Other people

23 October 2016
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 25C (RCL)
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Luke’s parable against those who have confidence in themselves and regard others with contempt may indeed be timeless, but it may never have been more timely. Our national political discourse has become ever more divisive, and characterized by contempt.

At issue is the idea of righteousness. The Pharisee is confident in his own righteousness, yet the tax collector goes down to his home justified, or made righteous. Righteousness is the quality of holding an appropriate and customary place within the community and being recognized as holding that place. We tend to equate it with a right standing with God, but it is rooted in custom. Dike (a long e pronounce ay) is the root of dikaiosune, the word we translate as righteousness. The root meaning of dike is custom. Dikaios, an adjective which we translate as righteous, means living in accordance with custom, observing custom. To be adjudge dikaios in a case brought before the judge or elders is to be determined to be the party in the case who has followed custom, to have been the one who has upheld the standards of the community, and has forwarded its interests. The judgment would then apply retrospectively.

The tax collector goes down to his house adjudged dikaios. In the eyes of the judge of the case (God), the tax collector has followed the customs of the community and built it up. To Jesus’ hearers or Luke’s readers, this parable would call into question everything they knew about righteousness. Clearly, the Pharisee has followed custom, and the tax collector is a collaborator with the Roman Empire. How can he be declared just?

The Pharisee begins his prayer by drawing distinctions between himself and classes of people who are clearly not righteous — the grasping, the unjust, adulterers and even this tax collector. He then points out all the righteous things he does — fasting twice a week, and tithing on everything. He is making the case to God for being declared just. The tax collector on the other hand simply acknowledges his sinfulness. He goes down justified.

The Pharisee has broken the community that Luke is interested in — he has by his own words isolated himself from the community by whose customs righteousness is defined. This is the head-turning aspect of this parable. For Luke, righteousness is defined by the community of misfits gathered around Jesus. The tax collector of course would be seen as a collaborator with the Roman Empire. But such are precisely the people Jesus is calling into a new covenantal community. We are not told whether this tax collector is at the top or the bottom of the food chain. Some tax collectors paid handsome sums for the right of collecting taxes, and then farmed the actual collection out to smaller fry. These smaller fry were often villagers who had been taxed off their own land, and collected taxes on their neighbors to pay off their own debts. They would have been doubly despised in the villages. If this man was one of these, he recognizes his own complicity with the system, but likely has no other choice. This new kingdom Jesus is building includes precisely such. Even Zaccheus, someone up the food chain is justified by his practices.

This parable holds up a mirror and asks us which we see when we look at ourselves. Life is messy. The Empire is here to stay, and we are not likely to overthrow it, no matter how unjust it is. And God has delayed God’s own actions against it. What to do in the meantime? Live as nearly as we can according to custom in the local neighborhood. The Pharisee withdraws, maintaining a kind of impractical purity, which simply forecloses the option of living in the wider community. The tax collector recognizes his implication in the broken systems that destroy community, and is thereby empowered to work for the change (vid. Zaccheus). When we look in the mirror, do we see someone who claims purity (I’m not a racist), or someone who recognizes our own implication in the system, and can then work to rebuild a community of righteousness?

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