October 21, 2020

Reformation Week 2015 — David Lose on The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and the Reformation

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, Cranach

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, Cranach

Reformation Week 2015
Reformation Day is October 31

Note from CM: I love the article by David Lose from 2013 at Working Preacher that I reference in this post: “The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and the Reformation.” I encourage you to read it in its entirety. It is a wonderful statement about the subversive nature of Jesus’ teaching.

Just when we think we’ve conquered self-righteousness . . .

• • •

So here’s one of the tricky things about “celebrating” the Reformation. Celebrations can easily become triumphalistic. In this case, rejoicing in what Protestants think is a more biblical understanding of “righteousness” can become, without one even realizing it, an attitude of self-righteousness that looks down the nose at others who “don’t get it.”

In his article on Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the publican, David Lose shows us how this story can be a “clever and dangerous” trap for preacher and listener alike.

For most who take it at face value, Jesus’ parable teaches that we should be like the humble publican and not like the proud, self-righteous Pharisee.

However, the very moment we criticize the Pharisee and express gratitude that we are not like him, we are engaging in his exact behavior!

And the very moment we identify ourselves with the publican we find ourselves in danger of taking pride in our humility (!) and thinking that we have somehow earned God’s favor because of the lowly posture we have taken.

In my opinion, one of the most important contributions the Lutheran tradition has given us is its emphasis on the universal human practice of trying to justify ourselves before God.

If we can’t do it through boasting, like the Pharisee did, in our good deeds and blameless lifestyle (and by most standards, he most certainly was an exemplar of a respectable, righteous life), then we will find a way to do by focusing all attention on ourselves as “miserable sinners.”

At the heart of the Lutheran understanding of human sinfulness is the concept of incurvatus in se — the person “curved in” on himself or herself. Luther put it this way:

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, [being] so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.

In other words, the world revolves around me, and God should vindicate me because I am at the center. I can put myself in the center by my goodness or by my depravity, but either way it’s all about me and I expect God to respond in my favor.

I think David Lose makes exactly the right point when he says about this parable:

This parable — and indeed the whole Reformation — was and is an attempt to shift our attention from ourselves — our piety or our passions, our faith or our failure, our glory or our shame — to God, the God who delights in justifying the ungodly, welcoming the outcast, and healing all who are in need.

So perhaps the best way to preach this clever and dangerous parable is to keep all talk of the Pharisee and tax collector and Luther and ourselves and anyone and everyone else to an absolute minimum. Instead, perhaps we should reserve most our time, thought, and words for God, the God who creates light from darkness, raises the dead to life, and pulls us all — Pharisees and tax collectors, righteous and sinful, disciples and ne’er-do-wells alike — into a realm of unimaginable and unexpected grace, mercy and joy.


  1. ” . . . perhaps we should reserve most our time, thought, and words for God, the God who creates light from darkness . . . ”

    It is sad that Christian people have spent so much time being negative themselves by focusing on the negative in others instead of celebrating a positive returning towards the Lord . . . a turning towards the ‘light’ that involves a journeying of the mind, the heart, the soul, the spirit, and the strength of the person towards becoming increasingly focused on Christ.

    • Not only focusing on the negative in others but also the negative in ourselves, and yes, there is an aspect of that to our journeys but I’m coming to believe that one of the keys to our spiritual growth is to not focus on our own sin (and certainly not that of others) but to focus instead on Christ.

      I have heard sermon upon sermon end with “What are you going to do in response to knowing God’s grace?” or some variation thereof which, in my mind, is taking the focus off of God’s grace in and through Jesus Christ (if he, in fact, is even mentioned) and placing it on ourselves. It is a prime example of “incurvatus in se”–making the gospel about us instead of Christ.

  2. “I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.”

    – Screwtape Letters, #14

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “””But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.”””

      C.S. Lewis may have been a curmudgeon, and a droll poet, but he was also certainly a moral genius.

      This is one of my favorite passage – out of pretty much everything. Having a good laugh at the internecine workings of ones own mind is most certainly a primary pinnacle of mental health.

      And ending in laughter is so very much *better* than most of the Reformation stuff – which often borders on self-loathing and then fails to point in any real direction; it too easily becomes a competition for who can most fiercely double down on the yes-I-suck meme, no-I-really-suck, no-I-am-more-aware-of-how-much-I-suck-then-you-are-aware-how-much-you-suck, NO-I-SUCK-WAY-MORE….. It is a bummer that much of St. Paul is pretty easy to use to justify the theology of self-loathing.

    • This has long been my favorite book of all time…but I read it again last Halloween after not reading it for a few years…and eh…idk anymore. It’s still good, I just found it a little too…stuck in Lewis’ worldview. Screwtape’s sayings were just a little too perfectly crafted to be the opposite of what Lewis believed himself.

      Still a favorite though, just for how it was done.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Mr. Lose may be correct about the parable in particular, although I am not entirely convinced, But then he goes way overboard:

    “””This parable – and indeed the whole Reformation – was and is an attempt to shift our attention from ourselves…”

    That was the principle of the “whole Reformation”? Simply put: False.

    • Yes, that’s untrue. But I think it would be correct to say that this shifting of our attention from ourselves is an important aspect of Christianity, and that, at their best, some of the Reformers sometimes high-lighted and re-emphasized its importance for a Church that had increasingly lost sight of it in Medieval times. Their failure in getting the message across, or even letting if inform their own systematic theologies, is another thing altogether.

  4. “Behold, I am far worse than the publican, for I cannot resist eyeing the Pharisee askance, and my heart is proud and says, ‘I thank Thee that I am not like him!'” -Tito Colliander

  5. Having read the whole article now, I just have to say, thank God that I’m not so silly as to be proud of being humble!

  6. Adam Tauno Williams says

    I reread the article… and what bugs me most is what almost always bugs me about Pastors using this passage. From the article: “”” there is no note of repentance in the tax collector’s speech, no pledge to leave his employment or render restitution to those he has cheated, no promises of a new and better life”””

    Where in the parable does it say this man is dishonest, cheats people, or where is it implied he *should* leave his employment? That text is not there. He had a socially despised role in the service of a foreign occupier – from that are we to assume he was a scoundrel? This seems like an uncareful over-reading of the text… perhaps representing as much Dr. Lose’s political and social bias more than what is in Scripture.

    The Pharisee looks down on others and says he is glad he is not one of “robbers, evildoers, adulterers” – a set of three groups which may or may not include the tax collector. Again, the text isn’t really there to support that.

    This parable, to me anyway, reads much more narrowly – it is culturally topsy-turvy, to make a point, the clearest of which is that the religion of the Pharisee is not one which is necessarily false but one concerned – at least in large part – more with social elevation and identity rather than love. I am hesitant to take this very brief parable much further than that point; and that is plenty pointed.

    • jazziscoolithink says

      Lose is not pointing to something that is in the text but drawing attention to what is not there: “there is no note…no pledge…” So what is your disagreement again? Where does Lose say the tax collector is dishonest or needs to leave his employment, etc.?

      The text does give me the impression that the tax collector at least believed himself to be in need of God’s mercy. You’re right in that the reader is left in the dark as to why. But Lose’s interpretation is a valid one.

      What is certainly **not** in the text is your idea of its “culturally topsy-turvy” nature—that’s something you brought in from God knows where. Which is fine with me. It’s impossible to approach any text with true objectivity. I think it’s a better practice to throw doors open and leave room for more interpretations than to pin texts down with our utterly boring modernist hermeneutics.

      • there is a beautiful Orthodox prayer, this:

        as You will and as You know,
        have mercy.’

        I suspect the beauty of it is for me is that it includes the phrase ‘and as You know’, which is something we prideful people ignore when WE go to judge others AND ourselves . . .

        The writer Flannery O’Connor once said about those who critiqued her dark, gothic short stories that it amused her that some of these critics ‘got hold of the wrong horror’ . . .
        and I think about how we Christians must look to God in our judging of ourselves and of one another without ‘knowing’ what God knows . . . and how we, too, must often judge ‘having got hold of the wrong horror’. This awareness of our own lack of ‘knowing’ ought to help keep us humble

        . . . like Cardinal John Henry Newman once said:
        “This thought should keep us humble. We are sinners, but we do not know how great.
        He alone knows Who died for our sins.’
        (John Henry Newman)

        • Beautiful, indeed, Christiane.

        • ‘Lord,
          as You will and as You know,
          have mercy.’

          This is indeed a beautiful prayer, but it makes me a little uneasy. Isn’t it pretty much the same as “Inshallah”?

          • Nope. Different God – Jesus Christ, who shows humble love toward each and all, not the fatalist, will-as-power Allah of Islam.


      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        “””What is certainly **not** in the text is your idea of its “culturally topsy-turvy” nature”””

        That Jesus refers to the tax-collector as the exemplar rather than the Pharisee. It is certainly there, it upends the cultural expectation.

        • jazziscoolithink says

          No, it’s not. Your understanding of what the cultural expectation would have been in that context is definitely *not* in the text itself. You are bringing that in from elsewhere and doing precisely what you accuse Lose of doing.

          • If Adam’s idea of the cultural expectation is not intended by Jesus, how does this parable make any sense?

          • jazziscoolithink says

            Exactly. That’s my point, Joe. Because we cannot know what was in the mind of Jesus (or what was in the mind of the author of Luke and his version of Jesus), relying on the text-itself leads to nonsense. We cannot make sense of a story without bringing to it our particular cultural biases and assumptions–and that’s okay. We can’t know for certain what cultural assumptions and expectations Luke’s Jesus was playing at (if any). All we have are our best guesses, and I think Adam’s guess is a good one. So is Lose’s, the author of the original article. But the assumption (given to us by romanticism and Schleiermacher, in particular) that our interpretations of a text must necessarily be limited to the author’s original intent (which is an utter impossibility for those of us who are not the author–and probably the author himself–to uncover) leads only to nihilism. So I stand by my statement that, insofar as Adam is insisting our interpretations must be limited to what is in the text itself, he reveals himself to be absolutely and radically modern in his understanding of scripture. And I am of the opinion that that position is completely untenable.

      • jazz—

        you’re smarter than that. Pointing out what’s not there–that is a suggestion that the author thinks it should be there. He didn’t say “there aren’t unicorns or sugar plum fairies” either. Why? because that would be stupid. And many interpreters believe Jesus told parables so that the reader would have his world turned upside down, which is pretty “culturally topsy-turvy,” don’t you think? That’s not a modernist interpretation at all.

        • jazziscoolithink says

          “Pointing out what’s not there–that is a suggestion that the author thinks it should be there.”

          Not necessarily, and I don’t think this is the case at all with Lose’s article. It seems to me that Lose is happily pointing out that there is no repentance in the tax collector’s speech. Thank God! Maybe this means we don’t have to heroically alter our lives in order for God to love us!

          And, as I hinted at above, I agree that Jesus’ parables are often topsy-turvy–and in more was than just culturally. My point is that this cannot be perceived merely from the text-itself. It is an assumption (maybe a good one) that is brought from outside of the text that helps us make sense of it. I’m trying to say that outside influences that shape our understanding of scripture are not always negative.

    • jazziscoolithink says

      Which is to say that I think midrash is a whole hell of a lot more interesting than the shlock Schleiermacher got us Westerners to believe was the one, true way of interpretation.

    • Adam,

      I, too, typically hear pastors or believers discussing this text and saying the tax collector, though the text doesn’t say anything about repentance, etc. must , inevitably, have gone from there and repented, made restitution, etc. because an awareness of our condition must lead to this; my argument has always been, no, he certainly not “must have” done this–the text does not say he did, for all we know he went out and continued to be as big a sinner as possible because the point of the parable is not how big a sinner this man is but how large God’s grace is. But, I don’t think that’s what Lose is doing. He seems to be referring to the same thing: that it is not about repentance, restitution or a new and better life–it is about God’s grace, that’s why Jesus doe not mention those things in the text.

  7. Burro [Mule] says

    There is a wonderful prayer in one of the services for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, the third Sunday before the onset of Great Lent. I couldn’t find it online, and I only heard it once, although Father Stephen Freeman has referred to it on his blog as well. It goes something like this [from memory]

    I neither keep Thy commandments as did the Pharisee, nor do I repent as did the Publican. Both are worthy to enter before me into the Kingdom of Heaven. Behold my wretchedness, O Lord, and save me.”

    • Nice

    • It is not actually from the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, I think. I paged through that in the Triodion, and it isn’t there. (That makes sense, as that Sunday is the part of pre-lenten prep where we remind ourselves that fasting isn’t about forcing God love us or making us cooler than other people, and then have a fast free week to drive the thought in.)

      I’m pretty sure what you’re thinking of is from the Great Canon of St. Andrew, sung during Clean Week in 4 parts, then in its entirety in the 5th week.

      “Christ became man, calling to repentance thieves and harlots. Repent, my soul: the door of the Kingdom is already open, and pharisees and publicans and adulterers pass through it before thee, changing their life.”

      (I suspect there is a repetition somewhere in the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week, but failed to find it by scanning.)

  8. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is one of my favourite teachings of Christ and passages in Scripture. There is a wealth of theology that can be mined from this short story, not to mention church history (it is one of the roots of the “Jesus Prayer” widely embraced in Eastern Orthodoxy).

    If the first sin is to say, “God, I thank you that I am not like that sinner over there” (to paraphrase) and the trap is to say, “God, I thank you that I am humble and not proud like that Pharisee,” then as turnsalso hinted above, yet another trap would be to say, “God, I thank you that I am not proud at being humble like those people who scorn the Pharisee!”

    I like the prayer Mule quoted as a way to cut the Gordian knot!