Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Learning from a Pharisee


As I get ready for a sermon, there is nothing I enjoy more than a little back-and-forth with my friend and colleague Dr. Steve Pankey, who wrote yesterday in response to a piece I wrote on Monday. Like him, I had missed that dialogue of late, and I began my week with an appeal to the Greek in the hopes that I could lure him into that conversation. I was thrilled that he took the bait--a shiny, sparkly appeal to justification through works that neither he nor I accepts. In fact, as you can see in our posts, both of us are eager to reject such a path to right-standing with God out of hand.

But I think Steve missed the point I was trying to make--mainly because I didn't make it very well. Like him, I don't believe that the Pharisee is righteous because of his works. Jack Alvey said it better than I did in his comment on my post: "I like 'alongside' because justification is all about the action of God's mercy and doesn't even need our repentance." Likewise, I think that the "mutually exclusive" point that Steve makes is spot on. One cannot be righteous and hold one's neighbor in contempt. That's what Luke has been trying to tell us for these many week's that we've been slogging our way through Year C of the lectionary. As I noted at the end of my post, perhaps an exclusive righteousness isn't righteousness at all. I think Steve and I agree on that.

Still, Bill Brosend's point (yes, I fixed the name in my previous post, but the Christian Century picked it up with the wrong version--sorry Dr. Brosend) is worth considering--not because we should hold up a works-based path to righteousness but because, unless we take the Pharisee's prayer as genuine, we can't really learn from him. The benefit, therefore, of reading the para + accusative as "alongside" and not "rather than" isn't because we're supposed to imagine how both Pharisee and tax collector are equally justified but because a rejection of the Pharisee's righteousness out of hand as never-was and never-could-be denies us the "aha!" moment of the parable--that one who everybody knew was already righteous might have been mistaken after all.

Although it goes without saying, we should remember that St. Paul didn't write Luke's gospel account. This passage isn't about justification by faith. That's not Luke's agenda. Luke's Jesus wants his hearers to see that the kingdom of God is open to sinners and rejects like the tax collector and that those who grumble against their inclusion find themselves on the outside looking in. With his "mutually exclusive" approach, Steve makes that point, too. But the real power of that realization comes not when we dismiss the Pharisee as an arrogant, self-righteous prig but when we take his prayer seriously and ask ourselves how his path to righteousness ended up leading him astray.

That's the "casting alongside" of the parable. Allow yourself to read the Pharisee's prayer not with a tone of superiority but as a genuinely thankful prayer to God: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." I know that it's hard. We read the words and think, "What a jerk!" But try to suspend judgment on content of the prayer until we get to the end of the parable. In the Pharisee's mind, whether through the chance of birth or some mistakes in his upbringing, he could have ended up as a rogue, thief, or tax collector. I could have, too, and I'm genuinely thankful that I'm not. But there's a difference in being thankful for one's life and holding others in disdain. The content of the prayer is misguided for sure, but, for all this Pharisee knew about righteousness, he was genuinely grateful to God for the faith that he had achieved. In his mind, his righteousness was something to give thanks for. And I don't think Jesus is being critical of his faithfulness. Jesus has painted us a picture of a hypothetically super-righteous person to make a more subtle point: what good is righteousness if you can't see the breadth of God's redeeming work? We might ask, "Is that righteousness at all?" but we get to that point not by rejecting the Pharisee's path to right-standing with God but by questioning where it leads.

Of course, as I wrote on Monday, something is missing. His righteousness is incomplete. If he cannot see the potential righteousness of the tax collector, he is selling God's mercy short. And, as Luke has made abundantly clear, that excludes one from the kingdom. In my original post, I should have made that point--that, by writing that the tax collector left justified "alongside" the Pharisee, Luke isn't embracing the Pharisee's righteousness but holding it up as a helpful-for-us comparison. In the minds of Jesus' hearers, the Pharisee's justification was never in doubt. He did everything he was supposed to do and more--except one thing: love your neighbor. But, if we reject the Pharisee's justification on the basis of works or self-righteousness, we miss the real power of this parable. Don't use this parable to preach Paul's justification by faith alone. Preach what Jesus was preaching: the magnitude of God's mercy must be accepted by all who participate in God's kingdom. I think Steve and I agree on that.

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