Robert Capon – Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

Tonight we are reading through the last of the parables of Grace with the Parable of the Unjust Judge found in Luke 18:1-8 and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican found in Luke 18:9-14. Please read chapter 17 “God as the Anti-Hero” and chapter 18 “Death and Resurrection One Last Time” of Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.

(Fr. Jim Craig’s sermon on this passage this Sunday was outstanding. The sermon begins at 17:00.

The Context:

The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican immediately follows the parable of the Unjust Judge and comes immediately before Jesus’ interaction with the Rich Young Ruler and Jesus’ final teaching on his Passion. This is the second-to-last parable in Luke’s gospel before Palm Sunday.

The Parable:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:1-8).

The Traditional Interpretation:

The traditional interpretation of this parable is very Aesop-like: The moral of the story is do not be self-righteous (or rely on your own righteousness) but be humble (and rely on God’s grace). The parable gives us a good message on how to be a good Christian. The self-righteous Pharisee is the bad guy, and the humble repentant Publican is the good guy. Capon, however, challenges us to dig deeper into the parable, and as we do, the moral because less moral and a bit offensive. The Pharisee is not really a bad guy, the Publican is really a bad guy, yet it is he who is justified by God.

The Pharisee:

The Pharisee is a good, religious guy. In his behavior, he exceeds even the demands of the Law. As Capon points out: To begin with he is not a crook, not a time-server, not a womanizer. He takes nothing he hasn’t honestly earned, he gives everyone he knows fair and full measure, and he is faithful to his wife, patient with his children, and steadfast with his friends. . . . The Pharisee, however, is not only good; he is religious. And not hypocritically religious, either. His outward uprightness is matched by an inward disciple. He fasts twice a week and he puts his money where his mouth is: ten percent off the top for God. . . . But best of all, this Pharisee thanks God for his happy state . . . . The Pharisee is in the very act of giving God the glory. pp. 338-39. The Pharisee is the type of person anyone would want their child to grow up to be (or Capon says, any parish would be happy to have as a member). In all things, the Pharisee is slavishly obedient to the Scriptures. Think of the best person you know – this is the Pharisee. He is a little judgmental, but aren’t we all?

The Publican:

In Roman Judea, no one was more despised than the Publican or tax collector. The Publican was a Jew who collected taxes for the Roman Empire to help fund their oppressive government and military. He was not paid by Rome for his work but got to keep any excess tax he collected. Capon describes him as a fat-cat mafioso. p.338. Think of the worst business-type person you can – Michael Avenatti, Martin Shkreli, or maybe Larry Flynt. Someone not invited into polite and upstanding society. This is the Publican. Someone who is the epitome of scandal, and whom no one would wish their child or even the child of their enemy to grow up to be. Some you certainly would not want to be associated with your church or any other organization. This person is simply not a good guy.

The Prayers:

The Pharisee walks into the Temple, takes the appropriate posture for prayer, and gives thanks to God for giving him the gift of being able to keep all of the requirements of Scripture. The Pharisee knows that God loves him because the Pharisee has kept the commandments. As David sings: God rewards the righteous. 2 Sam. 22:20-25. The Pharisee is living the life of a good man and the Pharisee knows that his goodness will get him into heaven.

The Publican, on the other hand, simply prays “God, be merciful on me a sinner.” v.13. The Publican simply lacks any righteousness on which he may rely. The Publican knows he is not a good person. But, the Publican knows that he is dead and without any hope for himself. His only hope is someone who can raise the dead. p.340.

[Jesus] condemns the Pharisee because he takes his stand on a life God cannot use; he commends the publican because he rests his case on a death that God can use. The fact, of course, is that they are both equally dead and therefore both alike receivers of the gift of resurrection. But the trouble with the Pharisee is that for as long as he refuses to confess the first fact, he will simply be unable to believe the second. p.342. As we have discussed with every other prior Grace Parable, to take part in the Resurrection, you must first know and accept that you are dead.

So far, so good, for the traditional interpretation of the parable. Humility and reliance on God over self-righteousness and self-sufficiency.

The Day After:

The offense of the parable arises on the day after the illustration. Capon urges us to follow [the Publican] now in your mind’s eye as he goes through the ensuing week and comes once again to the temple to pray. What is it you want to see him doing during those seven days? What does your moral sense tell you he ought at least to try to accomplish? Are you not itching, as his spiritual advisor, to urge him into another line of work – something perhaps a little more upright? p.342.

Capon gives us two senarios. In the first scenario, imagine that the Publican has not reformed himself whatsoever. The day after his justifying prayer, he goes back out skimming, wrenching, and drinking and he continues for the entirety of the next week. Then, the same routine happens – he walks into the Temple, eyes down, breast smitten, God-be-merciful, and all that. No reform whatsoever. He knows that he is dead and his only hope is in someone that can raise the dead, but he refuses to amend his ways. Under Jesus’ teaching, the Publican is still justified. Repentance and an amendment of life is wholly unnecessary.

In the second scenario, imagine the Publican has begun to reform. He does not cheat as much and he begins to tithe his excess income. He begins to become a better person, someone just like the Pharisee (but still more humble). If the Pharisee’s righteousness, however, is not salvific, then why would the Publican’s new-found righteousness be salvific? If God did not count the Pharisee’s impressive list, why should he bother with this two-bit one? p.343

Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable. p.343. The common theme that we have looked at in the parables, is that salvation comes only to those who are dead and recognize this fact. Obedience, righteousness, repentance, morality, religious observance, etc. not only account for nothing but appear to be an impediment to salvation itself. The Pharisee’s very religion of obedience to the rules actually prevents him from being justified and obtaining God’s grace. If grace is grace then morality and repentance will be of no consequence.


10/25: The Unjust Judge and The Pharisee and the Publican (Grace 17-18)
11/1: The Two Sons and The Wicked Tenants (Judgment 8)
11/8: The Wise and Foolish Virgins and The Talents (Judgment 12-13)
11/15: The Sheep and the Goats (Judgment 13)

11/22:              Thanksgiving Celebration – RSVP Required.

Advent: We are reading through The Carols of Christmas by Alan Vermilye. This book is daily advent devotion on “O Holy Night,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” We will walk through three of the four. If you have a preference, please let me know.

Epiphany and Lent: We are reading through Prayer in the Night by Rev. Tish Harrison Warren. Rev. Warren writes a weekly column for the Sunday New York Times and is a contributor to Christianity Today. The book is a meditation on the final prayer of Compline which begins “Keep watch, dear Lord.” 1979 BCP 134.

Dinner is at 6:00. The menu is Oktoberfest. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here!

I tried to kill the pain
But only brought more (so much more)
I lay dying
And I’m pouring crimson regret and betrayal
I’m dying, praying, bleeding and screaming
Am I too lost to be saved?
Am I too lost?

My God, my Tourniquet
Return to me salvation
My God, my Tourniquet
Return to me salvation

Do you remember me?
Lost for so long
Will you be on the other side?
Or will you forget me?
I’m dying, praying, bleeding, and screaming
Am I too lost to be saved?
Am I too lost?

My God, my Tourniquet
Return to me salvation
My God, my Tourniquet
Return to me salvation

I want to die

My God, my Tourniquet
Return to me salvation
My God, my Tourniquet
Return to me salvation

My wounds cry for the grave
My soul cries for deliverance
Will I be denied?

My suicide

Return to me salvation
Return to me salvation

Tourniquet, Evanescence

1 thought on “Robert Capon – Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican”

  1. Pingback: The Prophetic Imagination – Royal Consciousness, pt.1 – Ancient Anglican

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