Last revised: August 9, 2015
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PROPER 25 (October 23-29) -- YEAR C / Ordinary Time 30
RCL: Joel 2:23-32; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
RoCa: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Opening Comments

The reading of this passage can provide a good example of how MT brings out the systemic dimension of sin. In the modern world a typical reading of this passage is individualistic such that it merely shifts the ranking of individual sins. The Pharisee's self-righteousness is viewed as a sin worse than those that the tax collector committed. Self-righteousness is simply raised higher on the list of individual sins. In short, our usual way of reading this parable falls into the same trap of the Pharisee, the trap Jesus is trying to subvert -- namely, seeing sin only in an individualistic dimension.

To understand this parable on a deeper level, let's consider our postmodern engagement with racism. It is easy for white people to be in denial of their privilege and participation in systemic racism when "racism" is viewed primarily or solely as the individual sin of racial prejudice. To do so, of course, is to miss the core of racism as a power and principality, a systemic evil. White racism is better understood as the way in which racial prejudice infected and diseased all white institutions for 400 years. It is a systemic sin that white people will remain blind to as long as racism is conflated to the individual sin of racial prejudice.

Now read the perspective gained from properly understanding racism back into this parable. The sin of the Pharisee goes far beyond self-righteousness. It involves the way in which righteousness itself is viewed on an individualistic level, thus masking the way that the system of sacred violence is set-up to (violently) punish individual sins. The Pharisee, as a leader in a system of sacred violence, is helping to maintain the systemic evil precisely through an understanding of sin as individualistic only and not systemic. In other words, a chief sin of sacred violence is to keep us all focused on individualistic sins, so that we continue to miss the systemic evil.

Mimetic Theory, with its analysis of sacred violence as systemic, helps us to better understand both racism and the prophetic message of Jesus in the parables.

Luke 18:9-14


1. Michael Hardin & Jeff Krantz, This is a passage that cries out for interpretation according to mimetic theory. What the Pharisee is doing is voicing the victimage mechanism that exalts himself at the expense of another. But the key is that the tax collector's is not reciprocal. If we don't notice the lack of reciprocity, then interpreters through the ages have provided it by exalting themselves at the expense of the Pharisee. Hardin & Krantz bring out this aspect of the text in both the "Anthropological Reading" and the "So What?" reflection. As Hardin brings out:

We have heard this parable preached where Catholics are the Pharisee and Baptists are the Publican; we have heard it preached as supercessionism, treating the Pharisee’s spirituality as ‘works-righteousness’, but that of the publican as good Christian humility. To preach the parable this way or any way that scapegoats anyone at any time is to engage the parable, not from Jesus’ point of view, but from the perspective of the satanic mechanism.
And, ultimately, such scapegoating readings expose a failure of theology, a god of wrath instead of the God of forgiveness revealed in Jesus Christ:
This Pharisee has God wrong. God is not about who is better than, smarter than, prettier than, richer than, holier than. God does not discriminate, God does not compare us with one another. The Pharisee was bound by his dedication to the Torah, and that would be a beautiful thing but his hermeneutic suffered. He had God wrong. The God who blesses the religious person is a God who can be manipulated. A God who recognizes the selfish perceptions of our zeal would have to be a god of wrath and violence and justice and judgement. In short, if God is like the Pharisee thinks God is, most of us are in some deep doo-doo, as we fall far short of this one’s righteousness.

...The prayer of the publican is well known, he seeks forgiveness. This is the God who answers, this is the One revealed in the character of Jesus. The publican is not expressing some poor old ‘woe is me’ syndrome; he simply and honestly acknowledges himself for how he acts. He sins, therefore he is a sinner in need of mercy and healing.

...Recalling our comments on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we might say that each one gets the god in whom he believes. Alas for the Christian who believes in a violent retributive God.

2. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (see my review on the page). Protestant Justification theology is primarily based on Paul's letters to the Romans and Galatians. But, if there is a Gospel anchor for that theology, it might well be this passage. The typical Protestant commentary on this passage waxes poetical on the wonders of God's gracious justification of sinful and "depraved" humanity -- thus falling into the many traps of that theology laid bare by Campbell in his book. If the preacher desires an alternative to a Justification reading of this passage, Campbell's book might be a good place to start (or, since it's 1200 pages, you might want to check the Reformation Sunday page on Romans 3 to see when I've had time to discuss it further).

3. James Alison, "Justification and the Constitution of Consciousness: a new look at Romans and Galatians," in New Blackfriars, vol 71 no 834 Jan 1990, pp 17-27. Alison pairs this parable with Paul's point in Romans 3:20-26 -- which is a fortuitous pairing for Lutherans whose observation of "Reformation Sunday" often falls within the days of Proper 25 and includes Romans 3 as the Second Lesson (see Reformation Day). Alison is also using Jean-Michel Oughourlian's interdividual psychology from The Puppet of Desire. Such are the threads brought together in the following excerpt:
In chapter 3:21-26, Paul gives his most condensed account of Justification. God's righteousness is shown by His gratuitously putting forward Christ Jesus as an expiation by his blood for our redemption to be received by faith. The Law did not make anyone righteous; it only taught all those who were under it that they were not righteous, and thus revealed negatively the righteousness of God.

The vital point here is that we have only one access to this divine drama in which God makes Himself our victim, and that is what St Paul calls faith. This faith is, as regards the psychological mechanism, exactly the same as that described by Oughourlian insofar as it is a recognition that this particular other -- Christ crucified as divine offering to us -- is the key to our consciousness of good and evil, which has heretofore been based on victimizing or making oneself a victim (both of them methods of hiding one's violence from oneself). The Law, which should have served to teach us that 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' (v.23), frequently serves as a way of our dividing the world into good and bad, of our separating it into those who follow the Law and those who do not. The person who, owing to his observance of the Law, is in a position to judge others as bad (that is, considers himself made righteous by the Law) reveals that the Law does not get to the heart of man. Such a person has his identity, his 'me,' still constituted on the basis of victimizing, of expelling, of separation. Being convinced of the right-ness (and righteousness) of his position, it is very much more difficult for him to receive the dependence on what is other than him of the constitution of his 'me,' and thus have his 'me' transformed, have it healed from its dependence on persecution.

Here it is apparent that Paul's teaching on the Law is identical with Jesus' practice in relation to the 'Pharisees,' his evident predilection for sinners, and such parables as that of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple (Lk 18:10-14). [pp. 22-23 in "Justification..."]

4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from October 14, 2007 (preached on this Gospel 2 weeks early; Society of St. John at St. Mark's Chapel, Palo Alto).

5. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2013, titled "Gold Stars and Grey Dots."

Reflections and Questions

1. Next Sunday's portion in the lectionary is the story of Zacchaeus (19:1-10), skipping over the remainder of Luke 18 which is material borrowed from Mark 10 (the final segments before the entry into Jerusalem -- blessing the children, the rich young ruler, and healing a blind man). We go from a parable about a penitent tax collector to a real-life story about a penitent tax collector. Do we assume that the next step for the tax collector in today's parable is to begin to do what Zacchaeus does, giving back his ill-gotten riches to the poor? Does going home justified mean a sanctifying life? Is the story of Zacchaeus part of Luke's elaboration of what comes next for the tax collector in the parable? Or do Jesus' ideas of justification separate it from sanctification like much of the past five hundred years of Protestant theology?

2. In 2010 my take on last Sunday's passage cues me on how to read this Sunday's. I view them together as helping us to see the difference between divine and human justice. Human justice is always as for the widow who seeks justice "over against my enemy." Our justice is always dualistic in the sense of our dividing the world between us and them, law-keepers and law-breakers, good and evil, righteous and unrighteous, the blessed rich and cursed poor, etc. (See last Sunday's sermon "Praying for God's Justice.") Mimetic theory, of course, accounts for how all of human culture is founded in such dualistic thinking. The originating differentiation occurs around the corpse of the collectively murdered victim. The victim is both the first Other and also carries within him or her the first dualisms causer of chaos and causer of order, evil and good, unrighteous and righteous, etc.

The Pharisee in this parable show himself to be trapped in such dualistic thinking. He is a despiser of other people and clearly divides the world between righteous and unrighteous, law-abiders like himself and law breakers like that tax collector. The tax collector takes the first step in stepping into the true world of the one true God by throwing himself on the mercy of the God whose justice extends to all, even to his enemies. In 2010 I'm using the Max Lucado's children book, You Are Special, the story of puppets (wooden people) who live in a world of sticking stars of goodness or dots of badness on each other, until the puppetmaker assures first one and then another of them that he does not differentiate so. Reading this tale will be a Children's Time to lead into the 'adult' sermon.

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