The parables of Jesus summon us to the edge of the world in order to imagine a world that can only be called “kingdom.”
In this world we have stereotypes, like the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14, after the jump). In this imagined stereotyped world the Pharisee is self-righteous, hypocritical, unloving, and conscious that God is on his side. In that world, too, is the tax collector who, knowing his low status in society and his own sins of robbery, realizes his position before God and so confesses his sin. Instead of claiming his own righteousness, he longs for God to establish him as right. He sees himself as a sinner; the Pharisee sees himself as righteous.
But Jesus wants us to imagine the world where the least desirable people, those who are stereotypical sinners, repent and turn to God. A world where the most self-righteous of people are seen for what they are.
What Jesus wants us to imagine is a world where truth about ourselves is held in the highest honor, where compassion is what matters, and where self-congratulations are abandoned.
To jolt his readers into this kind of world, Jesus uses a Flannery O’Connor-like set of bold images: the righteous man is not, the unrighteous man is. The imagined world of Jesus subverts our images of who is good — the parable is very much along the line of the Beatitudes of Jesus.
18:9 Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. 18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ 18:13 The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ 18:14 I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”