Some parables begin abruptly, without mention of the circumstances nor the audience: ‘Jesus began to speak in parables...’ When? To whom? It is not important. This Sunday’s parable, on the contrary, is introduced in a precise fashion: ‘He told this parable to address some of those who were convinced of being righteous and who despised others’ (Lk 18:9). By means of the character of a Pharisee, the first part of the parable (18: 11-12) sketches these two traits in reverse order.
Having gone up to the Temple to pray, the man starts by thanking God for not being a sinner like so many others (18:11). Then he begins to list off his good deeds (18:12). The practices that he reports witness to an uncommon zeal. Strictly speaking, the Law (Lv 16: 29-31) prescribed fasting only once year, during the great Day of Atonement. By fasting twice a week, he far exceeds the requirements. Similarly, he acquits himself scrupulously by paying tithes on the produce of the soil, an obligation which he was not bound to as a simple consumer.
But the parable only sketches a portrait of the people it is concerned with. In contrast to the Pharisee, the stereotype of observance of the law, the parable presents a tax-collector, also having come to pray at the Temple, who is the stereotype of those who are labelled as ‘sinners.’ The contrast that it draws is striking. Of the first man, it says simply that he was standing up, the position of a person who is proud of himself (9:11a). The second man stands at a distance, not daring to raise his eyes to heaven and beating his breast (9, 13a). Satisfied with himself, and not showing any expectation with regard to God, the first man went there with three reasons for thanksgiving (9: 11b-12). Aware of his misery, the second man only has one thing to ask: "I have sinned. Please forgive me. "(9: 13b)
After this comes the judgement of God (18: 14a). He who glorifies in his own righteousness makes himself unrighteous. He who recognises himself as unworthy and as a sinner leaves justified. Shortly before, in Luke 16:15, Jesus lashes out at Pharisees who ‘justify themselves’, but whose heart God knows. ‘To Justify’ in this passage, expresses the relationship of rectitude in the face of God. It is the same in this parable. Having confessed his misery by relying on God, the tax collector is restored to his relationship with the latter, like the prodigal son returning to his father. By relying on himself and his spiritual exploits, the Pharisee had disregarded his relationship to God.