The Text: Widows & Tax Collectors

Luke 18:1–14

Jesus told them a parable, about how they should always pray and not give up.
‘There was once a judge in a certain town,’ he said, ‘who didn’t fear God, and didn’t have any respect for people. There was a widow in that town, and she came to him and said, “Judge my case! Vindicate me against my enemy!”
‘For a long time he refused. But, in the end, he said to himself, “It’s true that I don’t fear God, and don’t have any respect for people. But because this widow is causing me a lot of trouble, I will put her case right and vindicate her, so that she doesn’t end up coming and giving me a black eye.”
‘Well,’ said the master, ‘did you hear what this unjust judge says? And don’t you think that God will see justice done for his chosen ones, who shout out to him day and night? Do you suppose he is deliberately delaying? Let me tell you, he will vindicate them very quickly. But—when the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’
He told this next parable against those who trusted in their own righteous standing and despised others.
1‘Two men’, he said, ‘went up to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, the other was a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed in this way to himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like the other people—greedy, unjust, immoral, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
‘But the tax-collector stood a long way off, and didn’t even want to raise his eyes to heaven. He beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am.” Let me tell you, he was the one who went back to his house vindicated by God, not the other. Don’t you see? People who exalt themselves will be humbled, and people who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Come with me into a court of law, where a civil case is being tried. I haven’t often been in a court, but we see them on the television and in the newspapers, and from time to time legal cases are widely reported and make history.

If it wasn’t so serious, it would be like a sporting contest. Here is the plaintiff, claiming eagerly that he has been wronged by the person opposing him. He has his team of lawyers, and they are arguing the case, producing witnesses, trying to persuade the judge that he is in the right. Here, opposite, is the defendant, the man the plaintiff is accusing. He and his team are trying to persuade the judge that he is in the right. Though experts who are watching may have a sense of which way the verdict is going to go, the result isn’t known until the judge, like a referee, finally sums up and announces the result.

In the ancient Jewish law court, all cases were like that, not just civil ones. If someone had stolen from you, you had to bring a charge against them; you couldn’t get the police to do it for you. If someone had murdered a relative of yours, the same would be true. So every legal case in Jesus’ day was a matter of a judge deciding to vindicate one party or the other: ‘vindication’ or ‘justification’ here means upholding their side of the story, deciding in their favor. This word ‘justification’, which we meet a lot in Paul but hardly ever in the gospels, means exactly this: that the judge finds in one’s favor at the end of the case. (See, e.g., Romans 2:1–16; 3:21–31; Galatians 2:16–21.)
These two parables, very different though they are in some ways, are both about vindication. The first is more obviously so, since it is actually set in a law court; but here we are puzzled at first glance, since, though Jesus clearly intends the judge to stand for God, this judge is about as unlike God as possible. He has no respect for God himself, and he doesn’t care whether he does the right thing for people or not. The point of the parable is then to say: if even a rotten judge like that can be persuaded to do the right thing by someone who pesters him day and night until it happens, then of course God, who is Justice in person, and who cares passionately about people, will vindicate them, will see that justice is done.

The parable assumes that God’s people are like litigants in a lawsuit, waiting for God’s verdict. What is the lawsuit about? It seems to be about Israel, or rather now the renewed Israel gathered around Jesus, awaiting from God the vindication that will come when those who have opposed his message are finally routed. It is, in other words, about the same scenario as described in the previous chapter: the time when, through the final destruction of the city and Temple that have opposed him, Jesus’ followers will know that God has vindicated Jesus himself, and them as his followers. Though this moment will itself be terrifying, it will function as the liberating, vindicating judgment that God’s people have been waiting and praying for. And if this is true of that final moment, it is also true of all such lesser moments, with which Christian living is filled.

The second parable looks at first as though it is describing a religious occasion, but it too turns out to be another lawsuit. Or perhaps we should say that the Pharisee in the Temple has already turned it into a contest: his ‘prayer’, which consists simply of telling God all about his own good points, ends up exalting himself by the simple expedient of denouncing the tax-collector. The tax-collector, however, is the one whose small faith sees through to the great heart of God (see 17:6), and he casts himself on the divine mercy. Jesus reveals what the divine judge would say about this: the tax-collector, not the Pharisee, returned home vindicated.

These two parables together make a powerful statement about what, in Paul’s language, is called ‘justification by faith’. The wider context is the final law court, in which God’s chosen people will be vindicated after their life of suffering, holiness and service. Though enemies outside and inside may denounce and attack them, God will act and show that they truly are his people. But this doesn’t mean that one can tell in the present who God’s elect are, simply by the outward badges of virtue, and in particular the observance of the minutiae of the Jewish law. If you want to see where this final vindication is anticipated in the present, look for where there is genuine penitence, genuine casting of oneself on the mercies of God. ‘This one went home vindicated’; those are among the most comforting and encouraging words in the whole gospel.

Tom Wright

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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