Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Bible Study
Friday July 6 2018, 8am
By the end of this conference, you will know good and well what a PARABLE is. You might even get tired of hearing about it, with morning bible studies and evening worship all centered around these stories from Jesus. This morning, we’re going to do a little bit of Greek.
“Parable” is made up of two Greek words: para and ballo. Ballo means “to toss” and para means “alongside.” Mostly. But more about that later on.
A parable is, in other words, something cast alongside the truth – tossed out as a way toward better understanding.
Parables tell the truth. But they don’t tell it straight. Parables are not one-to-one correlations, they are not codified behavior laws, and they usually do not answer the question that we think we should be asking.
An Emily Dickinson poem might help us:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Jesus taught in parables. He told stories, because he knew that his disciples – then and now – would be more likely to understand if he served the truth in the form of a story, inviting his hearers into the conversation, engaging their imaginations and their spirits. Like Emily Dickinson says in her poem, parables tell the truth, but they tell it slant. Tossed alongside.
Our job, as Jesus’ listeners, is not to decipher the parable. Our job, as faithful followers, is not to figure it out and apply it immediately to the very next thing we do. Our job, as people who have covenanted to life together in Christ, is to PAY ATTENTION. Jesus longs for us to hear him – let all who have ears to hear, listen, he says, over and over. Our job is not to solve some sort of riddle and run around victorious at how clever we’ve been…our job is to immerse ourselves in the parable and pray that the Holy Spirit might inscribe it in our hearts and interpret it through our lives.
So. Here’s a parable, a truth tossed out alongside. Don’t try to solve it, don’t try to FIGURE IT OUT, just pay attention. Just immerse yourself in it. Just let it wash over you, cover you, invite you, surprise you, take root in you.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Okay. If I was actually leading a bible study and not sitting up here on the stage so far away from you, I’d ask you what word or phrase caught you when you listened. I’d want to know if when you heard this familiar parable for what surely must have been the seventy fourth time, you noticed anything that you hadn’t heard before. I’d want us to read scripture the way our Brethren tradition has formed us: in community, with the power of the Holy Spirit directing our interpretation.
But, alas, I am here and you are there. If you’re sitting close to someone, turn to them and share a single thing you noticed. Just a sentence – not a paragraph. Just share what the Spirit spoke to you in these verses. I’ll wait a second.
Okay – okay.
I’m all alone up here, and I have the microphone, so here are a few things that the Spirit spoke to me – and to some biblical scholars – as I read and studied this passage.
First of all: when we hear “pharisee” and “tax-collector,” we have immediate images and assumptions filling our imaginations. We’ve been conditioned to think of Pharisees as “bad guys.” Did any of you sing that kid’s song in Sunday school or summer camp: “I just wanna be a sheep? [Baaaaa]” It has a couple of verses about what we DON’T want to be, and one of them is “I don’t wanna be a Pharisee. I don’t wanna be a Pharisee. I don’t wanna be a Pharisee, ’cause they’re not fair, you see.”
The kid’s song stands on pretty solid ground in dissing the Pharisees. In English, we’ve even turned them into an adjective: if you’re “pharisaical,” then you are hypocritical or self-righteous. And this characterization shows up in scripture, too. In Luke’s gospel the Pharisees are usually a little shady. They aren’t very quick to welcome Jesus’ teaching, they seem to want to keep the status quo in place, they are generally reluctant to shift their perspective or give up the power they wield. The Pharisees, in Luke and in modern-day caricature, are not fair, you see.
But both our modern-day understanding and Luke’s characterization are not exactly true to what we know for sure about Pharisees. Pharisees didn’t write much themselves, so the only historical record we have of them comes – aside from Paul, who was a deserter of the Pharisaical tradition – from people writing ABOUT them. We don’t know what Pharisees believed, we don’t really know a lot about how they functioned. But I’ve learned a bit about what they did not do.
Pharisees were not in charge of the Temple. Instead, they worked in the villages, among the people. They were teachers, not priests. They didn’t have particularly strict purity standards – they just observed Jewish law like everyone else. They were, apparently, some combination of scholars and special interest group, a predecessor to the later role of “rabbi.” They studied Torah and taught the law, but they also were not the ones in charge of the system of sacrifice or polity. They were, as far as I can tell, a group of local pastors who loved the Temple and their God but who spent more time with the regular people than they did with those in power.
Unlike us, who have several millenia worth of baggage attached to the idea of a Pharisee, Jesus’ first audience would have had a different image. For them, according to scholar Amy-Jill Levine, “the Pharisees would have been respected teachers, those who walked the walk as well as talked the talk.” It would have made sense to them that a Pharisee was praying in the temple – the temple was a place of healing and grace.
Now, a tax collector, on the other hand, would NOT have been likely to show up at Temple. Tax collectors were employed by the Roman Empire, and their allegiance was to Caesar, not the God of the Israelites. They worked for the empire, and they dealt in money, and they had easy access to skimming off the top for themselves, cheating people, stealing, getting whatever they felt themselves entitled to. In Luke’s gospel, tax collectors turn out to be a pretty good group of guys: Zaccheus did an about face and followed Jesus after he was found up in that tree, Matthew became one of Jesus’ most trusted friends and disciples. But that character trait – being willing to change their life and follow Jesus – was NOT what Jesus’ first hearers would have thought of when they heard about a tax collector in the Temple.
For the people Jesus told this parable to, tax collectors were lying, cheating charlatans who would have been to scared to set foot in such a holy place as the Temple for fear that their evil deeds would have sent them up in smoke as soon as they crossed the threshold. The first hearers of Jesus’ parables would probably have been imagining either – depending on your political disposition and based on my observation of social media since the 2016 election – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton walking into your home church sanctuary on a random Sunday morning.
The tax collector showing up in the Temple was unheard of. Those Jewish folks listening to Jesus tell this story would have probably let out a collective GASP, and whispered curses under their breath. They would have immediately wondered what they would have done if they’d been there at the Temple that day: shout curses or insults, demand they remove themselves from the premises, refuse to look them in the eye or engage them in any kind of conversation other than heckling or hateful talking points.
And so, here we are, in the Temple, with a respected, benign, regular local pastor kind of guy who everyone would expect to be praying in the Temple and a stealing, cheating, reviled enemy kind of guy that everyone would be horrified to find praying in their Temple.
Even the Pharisee himself isn’t immune to the hateful prejudice that surrounded tax collectors: “Thank you, God, that you didn’t make me like THIS GUY,” who is clearly sinful and beyond hope. It wasn’t that the Pharisee was particularly arrogant, really, he had just soaked up the common wisdom of the day and fallen in with the accepted characterization of tax collectors as too far gone to be recipients of God’s grace.
But the tax collector isn’t paying attention to anyone else in the Temple. He’s not there to make comparisons. He’s not there to point fingers or to build himself up by putting others down. The tax collector is beating his breast, confessing his own sins, pleading with God to have mercy on him, to forgive him for what he’s been doing.
The Pharisee, in other words, does all the right things but can’t stop himself from pointing fingers and judging others. The tax collector, on the other hand, does plenty of bad things but has also learned to practice humility and repentance.
And then Jesus tells the listeners: I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.
Except this is where we encounter a pretty serious problem. That word, RATHER – as in the tax collector went home justified INSTEAD OF, RATHER THAN the Pharisee, is, in Greek, a word that we’ve heard before. The word that is translated into English as “rather” is actually the Greek word “para,” as in paradox, parallel, Paraclete, and…parable.
And you remember what the “para” in parable means, right? Not RATHER but ALONGSIDE. It turns out, that Greek word can mean both. And it turns out, choosing the other translation changes the entire parable.
If the tax collector, after going up to the Temple, beating his breast and begging for mercy goes home justified alongside the Pharisee and not instead of the Pharisee, we are freed from having to choose a “good guy” and a “bad guy” in this story. If both the tax collector and the Pharisee are able to return home in the grace of God, forgiven, loved and free, then we do not have to participate in the heresy of putting limits on God’s grace and mercy.
Jesus is not telling this parable to help us differentiate the good guys from the bad guys – he’s telling this parable to demonstrate the nearly unimaginable depth of God’s grace, the wideness of God’s mercy, the striking heights of God’s love. Grace is not a zero sum game. Just because the tax collector repented and received grace does not mean that the Pharisee is no longer eligible for it.
The Pharisee is a child of God who spends his life doing good, praying, following God’s commands. He is not perfect. He stumbles into self-righteousness and hypocrisy – it’s so easy to do. But his mistakes do not remove him from God’s care. His shortcomings do not rip God’s grace away from his life. His prejudice and unthinking hatefulness do not set him outside the reach of God’s mercy.
And the tax collector’s evil deeds, his lifetime of serving Caesar instead of God, his track record of lying, cheating and stealing: neither do they render him ineligible for forgiveness. He begs for mercy, and God grants it, pours it down over him, wraps him up in grace.
And the two, both broken, both mistaken, both taken in by the hateful customs of their government and their culture, both human beings susceptible to greed and self-righteousness, the two of them walk down from the Temple, brothers, both forgiven, both justified, both loved more deeply than they can imagine, ALONGSIDE one another.
This parable is not about who is right and who is wrong, and it’s not about who is good and who is bad. It is a little bit about the dangers of self-righteousness, and a little bit about the power of repentance. But it is also about the incredible depth and width and breadth of God’s unending and unlimited gifts of mercy and grace. It is a reminder to us, mere human beings, created as children by an all-powerful Creator God, that we can not be the arbiters of grace because we humans will always erect bad boundaries and false fences and judge people who are not like us simply because they are not like us. God’s grace is so much bigger than you or me or our ideas of who is worthy of inclusion and who is not, who is able to get God’s attention or not, who has standing in our Temples or not.
God does that, all of that. And thanks be to God, our God is much more tolerant, much more forgiving, much more willing to believe in the goodness and potential of even the worst of us, the worst in us.
Thanks be to God.