Sola Fide in the Parable of Pharisee and Tax Collector?
Protestants often claim that the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18:9-14 is proof that Jesus taught Justification by Faith Alone. In this brief post I will show that this Protestant claim has no Biblical merit at all. If you need a refresher, here’s what the parable says:
9 Jesus 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.”
The first key detail to note is that there is no mention “faith” at all, so there is really no reason to think “faith alone” is even the point! From what the text does say, the point of the story is explicitly given: pride ruins but humility saves. Thus, if we can say anything about this text, it’s that man is justified by humility, which is fine for Catholics, but isn’t something Protestants are going to be comfortable affirming.
The second key detail to note is that isn’t a story about ‘hearing the Gospel preached and accepting the Good News’. Rather, both of these men were already believers and ‘church-goers’. The phrase “went up to the temple to pray” indicates they were two Jews going to do the prescribed daily prayers, just as the Apostles were said to do: “now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer” (Acts 3:1). Even the phrase “standing to pray” indicates a ‘liturgical prayer posture’, which other texts also touch upon: “whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk 11:25). This verse from Mark goes directly against the Protestant idea of “once saved, always saved,” because it indicates we must regularly pray for forgiveness and that we are not forgiven of future sins, only past ones. Recognizing this implied ‘background information’ can really only signify that both of these men had fallen into grave sin somewhere in their past, causing broken fellowship with God – a loss of justification – which had to be restored upon humble repentance.
The third detail to note is how similar this parable is to James 4:6-10, especially the last sentence: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts. Let your laughter be turned to mourning. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Considering the prior two details, it isn’t a stretch to say James is also talking about Believers who turned to sin and needed to humble themselves to become justified again (just as Jesus taught the Tax Collector was exalted, i.e. justified, due to humbling himself).
But what about the fact the Pharisee is explicitly said to have been doing good works, shouldn’t that be understood to mean that that good works play no role in salvation? The short answer is “No,” because, again, that’s not the point of the parable. Jesus is clearly saying the Pharisee was entangled in pride and “treated others with contempt.” So even if the Pharisee was doing good works, he certainly was doing evil works right along with them, which certainly isn’t going to justify anyone: “You Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup, but inside you are full of wickedness. But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. Woe to you Pharisees, for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Lk 11:39-42). Jesus says the Pharisees should continue to do good works like tithing, but that this is ultimately of no avail if they’re going to do it for the wrong reasons and neglect the more important commands, such as loving their neighbor.
In fact, Jesus using a Pharisee as his example is a strong indication that pride is the real problem, for throughout the Gospels Jesus is calling out the Pharisees on their prideful behavior which was geared towards praise from men rather than from God. (See Matthew 6 for the distinction between doing good for the sake of God versus doing good for the sake of praises of men.)
In conclusion, I believe it has been shown that this parable goes against Justification by Faith Alone. And I know some Protestants will try to spin this into some nonsense such as ‘Catholics try to save themselves by their works’ and ‘Catholics don’t believe we need Jesus’, but that’s just false and silly. Nothing here suggests Catholics don’t need Jesus or are trusting in ourselves for salvation, so any such “rebuttals” are unworthy of a Catholic response and are desperate attempts to derail authentic exegesis and genuine discussion.