The language and content show that the parable belongs to an early Palestinian tradition. Two men living in Jerusalem, the temple is on high ground, with valley to the south, east and west. To pray they go to the temple at the hour of prayer, that is at 3 pm. With himself he stood, to be understood as something like, ‘He took up a prominent position and said this prayer.
He mentions two works which he is not obliged to perform. The law prescribes only one annual fast, namely on the Day of Atonement; he fasts voluntarily twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, probably interceding for people’s sin. He pays tithes to everything he buys, although corn, new wine and oil should already have been tithed by the producer.
Tax collectors were on a level with robbers; they possessed no civil rights and were shunned by all respectable people. Beating the breast or more accurately the heart is the expression of deepest contrition. Justified means here ‘blessed with God’s pleasure’. This passage is the only one in Gospels where ‘to justify’ is used in a sense similar to that in which Paul uses. The passage shows that the Pauline doctrine of justification is rooted in the teaching of Jesus.
To its first hearers the parable must have seemed shocking and incomprehensible. A prayer very similar to that of the Pharisee has come down to us from the 1st Century in the Talmud; ‘I thank thee, O Lord, my God, that thou hast given me my lot with those who sit in the house of learning, and not with those who sit at the street corners…… What was the fault with this prayer?
Tax Collector’s prayer is an outburst of despair. How is he going to put things right? He has to repay all those whom he cheated. Not only his situation, even his cry for mercy is hopeless. Why God heard his prayer and rejected the Pharisee’s prayer? That is God’s decision. God accepts the despairing, hopeless sinner and rejects the self-righteous.
The Pharisee was like a cup which was already full and therefore nothing more could go inside him, whereas the tax collector came as an empty vessel and went away filled with God’s graces. To receive Lord’s mercy and graces we need to have certain openness and humility which the Pharisee did not have.
Rediscovering the Parables – Joachim Jeremias
Gospel According to Luke – John L. Mckenzie