The Publican: Only Half a Surprise

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The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”–Luke 18, ESV

The Publican: Only Half a Surprise

Tax collectors may well be universal objects of man’s resentment.  But we miss the full surprise in this parable if we have little knowledge about the culture of Palestine in Jesus’ day.

To the devout Jew, the Jewish tax collector was a traitor, being hated as one who worked for the occupation force of a pagan power, Rome.  In rabbinic literature “hatred was to be extended even to the family of the tax collector” (ISBE).

[This also gives us insight into the trap the Pharisees laid for Jesus in asking him whether or not to pay tribute (taxes) to Caesar.  Read more about the times and context of taxes a la Romans 13.]

Also, because of their work with Gentiles, they were ritually unclean.

Hence, in the above text, we read what the ISBE calls the “superlative parable of grace.”  And in Luke 19, we meet a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus (whose Jewish name means pure, righteous) in a real-life story of “surprising grace” for those in need of the Physician Jesus.

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