Not rather than but because of …

Have you ever felt that you knew someone so well that there was nothing that could surprise you about that person? In your eyes, they are consistent and predictable; they are reliable.

Recently, Brian Doyle shared a very short story about such a person – his highly predictable sixth grade teacher Sister Everard.[1]

In this story, Sister Everard is a slight but imposing woman. Consistently stern, firm, and unemotional; Sister Everard is all these things to her young charges. Her students think they know what to expect from her; there will be no surprises.

One October afternoon, the monsignor enters the classroom unannounced and whispers a message into the sister’s ear; the two of them then stare at one another in silence for a few moments before the monsignor quietly leaves the room.

In silence, Sister Everard walks, not back to her desk, but up an aisle of the classroom to the desk of a girl; there she places her hand on the girl’s shoulder.

This child’s father is very sick and has been in the parish prayers for six weeks. Without speaking a word, Sister Everard stands with her hand on the girl’s shoulder until the child stands up.

At this point, the students hear someone begin to sob softly; but it isn’t the girl who has just learned she is fatherless. Instead it is Sister Everard – that immovable, unemotional, and highly predictable nun – who is having her head cradled by her young charge.

The class’ image of the predictable and consistent nun has been set aside by something unexpected. The students are shocked into silent contemplation by the revelation of this new aspect of Sister Everard. It changes their understanding forever.

Brian Doyle’s story of unexpected revelation or insight into a person that is so consistent and predictable is a helpful backdrop for our reflection upon the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Let’s face it, we like consistency and predictability; they create a sense of security and comfort. As young children, consistency and predictability are important to our emotional development.

However, as we mature, we begin to encounter life as less predictable and more inconsistent. As a result, and understandably, sometimes we want to cloak ourselves in the predictable and consistent.

I think this desire for predictability often influences our interpretation of Scripture, and in particular our understanding of parables.

Patterns of predictable interpretation become normal in part because they are comfortable and easy – even if the interpretation stands in opposition to the historical setting of the parable.

This is where we find ourselves today with the Pharisee and tax collector. We have a parable that has been interpreted over and over as one of antithesis – of complete opposition; self-righteous Pharisee against repentant tax collector.

This interpretation has been handed down to us by a long line Christian commentators and preachers, who – unwittingly or not – have perpetuated unmerited presumptions or biases about the actors in this parable.

The thing these commentators and preachers have in common is that they weren’t present in first-century Palestine, and many of them have probably not studied closely the historical and cultural setting of the story.

If we desire insight into what Jesus, as a first-century Palestinian Jew, may be thinking as he tells this parable, we need the insight of someone who has immersed themselves in the study of the culture and history of the setting.

One such person is Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar and professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University. That’s right, a Jewish scholar who knows the New Testament better than most of us.

One thing Professor Levine invites us to reconsider is the presumption that the Pharisee and tax collector are antithetical, i.e. directly opposed to one another. Neither is typical of the group they represent in the parable; instead both are caricatures intended to provoke a reaction from Jesus’ first-century Jewish audience.[2]

As caricatures, the Pharisee and the tax collector are exaggerations of their respective types; as such neither of them behaves in a way the audience expects. The audience would be surprised that the Pharisee is dismissive of the tax collector; and they would also be surprised that the tax collector could be repentant.[3]

If the Pharisee’s and the tax collector’s behavior in the parable is so surprising to their Jewish contemporaries, it begs the question, why is Jesus portraying them in this manner?

Perhaps, as Sister Everard surprises her students with her uncharacteristic sobbing, Jesus intends for the uncharacteristic behavior of the Pharisee and the tax collector to surprise his first-century audience by revealing that the point is not their antithesis, but how their mutual presence in prayer in the Temple is complementary and unifying.

After all, the function of a parable is to juxtapose images, types, or ideas along side one another to provoke or remind the audience to consider something they may have overlooked or forgotten.

Thus, to simply accept that one of the characters is good and presume the other is bad is to fall into a trap of divisiveness: the dualistic and judgmental behavior that Jesus is teaching against.[4]

Our translation [NRSV] of Luke tempts us into this trap through the concluding verse of the parable: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt them selves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”[5]

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other ….” The choice to translate the Greek preposition para as “rather than” is a legitimate choice[6]; but perhaps it too is colored by our presumptions about this parable.

Other equally legitimate translations include “along side” or “because of.”[7] Rather than suggesting opposition or difference, these choices suggest cooperation and complementarity.

This is where Professor Levine’s awareness of the context or setting of the parable is invaluable; it presents us with an insight into Jewish worship that I was unaware of.

Judaism is a communitarian movement in which people pray in the plural e.g., “Our Father … Give us … Forgive us ….”[8] In this setting, communal or common prayer is used. Each member of the community bears responsibility for the other,[9] and the merits of one are shared by or accrue to others in the community.

Thus, rather than a circumstance of opposition where only one of the men is justified, we have a complimentary setting in which the one in need of redemption shares in the merit of the other, in deed not just the other but the entire community of prayer.

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified [not rather than but because of] the other, ….” The field has been leveled by common prayer; those who exalt themselves and those who humble themselves have met and realized their common dependence.

To Episcopalians this communitarian setting of prayer should be familiar. After all, such common prayer is the very heart of our worship, and the shared merit of being participants in the body of Christ is foundational to our baptismal covenant.

Thus, we, by virtue of our worship and our covenantal understanding, should be inclined toward complementarity – not opposition.

We need to understand this about ourselves, especially at times such as now when our political environment is so charged with recrimination. At times like this it is easier to be against or opposed to someone than it is to be secure in our understanding and charitable toward those we don’t agree with.

We need to remember that not enough of us have studied the historical and cultural setting of our own republic. We need to remember that we too can accept too quickly the selective interpretations of those who want to influence our opinions.

If the result is that we vilify others rather pray for and with them, we are missing the point of our worship and covenant; and what is more, we are missing the life-changing surprises that we have to reveal to one another.

[1] Brian Doyle, “One afternoon in October,” The Christian Century, October 12, 2016, 11.

[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi [New York: Harper One, 2014], 171.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p.192.

[5] Luke 18:14.

[6] Levine, p. 192.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 193.

[9] Ibid.

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Tenacious Widow

“Then Jesus told [the disciples] a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”[1]

These opening words of today’s Gospel are presented before Jesus’ parable in an effort to make the parable relevant to a description of the end times that is presented before this reading.

While the end times is very much on the mind of the early church when this Gospel is written, the pairing of this parable and a discourse about the end times reads to me like a square peg pounded in a round whole – it just doesn’t seem to fit.

In part it doesn’t seem fit because I am so aware of all the manipulations this parable has been subjected to over the centuries.

The parable may lose something in translation into English, but it has also accumulated a lot of presumptions that, while well intended, are not well founded.

For example, the widow is often presumed to be poor, a victim, and without power. In fact there is nothing in the story to support these presumptions.

These presumptions are nothing more than the accumulation of male biased and widely accepted stereotypes about widows.

Yet the Bible is full of stories about widows and other women wielding the power of their own agency – that is their own influence – despite their circumstance.

These women include Naomi, Ruth, Tamar, Abigail, Esther, the widow of Zarephath, Martha, and Mary, among numerous others.

So why have we chosen to treat this widow differently? Is it because we want to tame or domesticate the parable – to make it about something other than ourselves?

Alternatively, perhaps it is because it is easier to deal with a stereotype than it is to deal with the dignity and presence of Christ in the unique individual that is presented to us.

Or, perhaps, we should accept the widow on the basis of what we can read in the parable.

What we can read is very little. The widow’s plight is constrained to just one verse. Her only spoken words are, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”[2]

But within these five words there is one word that speaks volumes about the widow – it is the word “justice.”

The choice to translate the Greek this way doesn’t do the word justice, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The choice of “justice” is a safe translation that avoids what may be seen as unladylike aspects of the original Greek.

Specifically, this translation sidesteps aspects of the original Greek that include: vindication, vengeance, and punishment.

In this light, it seems the widow sees herself as harmed and she wants retribution – retribution against the party that has harmed her. She wants to set things right.

This perspective, coupled with her dogged persistence, presents us with a woman, who knows what she wants and will use whatever resources she has, to set things right.

The fact is this woman prevails through the persistent wielding of the power of her agency – her own personal influence. This is a prevailing pattern of the women of the Bible.

This fact begs the question of whether we need a new biblical model for the “widow” or woman as one who means to see things set right.

But at the core of this parable is, what seems to be, an imbalance of privilege: a privileged and complacent judge who is unencumbered by any sense of accountability; and a widow, whom the judge mistakenly believes he can put off.

This parable invites us – regardless of our gender and regardless of our sense of powerlessness or privilege – to identify with the widow; and to recognize those places in our lives and our community where we have accepted imbalances of privilege as they are.

This parable speaks to the entirety of Jesus’ ministry – the confrontation of the prevailing bias or privilege of society through the persistent and sometimes annoying proclamation of his vision for the kingdom of God.

In this light, where have we failed as stewards of our God-given gifts of agency: the power to use our voices, in prayer and in speaking out; the power of our minds, in imagining how things could or should be; and the power of our presence in taking stances that bring injustices to light?

Our baptismal covenant is not one of complacency and comfort, or privilege. Nor is it simply one of belief. Rather our baptismal covenant is a call to action, with God’s help, not to lose heart:

  • To continue in teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers;
  • To persevere in resisting evil;
  • To proclaim the Gospel;
  • To seek and serve Christ is all persons; and finally, or perhaps I should say ultimately …
  • To strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.

This ultimate appeal of our baptismal covenant – this appeal to “set things right” – may be the most challenging for us.

This appeal may be the one where we are most likely to lose heart; but with God’s help, nourished by Christ at this table, and encouraged by the example of the widow and all the saint’s, we are equipped as stewards of our baptismal covenant to live generously and to set things right!

[1] Luke 18:1

[2] Ibid., v. 3

Insufficiency becomes abundance …

Lord, increase my faith! Perhaps you have felt like uttering this cry yourself; I certainly have.

And today, we hear the apostles give voice to it. Yet, we don’t know enough about their particular circumstance as they cry out to Jesus to “Increase our faith!”

It sounds as if they are desperate. Perhaps the apostles are overwhelmed by all that Jesus is telling them on their way to Jerusalem. I don’t know; but to my ear it sounds as if the cry is coming from a place of insecurity, of doubt, a sense of insufficiency; “I don’t have enough.”

This sense of insufficiency – whether real or imagined – can be disabling. It can keep us from taking risks; indeed, it can keep us from doing what we should because we fear that we won’t have enough.

Even worse, this sense of insufficiency can be isolating and aggravate our poverty if we in our pride refuse to acknowledge our circumstance. At least the apostles have the sense to proclaim their need.

Jesus goes on to disabuse the apostles of their sense of insufficiency by proclaiming, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.”

Jesus is reminding the apostles and us that it is not a matter of quantity or how much, but a matter of quality. This lesson can be applied to faith and to stewardship.

This sense of insufficiency and pride reminds me of a different story.[1] It’s the story of a very young and poor couple who struggle to make ends meet.

The young bride, Mary, is from a prosperous and closely-knit professional family. She is well educated and has begun her college education, but she is madly in love with Elton.

Her husband, Elton, on the other hand, is from a rather poor farming family where he had a hard relationship with his deceased stepfather.

Elton has dropped out of high school, but he is hardworking, long in horse sense, blessed with a joyous zest for life, and he adores Mary.

However, Mary’s family doesn’t approve of Elton because of where he comes from. When Mary elopes with Elton, her family disowns her rather than risk losing any more of their hard-earned sense of prestige and wealth.

As newlywed teenagers, Mary and Elton have no choice but to make do with what they have: a team of horses and a very small and dilapidated farmstead that Elton leases from his mother.

Their first year of marriage is a mighty struggle. They barely survive, but they are blessed by their surroundings. Their farmstead is surrounded by five other similarly poor farmsteads.

Mary and Elton find themselves a part of an impoverished community that knows how to steward their gifts. This community teaches the young couple what they need to survive that first winter when they have no larder.

This community barters and trades their skills and meager provisions to get by. By the second year, Mary and Elton have a garden, they have learned how to can, they have a part of a slaughtered hog – earned through shared labor, and they have managed to buy a shoat and couple of chickens.

But more importantly Mary and Elton have earned the love and respect of their neighbors because of their generous spirits and their interest in their neighbors’ lives and circumstances. Without being asked they respond to the needs of their neighbors, often before attending to their own.

This poor community may not thrive economically, but they thrive in spirit and relationship – indeed they have an abundance – because they know what the other has to offer and in turn know what the other needs. And they respond to the need almost without being asked.

In the fall of their second year it is unseasonably cold; Mary has fallen desperately ill, but she dare not complain to Elton because they are hard pressed by chores and responsibilities; so she soldiers on without complaint, trying to keep her need from Elton.

For his part, Elton has deferred the plowing of his own field because he has promised to help his neighbor Walter bust up his cornfield so that it can be sown again.

It will be a long day as he walks his team several miles up the road to Walter’s farmstead, and then comes home to tend to his own. So Elton sets off well before sunrise.

Mary, in her illness, is so weak after tending to the chickens and shoat that she collapses in bed, too exhausted to confront the household chores or even to tend to the flagging fires in the stoves. Before she passes out, she despairs, how will I get my chores done?

Hours later, Mary awakes aware of a soft humming in the background and the return of warmth to the small farmhouse. From the bed she sees that the house has been cleaned spotlessly, and rocking comfortably in the sunlight of the bedroom window is her childless, neighbor Josie humming hymns as she plies her needle in a tablecloth she fashioning for the fair.

How did this come to be?

Well, on his way to Walter’s in the dark of the early morning, Elton, in need, overcomes his sense of poverty and his pride. He pauses his team as he passes Miss Josie and Tom’s farm to call out to Josie that Mary is sick.

There is nothing more to be said. Elton knows that Josie has no children to distract her, and Josie knows how difficult it is to get everything done that needs to be done.

Josie and Elton know each other’s gifts and they know each other’s needs. Nothing else needs to be said.

Mary selfishly thinks she can and should conceal her need from Elton and her neighbors. But in a generosity of spirit and sharing Elton and her neighbors disabuse Mary of her sense of poverty and her sense of pride. And Mary is revived to a new sense of stewardship by a renewed sense of abundance.

[1] This story is a synopsis of the following. Wendell Berry, “A Jonquil for Mary Penn” in That Distant Land:The Collected Stories [Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004] Kindle location 2622 of 5940.