Is the Pharisee’s self-justification built on the Law or his comparison to others?
Gospel Reading: Luke 18:9-14
For Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010: Year C – Ordinary 30
Jesus continues with his qualifications of prayer parables this week. But first the author of Luke messes with our heads a little bit. Not only do we get more of the tumbling logic of the-first-shall-be-last-but-the-last-are-first variety, but this entire pericope is set up to contradict its implied central point.
Before I get into that fun at the end, I want to begin with, well, the beginning (if that’s OK). I don’t know what to make of, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt . . . .” Does that mean that he was telling the previous parables to people who regarded others with contempt, and now tells them this one?
That would include the both the Pharisees and the disciples. Is Luke purposely equating the two groups? Is there something about being a religious leader that makes one susceptible to self-righteousness and contempt for others? (Sorry, that’s really an obvious statement placed in the form of a question in an attempt to distance myself from its sting.)
Is this about prayer or justification? I think the former. Prayer is the plain meaning. When you pray, do not justify yourselves; ask for mercy. But really, have you ever heard anyone pray like the Pharisee? Thank you for not making me like the bad people. I can’t even imagine the people I regard with contempt praying like that.
The Pharisee is a straw man-of-God. It’s one of those parable traps. The hearer is supposed to get sucked into judging the Pharisee, to regarding him with contempt. At least I’m not like you — I didn’t fall for it. So by judging the Pharisee you become like the Pharisee, but by identifying with the tax collector do you also become like the tax collector? Or do you still end up like the Pharisee?
This is a parable in which Jesus points out that by pointing to someone else’s sin the Pharisee condemns himself. And the tax collector who looked only at his own sin was justified. So, in order to get Jesus’ point the hearer has to point to the Pharisee’s sin, thus condemning one’s self.
Also beyond the plain meaning of this Gospel reading is this: the Pharisee counts himself righteous because he believes his adherence to the Law justifies him, and elevates him above others. What Jesus is pointing out however, is that justification does not elevate but lowers. I think. Or maybe Jesus is pointing out that the Law is not capable of justifying anyone. The Law is a negative revelation of our righteousness.
The Hardest Question
So, I think I have avoided the traps in the text and read it correctly, or I have at least seen the trap that I have fallen into. But there is one question that trips me up: Is the Pharisee’s self-justification built on the Law or on his comparison to others? The text is explicit about his comparison to others. A Pharisee, however, would find righteousness in the Law. I think this distinction matters.
Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.