Who is justified?

27 October 2019; Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 25C (RCL); Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14.

A few months ago, I read Amy Jill Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus. Her reading of this parable upended the way Christians have been reading it for centuries. It turns on the translation of a preposition, and at first I was quite skeptical of her reading, but the more I’ve looked at it, the more I like it.

As we read the parable, Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you this man goes down to his house justified rather than the other,” meaning the tax collector, not the Pharisee, is justified. This satisfies our need to have the Pharisees look bad. The word being translated ‘rather than’ is the preposition para. At its root, it means ‘alongside of.’ Parable means two things thrown alongside of each other for comparison. With the accusative, it can mean ‘in contrast to,’ but that is a minor meaning, and should only be used when ‘alongside of’ won’t work.

So, here’s the thing: alongside of will work. Try it. “Truly, I tell you, this man went down to his house justified alongside of the other.” It’s not what we are used to hearing, but it makes perfect sense. The Pharisee does the things that make for righteousness. He fasts and tithes. We can assume (because we are not told otherwise) that he is tithing for the right reasons (relief of the poor). He does say a prayer in which he thanks God that he is not like other people — but one of the eighteen benedictions was to thank God that one was not born a woman, because women couldn’t fulfill the whole law.

And, the smugness Jesus is attacking is just as effectively upended by the Pharisee learning that the tax collector is justified alongside him as by learning that the tax collector is justified rather than him. In fact, the first option is more challenging, because it means the Pharisee must live in the community of the justified alongside the tax-collector as an equal.

We tend to think of justification as a qualification of individuals, but Levine’s interpretation of the parable challenges us to think of it in communal terms. To be justified is to be given an appropriate standing in community. The Pharisees works of mercy justify the tax-collector as well. That is really hard for us to swallow, even harder to swallow than the smug Pharisee getting pay back. That means we, the smug ones, must live in community with those who appear to be compromised.

The tax-collector knows that he is despised, and so we can assume that he is forced into a choice he would prefer not to have to make. Who are the tax-collectors of our day? And when we don’t feel particularly righteous, we should know that the life of the community holds us in an appropriate place. That’s a world I would like to imagine.

Joel imagines a day when God will pour the divine spirit on everyone, old and young, men and women, and even slaves! All will be justified together. That’s truly challenging. Either we are all saved together, or not at all.

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