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Friday, October 25, 2013

Piercing the clouds (C30O)


“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one was the pope, the other was a pimp.”

Actually, all that started because of Sunday's gospel story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. I came across Bernard Scott’s quotation of Dom Crossan’s attempt to approximate the shock value of the way the story might have fallen upon the ears of Mediterranean peasants. That is it above, about the pope and the pimp. I wanted to write a little bit more about this gospel than I did yesterday when I was talking about why I chose the music that I did for Sunday. Here we have a parable of the kingdom in which the two protagonists are both wealthy men, possibly with both some sympathizers and some detractors in Jesus’ audience. The Pharisee would be the quintessential “good guy,” studying and interpreting the law and the prophets. Jesus himself was a Pharisee, or at least his teachings and style would put him close to their worldview. Contrast that with the tax-collector, a Roman collaborator, many of whom lined their own pockets by inflating exchange rates and revenues extracted from countrymen. At least, that was the suspicion, and so they were hated by the masses, were targets of assassins, and were persona non grata in the temple precincts. The two go up together, they pray, and when they come down, it’s the tax collector who is justified, and not the Pharisee. What happened up there?

The story is set up much like the parable of the Good Samaritan. Whereas that parable in the realm of moral behavior and relation to the neighbor, this one is about the relationship to God, and the economy of grace. But both use the same means to the end: the temple denizens and keepers of the tradition end up outside the sympathy of the hearer while the hated one, the one who is the stranger to the social realm ruled by the temple turns out to make a claim on the listener’s sympathy.

I was amused that our translation seems to have caught us in the very act of demonization or marginalization that seems to be the butt of the parable’s joke. Did you notice how the Vulgate-inspired translation set up the Pharisee, at the expense of the logic of the story’s own rhetoric? There is a question about the words pros heauton in the Greek, which mean “by himself” or “to himself.” Do they modify “stood” or “said”? The RNAB, which we in the US have as our translation, says, “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,” making us think that the Pharisee is an egomaniac, praying to himself, which would be exactly not a Pharisee’s way of praying. What the rhetoric of the story would suggest is that the Pharisee “took a position (or stood) by himself,” which is the normal way a person would pray in the temple. This is further suggested by the fact that the phrase creates a parallelism with what is said about the tax-collector, a rhetorical device suited to the style of oral teaching. What we have, then, is:
Pharisee   -  stood  - by himself

tax collector - was standing - at a distance

When the prayer of the Pharisee is compared to other prayers of the Talmud and elsewhere, it doesn’t sound so strident, especially when we don’t allow our ears to be polemicized by the prejudices of the gospel that have helped to malform Christianity in anti-Semiticism for twenty centuries. The Pharisee is a good guy. He not only does what is required of him in the law, he does more than is required. One might assume, then, that he loves God in the only way he knows how. The tax-collector, on the other hand, is still a tax-collector. There’s no evidence that he is just or unjust in his prayer, that he intends to redress any injury has has caused; he’s praying the only way he knows how, too. He’s been taught he doesn’t belong with the good guys, and he seems to believe it. What’s the point of the parable, then?

The temple itself, Scott says, sets the map of the holy. Some people are insiders, like the Pharisee, and some are outsiders, like the tax collector. They are both acting the way that they are expected to act, as insider and outsider. The listener, once freed of biblical prejudice against the Pharisee, can see this in the story. The surprise is the ending: Jesus says that the tax collector, returning home, is justified. All this can mean is that the temple economy itself is denied! The temple “map,” in Scott’s word, that makes insiders and outsiders, is not the map of the empire of God. The Spirit of God, divine grace and mercy and forgiveness, are not set by those who control the temple. 

And I suspect that this is true today as it was in year 80 or so, though the temple has changed, the Pharisee has become a pope (or a liturgist) and the tax collector has become a pimp (or an atheist.) What am I supposed to learn from this parable? I always teach, and try to believe myself, that as important as our liturgy is to who we are and what we do, it’s only the liturgy, it’s a sacrament of the rest of our lives, and God’s action in it. How much do I actually believe that, and how much to I cling to the liturgy as the still point of a turning world, and expect that it’s truly there that the empire of God shows up? Well, honestly, I don’t know. I do think that this parable is a corrective, at any rate, and helps me see that I have to be careful not to equate the liturgy or the church with the kingdom of God. In general, I need to remember that I can’t think big enough to be as inclusive as God’s love is, and almost anything I think about God is wrong, or at best, a shadow of what is true.

I suspect that a lot of homilies will follow a line of thought that will lead to pious words about humility, that familiar humilis/humus/human axis, seeing the tax collector as a role model, which was not, to my way of thinking, the point of the parable at all. The point is, whoever we are, whatever we say, however we worship, God is not controlled by our structures. After a while, all of us tend to think we have God figured out. But while we humans are made of humus, (stardust, to be sure!), God made dust, and stars, and people. That gives us a little perspective.

Can we pierce the cloud of unknowing with our prayer for mercy? Apparently so, though I’m not sure what that means. It seems to take some kind of poverty in order to be heard, because “the Lord hears the cry of the poor.” (Again, neither of the men in the parable yesterday was poor: in fact, they would both be privileged members of the urban society.) As I mentioned yesterday, I’m not necessarily one of the poor just because I can sing the psalm or the song. But as a friend of mine once noted, we bless God because God hears the cry of the poor, even though we may not be among them. In fact, I might even be in the habit of praying, “there but for the grace of God go I,” meaning, “thank you that I’m not like the rest of those sick, handicapped, tragedy-stricken other people I know.” God knows I hear good Christians say it a lot. That sounds an awful lot like that bad ol’ Pharisee’s prayer, doesn’t it? Maybe it will only be walking in the shoes of the poor, of the sick, broken, marginalized and tragedy-stricken, that we will finally come to know the heart of the parable, and know that our prayers pierce the clouds of heaven.