Last revised: December 10, 2022
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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: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
Both 2019 and 2022 have seen important readings of this Gospel text for me. In 2022, it yielded the first of a two-part sermon on being “Freed from the Us-vs-Them Thinking Trap, Part 1.” The key insight into the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector as an Us-vs-Them Thinking Trap comes from Amy-Jill Levine‘s chapter on it in Short Stories by Jesus. She is first clear about how Jesus sets up his audience with the first line, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” For First Century Jews, the good guy in this parable is immediately the Pharisee, and the bad guy the tax collector. That Jesus goes on to paint an opposite picture, then, would have been confusing. Jesus shows us a self-righteous, braggart Pharisee who’s not very likeable, and a penitent tax collector for whom they might have at least a little sympathy. Jesus seems to be working against the usual Us-vs-Them thinking.
Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar, details how Christians have seemingly been eager to fall deeper into the Us-vs-Them Thinking (my language) known more widely as anti-Semitism. St. Augustine even makes the tax collector a Gentile. So he reads it as the bad Jewish Pharisee vs. the penitent Gentile tax collector. I agree with Levine that Christian readings of this parable exemplify how easy it has been for Christians to show their anti-Semitism when reading the NT.
The clincher in revealing the bad readings of this parable through the ages is the translation and interpretation of the last line, “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.” The first issue is translating the Greek preposition para as “rather than.” Para is used to indicate things in relationship side-by-side. “Rather than” is certainly a legitimate, sometimes-used translation of para, showing contrasting relationship. But the more common translation is simply to indicate the side-by-side relationship. What if Jesus was meaning, “this man went down to his home justified alongside the other”? Wouldn’t this reading be the undoing of Us-vs-Them Thinking? That’s God’s mercy is actually big enough to blanket us, so that we are all justified by that grace? (Isn’t that Paul’s argument in Romans 3, that we will encounter next week in Part 2 of this sermon?)
Levine goes one step further. She says that a rare translation of para is “because of,” where the grace of the one who comes alongside us cover us, too. She argues that this was actually a common view of Jews towards Pharisees in the First Century — that their abundant goodness could help cover the sins of others. Regardless of how the New Testament views Pharisees (which is often negative, bordering on anti-Semitic), Levine observes that this sense of para is how the best of atonement theories see Jesus: we sinners are justified because of his perfect goodness. It may not be likely that Jesus meant this kind of thinking for the Pharisee in the parable, since he paints him as self-righteous, but para as “alongside” definitely would speak in favor of this parable as Jesus trying to jolt us out of our Us-vs-Them Thinking.
The final piece to comment on is my own take on the exalted humbled and the humbled exalted. Most commentators cite this as another instance of the “reversal theme” in Luke. I would argue — again in the spirit of dismantling Us-vs-Them Thinking — that this is Luke’s ‘equalizing theme’ not reversal. One can certainly humble the exalted and exalt the humble so that they trade places. But it doesn’t have to be so. They can be lowered and lifted such that they come alongside one another. They are equalized, not reversed. All of these points and more lead to “Freed from the Us-vs-Them Thinking Trap, Part 1.” (See also Part 2, which brings in the failure of the Reformation to free us from this trap.)
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Opening Comments, Part 2 (2019): 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 in a fashion that leaves one blind to how one participates in systemic sin.
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 has infected and diseased all white institutions for 500+ 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. The epitome of “white privilege” is not having to be aware of it. Blindness. And a chief factor in that blindness most often is to over-focus on the ‘individual sin’ of racial prejudice in exclusion to seeing systemic racism and white privilege.
Or another strategy is to shift focus to a supposed systemic sin that’s just as bad or worse. In the case of trying to speak of racism, the strategy of white supremacism is to begin talking about “identity politics.” People who are committed to antiracism speak the truth about the depth and breadth of our white supremist culture, and the response is to call that truth-telling “identity politics,” a false moral equivalence to the systemic sin of racism itself. (For more on “identity politics,” see my blog “‘Woke’ to a New Reformation: The Razor’s Edge of ‘Identity Politics’ as the Way to ‘Truth and Reconciliation’.”)
Now read back into this parable the perspective gained from more properly understanding racism. The sin of the Pharisee goes far beyond self-righteousness as an ‘individual sin.’ 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 over-focus on sin as individualistic — ‘I sure am glad I’m not as bad as that guy over there.’ 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. This holds true even if one shifts to the other strategy of trying to shift the focus to another systemic sin, to maintain the gaze of the Other’s sin instead of my own. We might point out (even though it’s not part of Jesus’s parable) that the tax collector obviously participates in the systemic sin of empire. He is a collaborator with Roman oppression. But this strategy highlights the true meaning of “self-righteous” as itself a systemic sin of continuing to shift the focus away from one’s self to the sin of the Other. The Pharisee participates in the deeper anthropological sin common to human cultures of maintaining purity according to his own cultures taboos. He is a fish in water, blind to his own sin and focused on the Other.
The tax collector, on the other hand, as somewhat of a Jewish outsider to the Roman Empire for whom he collaborates, has a different window into his sin and has become more aware of it. He is able to drop the shield of “self-righteousness,” while the Pharisee remains entrenched behind it and so also blind to his sin. As James Alison shows us in his brilliant reading of the healing of the man born blind in John 9, the Pharisee’s sin comes from an anthropological blindness to the sin of focusing on the ‘sins’ of a culture’s taboos, which also involves the systemic sin of over-focusing on the sin as taboos rather than systemic oppression that leads to expulsion. Jesus, as one who intentionally lets himself be named as “sinner,” is the light of the world who can cure the blindness that leads to the Sin of violent expulsion. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (singular “sin” being original to John 1:29).
So “self-righteousness” is actually a systemic sin, the sin of blindness to sacred violence, the sin that the Lamb of God came to take away. Both the Pharisee and tax collector participate in systemic sins, but only the “self-righteousness” of the Pharisee keeps him blind and unable to repent.
(For another reading of this parable that brings out these themes through the contemporary issue of gender rights, see my blog, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”)
1. Michael Hardin & Jeff Krantz, PreachingPeace.org. 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 Amazon.com 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 where I’ve discussed 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. Richard Rohr uses this passage in at least a couple different ways: one, as an example of the difference between public prayer and private prayer such as in The Naked Now, pp. 70-74; two, as an example closer to the themes in our comments above as Jesus subverting normal cultural views of righteousness, Falling Upward, pp. xx-xxi, 45.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2016 I’m considering reading the text in light of contemplative spirituality. Jesus gives us a parable of two people praying, and we get to overhear their thoughts/prayers. The Pharisee’s prayer shows our usual stream of consciousness that reflects a self-identity formed over against others. The tax collector’s prayer shows the first step of prayer into the “watchfulness” of contemplative spirituality, an awareness of one’s own thoughts mired in sin, an openness to God’s grace. The tax collector’s prayer could get stuck in its own form of unhealth if it never gets to the grace. The voice that is needed for healing and restoration is the one Jesus hears to begin his ministry, “You are my beloved, in you I’m well-pleased.”
2. In 2016 I’m also reading and digesting N.T. Wright‘s brand new book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Based on a thorough reading of Scripture, Wright consistently critiques on three fronts the popular reading of the cross in recent generations of Christianity:
- A Platonized goal, or eschatology (doctrine of end-times): that the cross’s goal is to enable believer’s souls to “go to heaven.” A properly Jewish eschatology reads the cross and resurrection as the launching of the New Creation, or heaven coming to earth.
- A moralizing view of sin, or anthropology (doctrine of being human): that the cross addresses the problem of sin as the breaking of moral codes. A closer reading of scripture sees the problem of sin as much deeper: idolatry. Human beings worship other gods/powers of this world and give up their vocation of being “image-bearers” of the Creator.
- A paganized version of the solution, or soteriology (doctrine of salvation): that the cross is appeasing the wrath of God for human sin (as breaking the moral code). A Jewish-Christian reading of scripture reveals a God who faithfully forgives sin and rescues God’s people in a New Exodus.
Wright does the church a great service in reading scripture to give us this desperately needed three-fold correction in our theology of the cross — and making it thoroughly grounded in reading the Bible.
But I’ve been mulling over what I see as a major misstep in his reading — one that I think is informed by this Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. In a 400-page book that reads all of Scripture for these themes, he devotes by far the largest chunk, 92 pages, to Paul’s Letter to the Romans alone. And I believe he commits a huge error by resisting Douglas Campbell‘s thesis of Paul having represented the views of a Jewish-Christian opponent within Romans, most notable in Romans 1:18-32. (For more on Campbell’s thesis see “Nuechterlein on Reading Romans 1-3 in a New Way.”)
Instead of taking Romans 1:18-32 as Paul voicing the view of a Jewish-Christian opponent (including Paul’s former self as a Pharisee!), Wright reads this passage as the quintessential description of human idolatry — as precisely the correct, robust picture of sin that Wright proposes. And the corollary, I believe, to this grave misstep is to virtually ignore in his reading the pivotal nature of the verses that immediately follow 1:18-32:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (NRSV Romans 2:1-2)
I propose that St. Paul gives us in Romans 1:18–3:26 a theologically argued version of the picture in Jesus’s Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 portrays a Pharisee focusing on someone else’s sin — namely, a Jewish perspective on Gentile idolatry. It is a picture of focusing on someone else’s sin and missing one’s own. Paul in Romans is trying to get to the thesis that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). To do that he has to expose his own previous sin of idolatry which was to violently (the “wrath” in Rom. 2:5) judge the idolatry of others. (See also Nuechterlein on the “Wrath of God” in Romans.) Isn’t this Jesus’s same move in this parable: in contrasting positions of someone focusing on the sin of others vs. someone who recognizes one’s own sin? But Paul extending it within the framework of “all falling short” and needing God’s grace? By resisting Campbell’s thesis about Romans 1:18-32 and ignoring the pivot of Romans 2:1-2, I believe that Wright has missed the full, deeper picture of human idolatry.
And it thus falls short of fully confronting the sacred violence done in the name of focusing on the sin of others. Specifically, in the case of holding onto Romans 1:18-32 as Paul’s own view of idolatry, it leaves open the idolatrous sacred violence of heterosexism — the heterosexual majority suppressing the freedom of LGBTQ persons to flourish and be who God created them to be. Reading this passage as Paul’s own view holds onto verses 26-27 as proof-texting against alleged ‘homosexual sin.’ And for someone like Wright it even comes within a deeper analysis of sin as idolatry, not simply the breaking of moral codes.
But I’m proposing that Wright’s reading misses the pivot Paul is making by exposing the idolatry of making an idol out of someone else’s sin. In order to expose the view of all people falling into sin, Paul has to go to extra lengths to expose the idolatry of the typical devout Jew, whose devotion manifests itself precisely in being against Gentile idolatry. So he speaks the position of a Jewish Christian railing against Gentile idolatry in 1:18-32 and then makes the pivot in 2:1-2 that that railing is its own form of idolatry — the idolatry of judging other people’s sins. In our modern context, we are coming to allow for LGBTQ brothers and sisters to judge for themselves whether their sexual identity is sinful idolatry or a manifestation of the diversity in God’s wonderful Creation. As they choose the latter expression of their identity, for others to continue to judge it as sinful idolatry continues the sacred violence that the Gospel exposes as satanic accusation — in short, one of the Powers that Wright so eloquently speaks against. Many Christians are finally coming to name one of the Powers as “heterosexism.”
To tie a bow on these reflections I point to a particularly apropos moment in the corpus of Mimetic Theory: Sandor Goodhart‘s reading of the Book of Jonah in his book Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature (ch. 5, pp. 139-67). I suggest that it has the same structure as my reading of this parable and Romans 1:18–3:26 but that it also gives us wonderful language to name it. Goodhart proposes that if Jewish Torah is quintessentially the “law of anti-idolatry,” then the story of Jonah gives us the Jewish prophetic reading in Jonah as the “idolatry of the law of anti-idolatry,” or more simply, the idolatry of anti-idolatry. I highly recommend reading Goodhart’s essay.
I don’t want to conclude these reflections without highly recommending Wright’s new book. I have a major bone to pick with it, but its overall importance for the church’s theology of the cross is immense. In addition to the threefold critique of popular readings of the cross sketched above, the last two chapters (Part IV, “The Revolution Continues”) brilliantly describe our “cruciform mission.” (Here is my full review of Wright’s book: “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”)
Ours, as disciples of Jesus, is the vocation of participating with God in the furthering of New Creation. The Powers continue to put up a fight, which means that this vocation will continue to come through suffering. But the suffering can be endured for the joy of knowing that the complete and final victory will belong to God’s Power of Love. Love wins.
3. 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 shows 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 used 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, “You Are Special” — which used Powerpoint to show the illustrations while reading, and an outline of reflections on the story afterwards. There is a YouTube version of reading the actual book while showing the illustrations. There is also a 26-minute animated version based on the book, which also can be found on YouTube (animated You Are Special).
4. In 1989 it was prior to my encountering Mimetic Theory, but it’s interesting to see how my sermon on this text, “Community of Saints or Sinners?“, anticipates that perspective. There was a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Who Watches the Watchers?“, aired the night before which reshaped my sermon into an anthropological critique of religion, connecting with the element of this parable of a religious leader vs. a perceived sinner.
5. 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?