Two men go to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee thanks God that he is “not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector”. He fasts twice a week, he tithes his income. The wretched tax collector, on the other hand, says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus comments that it is the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, who goes home “justified” (Lk. 18:10-14).
In a detailed critique of Tom Wright’s book What Saint Paul Really Said Phil Johnson argues that this parable teaches exactly what Wright wants to deny about justification—that it has to do with “individual guilt and forgiveness”. This is where Jesus “expounds most clearly on the principle of justification”. It shows that he was “fully in agreement with the classic Reformed interpretation of Paul”. It’s as though Jesus had read Paul, foreseen the Reformation, and thought up a little story to illustrate the point!
I think that Johnson has got the parable wrong. I firmly believe in “justification by faith” but in what we might call a pragmatic-eschatological sense rather than in the forensic sense associated especially with the Reformed tradition.
Here’s what I mean. Reformed theology regards justification by faith as a central soteriological principle that determines the final destiny of the individual. It stands in absolute antithesis to the supposedly universal but futile endeavour of humanity to justify itself by its ethical and religious works. It assumes a forensic or judicial framework: at the final assize no one will be be justified—and therefore escape condemnation to hell—by anything that he or she has done; only those who have faith in the atoning death of Christ, etc., will be justified. It is essentially a metaphysical notion. Narrative has nothing to do with it.
My pragmatic-eschatological interpretation is that justification by faith presupposes the call of God to pursue a hazardous and uncertain course or to stand firm under threatening conditions. The right response to such a call is belief, trust, faith, faithfulness. Habakkuk 2:4 is seminal: when the wrath of God comes upon Israel, the righteous will live by their faithfulness (cf. Rom. 1:17). At some point in the future those who take that difficult and narrow path will find that they were right to do so—they will find that they were justified all along, despite the incredulity and antagonism of those around them.
So Jesus’ disciples could expect to be justified for preaching the message of the coming kingdom of God when the temple was destroyed and the relevance of Daniel’s vision of one like a son of man coming on the clouds was apparent to all. The churches of the empire could expect to be justified for their deeply anti-social stance when the nations rejected their old gods and confessed that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of the God of Israel. This is obviously an oversimplification, but I think it provides the right framework. For more detail see my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.
Now back to the parable….
The first point to make is that we can’t just grab the parable from its narrative context, as Johnson has done, pull the pin and toss it wildly—a sort of doctrinal hand grenade—in the direction of the enemy. Jesus told the story to a particular group of people for a particular purpose. Luke includes the incident as part of the bigger story that he is telling about Jesus and Israel. To claim that Jesus was “fully in agreement with the classic Reformed interpretation of Paul” gets the whole thing back to front. The question is: Does the classic Reformed theory bear any relationship to the parable? The answer is: No, not really.
The parable is told to some who “were confident in themselves because (hoti) they were righteous” (Lk. 18:9). This is not the usual translation, but it’s perfectly valid and it makes good sense in the context of the parable and of the Gospel more broadly.1 The tax collector knows that he is a sinner, therefore he demonstrates a lack of confidence in himself: he stands some distance away, he cannot lift his eyes to heaven, he beats his breast. The Pharisee knows that he is righteous according to the Law, and expresses his sense of difference from bad people accordingly. He is a good man, he has done what was required of him.
The Pharisees and scribes are like the obedient and dutiful son who could not celebrate the return of his profligate brother (Lk. 15:1-2, 25-32). This is not a story about the repentance and conversion of sinners in the general sense. It is a story about the recovery of the lost sheep of the house of Israel and the difficulties that the religious elites had in believing that this was really what God was doing. The older son is condemned for not joining the party—which suggests that Wright has a point when he says that justification “was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people” (What Paul Really Said, 119).
A few verses later a ruler of the people comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit the life of the age to come. Like the older son and the self-confident Pharisee he is a righteous Jew: he has kept the commandments since his youth. Jesus does not rebuke him for trusting in works of the Law. One thing he still lacks and that is to sell everything, leave his old life behind, and follow Jesus. He has to step out in faith on a hazardous and uncertain journey, trusting that in the end he will be found to have done the right thing. It’s exactly what I mean by a pragmatic-eschatological definition of justification by faith.
When the Pharisees and scribes grumble because Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners, his response was: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 5:32). The problem is not that they were trusting in works of the Law. The problem is that they could not accept the forgiveness of sinners.
So was the Pharisee justified after all?
This last passage has a bearing on a further matter regarding the translation of the parable. Jesus says that the tax collector went home justified par’ ekeinon. The preposition is usually taken to mean “rather than”—one man is justified “rather than the other”.2 But para here could also have a straightforward comparative sense (“more than”) or may even simply mean “alongside, with”: the tax collector left the temple justified alongside the Pharisee. This is perhaps unlikely, but it would fit precisely with the parable of the prodigal son and the saying about not calling the righteous but sinners to repentance.
Finally, we should note that Jesus provides his own explanation of the justification of the tax collector: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted”. The Pharisee’s problem was not that he trusted in his “works of the Law” but that he exalted himself above the “sinners”—the extortioners, unjust, adulterers, and tax collectors. If he goes home unjustified, it is not because he is pursuing a righteousness based on works. It is because he “treated with contempt” men like the repentant tax collector.
The saying is also found appended to an earlier parable about how guests should behave at a wedding feast: “when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’” (Luke 14:10). The teaching illustrates the principle: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted”. Moreover, if you invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” to your feast, you will be blessed; you will be “repaid at the resurrection of the just” (14:14).
This fixes the argument firmly in Israel’s story (cf. Dan. 12:1-3). The justification of the tax collector, whether alongside or to a greater extent than or instead of the Pharisee, belongs to an entirely different conceptual framework to that presupposed by the Reformers in their polemic against Roman Catholic “legalism”. It has to do with the struggle of the Pharisees and scribes to grasp the fact that repentant sinners—like the tax collector Zacchaeus—were being restored to Abraham. It has nothing to do with the eternal destiny of individuals after death. It has everything to do with the controversy over who would be part of renewed Israel following the catastrophe of God’s judgment.
- 1. Cf. J. Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34 (WBC, 1993), 875: ‘“Because they are righteous” fits the imagery to come better than “that they are righteous,” which is also a possible translation. In the parable to come, the tax collector’s lack of self-confidence is quite clear.’
- 2. Cf. BDAG παρά C.3: “When a comparison is made, one member of it may receive so little attention as to pass [from] consideration entirely, so that ‘more than’ becomes instead of, rather than, to the exclusion of…. δεδικαιωμένος παρ᾿ ἐκεῖνον justified rather than the other Lk 18:14”.