Despicable Pharisees: Reflection on Luke 18:9-14

Nestor Ravilas

What else could we get from the story? Its lesson is plain and simple, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted”. To dig more to it is to overdo it, and to overdo it is to spoil it. So better go and do what it says!

But for those with untrammelled imagination, follow me please into the wild.

The choice of characters in the parable is quite disturbing, in case you haven’t noticed it. Pharisees and tax collectors? It is like putting side by side Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo and Bishop Pablo Virgilio David in a story, and praising Panelo over and against David. Or choosing Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg, then admiring Donald in the face of Greta.

It sounds absurd, that is because we are conditioned to think that Pharisees are the vilest of all the characters in the Gospels. I don’t intend to belabour this part, probing that the Pharisees might be victims of what Yair Hoffman called “the theopolitics of retrospective historiography”.

Rather, I want to train my attention to the tax collector. Tax collectors is one of the hated groups in the first century Palestine, if not the most hated one. Their infamy is enough to incite assassination attempts, in which every pious Jew would dare to go after the neck of heavily guarded tax collector and slit it with a dagger. It is considered heroism to kill a corroborator who served foreign kings other than Yahweh and assisted them in oppressing Yahweh’s people. Tax collectors are obnoxious people. To kill one is to make you a hero.

The teaching on humility is undeniably commendable. But to commend a tax collector over against a Pharisee based on the former’s mere verbal self-debasement will create an impression that Pharisees are despicable than tax collectors. The matching, therefore, of a tax collector and a Pharisee in the story is more than a ploy to illustrate the supremacy of humility over pride. It has a political motive, to deride the Pharisees in general.

We missed to see this often times. By starting from the assumption that the Bible is the Word of God, we tend to forget its human side which is supposedly the very aim to foreground by scientific method of interpretation. So when the Bible itself skews into this shameful practice of “othering” like its treatment of the Pharisees, it passes simply our critical eyes and we use it ourselves as badge for our own habit of discriminating those alleged “others”.

This is a short essay and could not well justify the recent reconfiguration of the relationship of Christianity and the Pharisees in the so called “formative years” after the Jewish war of 70 CE. What can we adequately say is that the gospels of Luke, along with Matthew, was written during these years of rebuilding and reorganizing the surviving Jews after Titus destroyed the second temple. To make the story short, most scholars agreed that out of about five prominent groups in Israel in the first half of the first century, two were able to survive the rampage: the Jesus’ movement and the Pharisees.

The reason why the two survived the onslaught of war is probably because they resembled in many ways. They were both itinerant preachers and vigilant reformers. They were critical of the established power specially the temple leadership, but refused to join the separatists who withdrew in the country side like the Qumran community because of disdain to the temple. So after the war, the two groups found themselves alive and took the responsibility to regroup and rebuild its remnants. There, the rivalry of the two surviving groups begins.

Since Christians were late comers, Pharisees who emerged during the Hasmonean Dynasty, as Josephus confirms in his writings, were more popular and influential than them. Christians were pushed aside and the Pharisees take the lead in which history accorded them now as the forerunners of rabbinic Judaism. In return, or in retaliation rather, Christians make the Pharisees as their prominent nemesis on their writing of their own history. Such ploy bequeathed us two things which was probably never intended in the first place: legitimizing Christianity’s habit of “othering” and making Pharisee as symbolic derogatory name for those we exclude! This is all political theology in retrospective historiography.

It looks like I spoiled it.