A Provocation: Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost (October 23, 2016): Luke 18:9-14

Luke 18:9-14
18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

18:11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

18:13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why do righteousness and contempt show up so often as a matched set?

Some Longer Reflections:

What a storyteller!  The story is short, but very well told.

This parable is told to some who had been persuaded (or trusted upon themselves) that they were Torah observant.  The second of these translational options is to be preferred, even though the verb, in this form, refers to “having been persuaded.”

In this case, they had persuaded themselves (must have been a tough sell), and a decent translation needs to catch that tiny little conflict of interest.

They persuaded themselves, by themselves, that it was safe for them to take their own word for it: they could trust themselves: they were fully Torah observant.  You need to catch that all this is built on the foundation of self-referential, self-centered self-assurance.

But of course, Torah has never been and is not now about me or my own being persuaded.  Torah and faithfulness and faith are about US. Torah observance is and has always been about how we live together.  The point of Torah is that we are all in it together, or we are not in it at all.

Love God, Love neighbor.

Apart from that pair of watchwords, there is no Torah at all.  Those are not only the two great commandments, they are the entire Torah, and you can see this if you read Deuteronomy, or the Psalms, or the Prophets, or Scripture or Talmud or midrash or anything that has ever been called Jewish scripture by anyone.

And here we meet up with contempt again.

Voltaire wrote in the Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764):

Of all religions, Christinaity is without a doubt the one that should inspire tolerance most, although, up to now, the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.

We  might do well to wonder why this might be so.  The little story that Jesus tells will help us to wonder.

The story begins:

“People, two of them….”  Luke’s storyteller often  has Jesus start little stories this way.  “A person there was…,” he says, or “What woman…?”  Or “A man, just some guy….”  The cast of the little play is introduced simply, with no belaboring of the fanfare.  The storyteller then introduces the essential characteristic of the woman, the man, the pair of people: this person has a name, that woman has ten coins, this guy was rich.  It is all very sparse and economical.

In this little story, the essential characteristic is that both of these people went up to the Temple.  That means that they share an essential similarity, no matter what else we learn about them: they have (perhaps for different reasons, though we don’t know anything about that matter, not yet) both gone to the center of the Jewish world in Luke’s story, and they have gone there to pray to God.

Now the storyteller offers us more.

The Pharisee having stationed himself toward himself he was praying.

That is how the words fall out in Greek, and in the original there was no punctuation to clear things up.

Note the syntactical ambiguity: he could be standing toward himself (which implies perhaps that he was “by himself” but implies maybe more that he is setting up a spiritual selfie.  You can see why museums ban selfie sticks as you watch this guy so full of himself as he sets up the shot.

But it could also imply that he is praying TO himself.  The prayer rises from his mouth, and never gets much higher than his nose.  To me, that smells pretty bad.

“I am not like οἱ λοιποὶ,” he says.  Of course, οἱ λοιποὶ means “the others”  but it implies the “leftover ones,” the “remainder,” the “stragglers,” the dregs, the common herd.  “I am not like the spare people, the dispensable, the disposable,” he says, and (so long as he gets to set the parameters), he is right.  

Irrelevant, but right, which is something, I suppose.  

And he is stationed, set up and solidly established, so that there will be no doubt about his status as an essential person. 

Notice that the tax gatherer does not station himself.

You could almost miss that he was there at all, given the weakness of the way he is placed in the scene, and he is further saddled with negations that erase him.  He stand, NOT near, but at a distance, and he looks, NOT up to heaven and God, but (apparently) down to the ground as he beats his breast.

Notice that the tax gatherer goes to the Temple and confesses to being non-observant.  He is not necessarily confessing to a crime, though he could be.  He might simply be deeply sorry that he collaborates with Rome and cannot quit.  People get caught in the traps that life sets.  And he needs the work, so he is caught.

He, however, knows what Jews have always known: God leads with mercy, and it is a darn good thing.  God created us for ethics and morality and responsibility, but God leads with Mercy because God loves Creation that intensely.

So that’s the whole story.


What is wrong with the Pharisee?

What he says is true and good enough, and is worthy of approval (though most of us find it no great feat to avoid being a thief, a rogue, or a serial adulterer, no matter what might be the case with certain presidential candidates).

His ordinary virtue is (sort of) commendable.  But not the contempt.  Not the eye that sees the flaws of others.  This is rather like the sheep and goats scene in Mathew’s gospel: the observant had no idea they were supposed to be seeing naked neediness and looking for Jesus.  They just saw people and helped them.

The Pharisee doesn’t see people who need help.  His eye actively sees faults, crimes, and bad examples.  Like, for instance, this tax collector here.

And what’s right about the tax collector?

The tax collector is not preferred because he beats his breast (though Christianity has sometimes made a fetish of compulsive confession, complete with maximal “mea culpa-ing”).  He is not approved because he is more humble (though Christianity has urged self-abasement so vigorously that Nietzsche called it a slave religion).  He is not honored because he beats himself up.  He is goes down to his home justified (what a word!) because he is simply honest.  He may be a rat, or he may simply not keep kosher.  He may be caught, or he may simply be lazy.  In any case, he works for the Army of Roman Occupation and collects tribute for them.  In this little story, he may have come to a new realization.

But he is, like so many in Luke, a member of the “Most-Unlikely-Torah-Observers Club.”

He is observant and faithful in a way that you would not expect.  Do not miss such frankly promising people, whether in the Bible or in the grocery store.  Observance and faithfulness are not Olympic events.  Faithfulness is to be expected and found in the most ordinary of circumstances.

God gets it.

Jewish faith has always known this.  Jesus probably learned it from his grandmother.

And now we learn it, too.

6 thoughts on “A Provocation: Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost (October 23, 2016): Luke 18:9-14

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