Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Breast Smiting Sinners Only

Posted by nhilton on June 6, 2007

Sinners OnlyAfter smiting his breast, the publican prays, “God be mericiful to me a sinner,” which justifies him, says Jesus.  By humbling himself the publican is exalted.  (Luke 18:13-14)   

  • Does simply declaring ourself a sinner before God bring us exaltation?  How do LDS see this in comparison to our Catholic & Born Again Christian friends?  (i.e. confession & accepting Christ).

  • What happens to our sins when we are justified?   As justification is a part of restoration, we are somehow being restored to our original condition.  Is this a restoration of our humility or awareness of our nothingness, our blamelessness before God, and/or or relationship with Christ?

  • Can we really humble ourselves?  Is this humbling something we do minute to minute or something that we do once and for all? 

  • If we can indeed humble ourselves, does this mean we can ensure our own exaltation? 

  • And what about that busy Pharisee mentioned in Luke 18:11-12?  Isn’t he simply expressing his gratitude for his righteous condition?  By the way, I’m grateful NOT to be addicted to drugs as are so many other people on the planet.  Indeed I’m glad I’m not an extortioner or lumped in with those other sorry souls who have fallen into the pit of listed sins!  (I have my own sins which didn’t make THIS list.)  I guess it wasn’t politically correct to make this comparison back in Jesus’ day, but I can relate to this Pharisee 100%!  Maybe it was just the publicness (is that a word?) of his prayer?  So perhaps such prayers are o.k. if they’re just not spoken out loud–on the QT, so to speak?  Or is it the judgement the Pharisee exercises on the publican in verse 11 that gets him into trouble?  You know, condemning his brother.  So, if we’re silently grateful to be better behaved than the next guy, sure not to point out his faults and failures, we’re safe?  And we know this Pharisee’s not all bad if he fasts TWICE A WEEK!  and gives tithes of all that he possesses.  Really, what’s wrong with him anyway? 

Both these guys are in the temple so we know the publican is at least faithful to this extent, even if he’s not fasting or paying tithes…or is he, maybe just not publicizing the fact?  In not lifting his eyes to heaven is he showing humility or rebellion?  Is this the “Prodigal Son” revisited?  And, what makes him a sinner anyway?   Is it simply because he’s a publican that he’s a sinner, or is it because the Pharisee says he’s a sinner…or is there another answer?

I’m just wondering what to do with this story.  I certainly want to be justified…whatever that means…since it apparently leads to exaltation.    This seems to be a simple story at first glance but leaves me wanting more clarification.  Oh, and what’s up with that breast smiting anyway…should that be part of our prayer routine?

11 Responses to “Breast Smiting Sinners Only”

  1. Robert C. said

    nhilton, as I mentioned earlier, this is a favorite passage of mine, largely for the questions you’ve described which I think it raises—questions that I think are very pertinent to today’s Mormon culture.

    Very briefly (since there’s been a lot of blog traffic today!), I think the problem is precisely that the Pharisee is praying about his own righteousness. I think the only concern we should have for ourselves is regarding our own sins—inasmuch as we are doing things that are righteous, we should (or, must, by definition) do them unselfconsciously. And our only concern for others should be for their welfare. Notice that the Pharisee is not expressing gratitude for the suffering of sinners, but for the sinful state of sinners—I think this distinction is crucial for avoiding the problems you raise (i.e. gratitude is good, but must not be done in a self-congratulatory manner).

  2. nhilton said

    Robert, I don’t think the Pharisee is praying as you say, in “gratitude…for the sinful state of sinners” but rather that he isn’t in such a state.

    I belive he sees himself “not as other men are.” (Luke 18:11) He is obviously self-elevated above his fellow man. I, too, pray gratefully that I am “not as other men are.” There are sooooo many people suffering for many reasons, sin & otherwise, & I’m grateful not to be in their shoes. This is where I relate to this Pharisee’s prayer.

  3. Cherylem said

    I think part of the Pharisee’s problem is that he is not focused on God, but on the “other,” and by doing so he is involving himself in a mimetic rivalry.

    The publican, on the other hand, compares himself to no one, but speaks only to God, aligns himself (vertically) to God, looking neither left nor right.

  4. Robert C. said

    Oops, sorry, typo in my comment #1: I meant to say (inserted text in italics):

    “Notice that the Pharisee is not expressing gratitude for not sharing the suffering of sinners, but for not sharing the sinful state of sinners. . . .”

    So I think it’s OK to express gratitude in prayer about the fact that we don’t suffer as others do, but once we label these others who are suffering as sinners and link suffering and sinning together, then we have become self-righteous (the logical implication of this line of thinking is that if we aren’t suffering then we must more righteous than those who are suffering) and this leads to the kind of comparison (didn’t Pres. Benson say that all comparisons are rooted in pride?) and mimetic rivalry that I think Cheryl is pointing to.

  5. Jim F. said

    nhilton: I think that Robert is onto something.

    The Pharisee says, “God, I thiank thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” I don’t see any way to construe that prayer merely as gratitude for not being in the shoes of others who have their difficulties. It is a judgment of others made in order to congratulate himself for his righteousness. He isn’t doing what you do when you are grateful not to suffer as others do. He is being overtly self-righteous.

    Though this Pharisee isn’t directly expressing gratitude for the sinful state of others, he couldn’t make the comparison he makes without their sinful state. Because his gratitude is a matter of comparison and judgment, unless they were sinful, he couldn’t be grateful for his righteousness. So, by implication, even if not by overt expression, he is grateful for their sinful state.

  6. nhilton said

    Ah, Jim, good explanation, especially 2nd paragraph. So, are my blessings that much more rich when others have less than I do?
    Several years ago a study was done on happiness using retirees and their fixed incomes. It concluded that those happiest were the ones who had more than their neighbor. It didn’t matter how much they had in total, but just that they had more than the next guy. So those who were rich, equally so or not as rich as their neighbor, were less happy than those who were poorer, but not so poor as their neighbor.

    Cheryle #3, I like your explanation of the direction of the publican’s gaze and his addressing God only.
    Robert, your explanation is good. thanks. Just what is it he think these sinners are about that he has no part of? It think that’s the key here. He is failing to recognize his NEED for the atonement whereas the publican’s main focus is his NEED for the atonement. Again, owning our own nothingness and complete dependence upon the Lord is at the heart of this parable.

    Notice in v. 11 the Pharisee is praying “thus with himself.” What does that mean? Does it mean he isn’t even really praying to God, but just talking to himself? And what is with the breast smiting of the publican?

  7. Jim F. said

    nhilton (#6): If someone must suffer in order for me to be grateful for what I have, then am I not a sinner in my gratitude? I don’t think that means that anyone sins who sees another suffering and is grateful not to be suffering himself or herself. But if I need others to have less than I, whether of goods or of pleasures, in order for me to be grateful for my goods and pleasures, then I sin. Unfotunately, I think that I often sin in my supposed gratitude.

  8. Robert C. said

    nhilton #6, thanks for bringing my attention to this “with himself” phrase, very interesting. Here is an interesting NET note about this phrase. Also, note that the NRSV takes this as the Pharisee “standing by himself” (rather than praying about himself as the NET takes it, or praying to himself as the NASB take it).

  9. Should we be grateful for not being in a less fortunate circumstance? Blessed are the poor, the starving, the persecuted, etc.

    And what of Christ’s maintaining a comparative rubric in His “approval” of the publican (“rather,” etc.)? Doesn’t Jesus maintain the rivalrous substitutability?

    How might, then, the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 distract this very parable?

  10. nhilton said

    Joe, good questions! I have thought a lot about your first one here over the past two weeks as some not-well-to-do not-even-US-citizens have come to work on my property in the yard & pool. I have ended up wondering who I am and why I have any right to running water! The recent issue of Time magazine (June 18) has an article in it that has made me consider more seriously some of the same segregational issues of Jesus’ day. As a result of these thoughts, I’ve determined that the less fortunate are perhaps the most fortunate in the eternal scheme of things.

    And could you elaborate on your second question because I’m not sure I understood it completely?

    I think I get you in the 3rd question & concur that this example of prayer is much more in line with the prayer of the publican, simply praying for mercy. But what are your continued thoughts here, too?

  11. nhilton said

    Jim F, #7, your point is exactly the point of that study I mentioned in #6. It’s our carnal nature at work, I think. How can we rise above it?

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