The pharisee and the tax collector (Luke, 18,9-15)

Enrico Canuto, Former Faculty, Politecnico di Torino, December 2019

Draft: waiting for comments and amendments

Luke, 18,9-15: Greek, Vulgata and English text
9. Εἶπεν δὲ καὶ πρός τινας τοὺς πεποιθότας ἐφ' ἑαυτοῖς ὅτι εἰσὶν δίκαιοι καὶ ἐξουθενοῦντας τοὺς λοιποὺς τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην: 

Dixit autem et ad quosdam qui in se confidebant tamquam iusti et aspernabantur ceteros parabolam istam:

And to some who trusted in themselves as just and despised others, he spoke also this parable:
10. Ἄνθρωποι δύο ἀνέβησαν εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν προσεύξασθαι, ὁ εἷς Φαρισαῖος καὶ ὁ ἕτερος τελώνης. 

duo homines ascenderunt in templum ut orarent unus Pharisaeus et alter publicanus.

two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee and the other a publican.
11ὁ Φαρισαῖος σταθεὶς πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ταῦτα προσηύχετο, Ὁ θεός, εὐχαριστῶ σοι ὅτι οὐκ εἰμὶ ὥσπερ οἱ λοιποὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἅρπαγες, ἄδικοι, μοιχοί, ἢ καὶ ὡς οὗτος ὁ τελώνης: 

Pharisaeus stans haec apud se orabat Deus gratias ago tibi quia non sum sicut ceteri hominum raptores iniusti adulteri vel ut etiam hic publicanus:

The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. 

12νηστεύω δὶς τοῦ σαββάτου, ἀποδεκατῶ πάντα ὅσα κτῶμαι. 

ieiuno bis in sabbato, decimas do omnium quae possideo.

I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess. 

13ὁ δὲ τελώνης μακρόθεν ἑστὼς οὐκ ἤθελεν οὐδὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἐπᾶραι εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν, ἀλλ' ἔτυπτεν τὸ στῆθος αὐτοῦ λέγων, Ὁ θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ. 

Et publicanus a longe stans nolebat nec oculos ad caelum levare sed percutiebat pectus suum dicens: Deus propitius esto mihi peccatori

And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner.
14λέγω ὑμῖν, κατέβη οὗτος δεδικαιωμένος εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ παρ' ἐκεῖνον: ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὑψῶν ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται, ὁ δὲ ταπεινῶν ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται.

Dico vobis descendit hic iustificatus in domum suam ab illo, quia omnis qui se exaltat humiliabitur et qui se humiliat exaltabitur.

I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather than the other: because every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. 
Interpretation

I am not a Bible exegete, just a control engineer (see the main page of this site). I take the courage of interpreting this parable that some commentator refers as ‘subversive’ (see [2] cited in [1]).

On one side we find a righteous Pharisee, a benefactor, who prays in agreement with the Deuteronomy, 26, 13:

"You should declare before the LORD, your God, “I have purged my house of the sacred portion and I have given it to the Levite, the resident alien, the orphan and the widow, just as you have commanded me. I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor forgotten any."

In giving tithes as prescribed, he cares of the weakest members of Israel society. Fasting proves an even more substantial attention to the Israel distress (and sins?) under Roman occupation. Though fasting was only prescribed in the day of Atonement, Old Testament is rich of voluntary fasting during or facing impending calamities.

Also the first part of the prayer when the Pharisee asserts his own unique, meritorious character, seems echoing the last two verses of Deuteronomy, 26:

"And today the LORD has accepted your agreement: you will be a people specially his own, as he promised you, you will keep all his commandments,
and he will set you high in praise and renown and glory above all nations he has made, and you will be a people holy to the LORD, your God, as he promised."

So, why Luke’s Gospel reports this Jesus’ parable? In my opinion, the key concept (and suggested practice) is the human attitude toward sins. I will derive a similitude of this attitude from the science of automated (and not) control systems. A control system aims to regulate a technical plant or a natural process (physiological, social, economic) to reach and stay close to a target (also set point, usually known as reference when it changes in time). In this parable, the social target is the Moses’ law, mainly written in the Deuteronomy, which is considered as fixed and unalterable.

Remarkably, in other Gospel passages Jesus does not consider this law as fixed. From Mark Gospel, 2: 23-28.

One Sabbath, Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?" He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath".

Of course, when a target moves and changes, the relevant control problem becomes more complex and difficult.

Which actions are suggested and implemented by a control system to reach and stay close to a target?  Two are the essential actions.

1) Open-loop control. In the social field, one is educated to and learn a collection of procedures and rites that written and oral tradition guarantee as effective in observing the law.  In doing this, one is relieved of the burden of observing and scrutinizing himself about social and personal effects of his actions. In the technical field, none or rare measurements of the plant/process behavior are taken. The actions on the plant (the command) are predefined, like a program of daily rites to be performed by an observant person.  The Pharisee in Luke, 18,12: “I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess”. No question about social effects of his actions. A similar interpretation can be found in [5]:

"Il vero problema del fariseo è la negazione del rapporto con il pubblicano. Disprezzandolo si chiude in un rapporto esclusivo di relazione con Dio che non viene approvata dalla divinità e in un certo senso ricorda la figura del figlio maggiore della parabola del prodigo, che si reputa giusto perchè rispetta formalmente il padre ma non vuole riconoscere l'altro figlio come fratello"

2) Closed-loop control. In social field, people become aware that their actions may be right or wrong, that they can approach or miss the target. Indeed, the Greek verb \acute{\alpha }\mu \alpha \rho \tau \acute{\alpha }\nu \omega, root of \acute{\alpha }\mu \alpha \rho \tau \omega \lambda \acute{o} \varsigma (sinner, in Luke,18,13), means to err, to miss the target. To be aware of their sin, they should scrutinize the effects of their actions, and repent themselves as a first step of the effort to do better. In the technical field, the plant behavior should be continuously observed and measured, and effective rules (the feedback rules) should be found and implemented for creating a plant command capable of keeping the discovered error between target and measurements within acceptable limits. Errors (hence sins) cannot be brought to zero! Of course, the practice of feedback in the course of human actions and works may be very demanding and tiring.  This implies that the feedback effort should be reduced to a minimum, but not cancelled! Education should teach and train children and young people to find a trade-off between open and closed loop efforts.

It should be remarked the slightly different etymology and meaning of the Latin ‘peccare’, which is the Vulgata translation of  \acute{\alpha }\mu \alpha \rho \tau \acute{\alpha }\nu \omega.  Cicero writes Peccare est tamquam transilire lineas, that is ‘committing sin is like crossing the boundaries’, an hostile and annoying action. The uncertain etymology seems to confirm the meaning. The word is akin to piget, impersonal form of pigere, to annoy, to irk, from the Proto-Indo-European root *peig-, to be hostile [3].  From the standpoint of control systems, this etymology is even more significant, since it implies that your actions may overstep the admissible error band around the target (or reference), as errors (and sins) cannot be brought to zero! Were they brought to zero, the closed-loop command would also go to zero and only the open-loop command would be operating.

Now what justification is and why the publican (the tax collector) is justified by merely proclaiming himself sinner and demanding God’s mercy?

The Hebrew term for ‘to justify’ is hitsdik, which in the great majority of cases means ‘to declare judicially that one’s state is in harmony with the demands of the law’ [4]. In control system terms, it is equivalent to confirm/declare closeness to the reference, inside the admissible error range.  The same meaning applies to the Greek verb  \delta \iota \kappa \alpha \iota \acute{o}\omega, from the Proto-Indo-European roots *dik,*deik, to show, to indicate, akin to Latin verb dicere in the meaning of indicate, declare. But the parable seems implying that the publican is justified without any explicit repentance and atonement of his sins, merely by proclaiming himself sinner and demanding God’s mercy!

This looks rather subversive and contrasting the need of correcting actions (the feedback command) for reaching and staying close to the target. But which is the role of God’s mercy, invoked by the publican. Here is the key! In terms of control systems, God’s mercy adapts reference and error range to human capability, life and environmental circumstances.

This is exactly what happens to technical,  physiological and economical control systems: ceteris paribus, the error range of the system under control will depend on environment severity and plant capabilities! The control system designer should be aware that reference change and error range reduction, given environment and plant, may be expensive, time consuming and sometimes unfeasible!

Reference and error range adaptation shares some similarity with the Aristotelian distinction between justice and equity (in Nicomachean Ethics, Book V, Chapter 10,  and shortly in Rethoric, Book I, Chapter 13).

From Rethoric: “For that which is equitable seems to be just, and equity is justice that goes beyond the written law”.

But who, how and when equity degree is chosen and determined? Jesus’ parable states that happens in a relation between sinners and God’s mercy. But the publican was confessing his sins in the Temple, which seems implying that the his confession should not be private.

References

[1] S.H. Mathews and E. van Eck, Fasting, justification, and self-righteousness in Luke 18:9-14. A social-scientific interpretation in response to Friedrichson, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies. Vol. 69, No. 1, Art. No. 1957, pp. 1-9, http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts.v69i1.1957.

[2] F.G. Downing, The ambiguity of ”the Pharisee and the toll-collector” (Luke, 18:9–14) in the Greco-Roman world of late antiquity, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 54, 1992, pp. 80–99.

[3] T. Lewis and C. Short, A Latin Dictionary, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1879.

[4] E. Raymond, Justification in Legal Terms (even in the Old Testament), November 2018, from
https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/erik-raymond/ justification-legal-terms-even-old-testament/

[5] G.L. Carrega, Vangelo di Luca, Commento concentrato, Effatà Editrice, Cantalupa (TO), 2018.

Draft: waiting for comments and amendments