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.