“What A Difference a Word Makes”

“What a Difference A Word Makes”
Luke 18:9-14
Chilmark Community Church
October 23, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

A young monk, fresh out of seminary was appointed to a monastery where for hundreds of years, the monks had worked faithfully at making beautiful copies of the ancient sacred texts and scriptures. As the aging Father Abbot was giving the young man an orientation to the work the monks were doing, the young monk noticed that the good brothers were painstakingly making new copies from earlier
copies from the previous generation of monks. He wondered about this for awhile and finally asked the Father Abbot about it. The Abbot patiently explained that the order has always done it this way – each new generation of monks faithfully copying the texts passed on by the previous generation. But the younger monk wasn’t quite comfortable with this system. “What if someone, somewhere along the line doesn’t copy accurately?” The Father Abbot answered patiently “My son, the copying of the Holy Texts is a sacred trust. For hundreds of years the brothers have been doing it just this way, with great care not to make mistakes.”

The new young brother went on about his task of getting acquainted with the monastery. But the Father Abbot was a little disturbed by the novice’s question.
So he went down into the great vault in the basement of the monastery to look at the original ancient manuscripts that were stored there.

The time for evening prayer came and went and there was no sign of the Abbot. Finally, after missing him for about 6 hours, the monks decided to find out what was keeping him so long. They made their way down to the vault and as they approached the heavy door, they could hear the Father Abbot moaning and crying in the most anguished way. When they opened the door they saw that he had been pulling out his hair and tearing his garments. They ran to him shouting “Father Abbot, Father Abbot – – what is wrong?” – – expecting that some great damage had been done to the ancient, original sacred texts. And Father Abbot turned to them and in a voice hoarse from crying and moaning said to them “The original texts says CELEBRATE! – – not CELIBATE!”

Sometimes it is a good idea to revisit the texts that shape our beliefs and actions and understanding – – to see what is actually written there. We are in a teaching situation with Jesus and the disciples this morning. We are reminded of this back in the 22nd verse of chapter 17. Luke tends to move between public and private teachings and this is one of the private ones. Amy Jill Levine, Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament, notes that by the 18th chapter of Luke we have already “met numerous unlikeable Pharisees and a number of quite darling tax collectors. When we read the Gospel, our sympathies are with the tax collector, not at all with the Pharisee. This is exactly the opposite stance from which a 1st century Jewish audience would have heard the parable.” 1

Levine points out that in actuality, the presence of a tax collector in the temple would have been quite unexpected. He would have been viewed as an enemy of his people. He was not, as some commentators insist, living in the margins of society. His problem is not that he was without power, wealth or status…sinned against, oppressed, and marginalized; his problem is that he is a sinner, probably rich, an agent of Rome, and as a tax collector, has likely shown no mercy to others.2
“Our tax collector is in the temple, praying. Jesus has given his listeners an image that unsettles.”3

Levine notes that Luke’s portrayal of the Pharisees is often ambivalent and ultimately negative, but that there are some positive descriptions too. Some Pharisees invite Jesus to dinner, others ask Jesus searching questions that are not necessarily hostile. In Luke 13:31, it was Pharisees who warned Jesus to leave town because Herod wanted to kill him. She continues that for the majority of those who listened to Jesus, the Pharisees would have been viewed with respect as people who “walked the talk as well as talked the talk.” They were generally righteous people who tried to live faithful lives according to Jewish law.

So we have a truly righteous man praying in his corner of the temple, thanking God for the richness of life that he enjoys – – and a scoundrel hiding in the shadows – – abjectedly confessing that he is a sinner.

There are two problematic lines in the parable. The words that are used to translate them from the ancient, original Greek affect our understanding of the story. The first one is “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying to God thus….” and the second one is “I tell you, this man (referring to the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other…..” These lines invite us to wrestle with the parable.

Was the Pharisee standing off by himself because he wanted privacy for his prayers? Was he an elitist who needed a lot of space? Was he simply wanting to commune with God? Was he seeking to shame the tax collector?

The KJV translates the first problem from the Greek this way: The Pharisee, in a self absorbed way, “stood and prayed thus with himself”. The NAB makes the same line idolatrous translating it as: “he took up his position and prayed to himself….” Levine suggests that “how we assess the Pharisee may well tell us more about ourselves (and the translator) than about him”. The words of the translation we use make a difference.

Levine argues that “the Pharisee’s prayer does set up distinctions. However, it should be seen not as about self importance, but about gratitude. It is God who has provided the supplicant with the opportunity to study rather than to have to work to earn money. It is God who allows the supplicant to see what is truly important or perhaps to have his ‘pearl of great price.’” 4
The second problematic line in the story has to do with how God deals with the two men. In every translation I looked at – 7 at least, verse 18 is translated the same way: “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other.” There is something in Luke that wants us to identify with the sinner redeemed by God rather than with a Pharisee who seems to live a most righteous life. Throughout the full range of translations, our texts affirm that only one man, the tax collector, was justified – – in right relationship with God – -and the other one wasn’t. Virtually none of the translations varies from this interpretation.

But, Levine, being the scholar that she is, descends into the vault beneath the basement of our inherited texts. Uncomfortable with the questions this verse raises she digs around a little further and discovers a paradox. The original Greek word para ekeinon that is almost universally translated as “rather than”
also means “along side that one.” It can can also mean “because of.” Can you hear the Father Abbot moaning and groaning?

How might our understanding of the nature of God and what it means to have God’s law written in our hearts be changed if we read Jesus’ words this way: “To you I say, descending to his house, this (the tax collector) is justified alongside that Pharisee……” or even more challenging: “this tax collector is justified because of that Pharisee…..”

Read this way, the parable might suggest that the life and prayer of the righteous Pharisee play a role in the salvation of the sinful tax collector – – without there necessarily being a personal connection between the two men at all.

Reading Levine, I was reminded of project I had to complete in a previous life when I was attending nursing school. The class was divided into groups of four students. Each group was to study a particular disease, its symptoms, treatments, medications and so on. We were then to do a comprehensive case study of a patient with the particular disease. It was a massive, time consuming assignment As often happens with group projects, three of us worked seriously on the project. The 4th member rarely showed up prepared when we met and made little contribution to the project. The group started to fracture with resentment about the unfair division of labor and the possibility that our grade would not be good because of the slacker in the group. As the deadline drew near we realized that we were simply going to have to take up the slack if we wanted the grade. We did – – we got the much coveted “A” – – all of us – – even the slacker. As the workers, we were able to celebrate and be thankful that our work had paid off.

Our fellow student received a gift of grace along side of us because of our commitment to doing a good job. It was tempting to get caught in the swamp of resentment about the unfairness – – but that is how it all worked out.

Jesus’ parables are always designed to make us think. Is it true that one person’s merit can be applied to another person? Can people who live straight forward faithful lives make up for the shortcomings of others? How does the transfer of merit happen? What about the apparent unfairness?

Levine suggests that we can “see” ideas in the parable that we already know about but would rather not acknowledge. “We see that Divine grace cannot be limited, for this would be to limit the Divine. This unlimited generosity is something we may find problematic. We are quite happy to know our salvation is assured, but less happy when the same salvation is extended to other people we do not like, especially when our dislike is bolstered by seemingly very good reasons such as “He is a sinner.” 5

For some reason, over the centuries of translation, our tradition has chosen to pit the Pharisee and the tax collector against each other as though there were not enough room in God’s embrace for both to loved and accepted. The more ancient way indicates that there is great possibility for both/and thinking rather than either/or. The good that we do affects those around us who are less capable and engaged. In the realm of grace, like the rising tide that lifts all boats, goodness and faithfulness play a role in the saving of the entire world – not just the good parts. Both men, different as they are, walk into God’s presence and are both extravagantly loved.

Amy Jill Levine completes her exploration of this parable this way: We have seen that the Pharisee has more good deeds, a greater store of protection, than he could need. First century Jews might then conclude that the tax collector has tapped into the merit of the Pharisee …….Just as one person’s sin can create a stain on the entire community, so one person’s righteousness can save it. It is precisely by this transfer of good deeds that, in one way of understanding Jesus’ death, the cross works for salvation: Jesus’ faithfulness is what allows others to be justified.”6

The parable set me to thinking about the “righteous Pharisees” in my life – the ones who by the way they have lived their lives actually make my life more whole; people like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin who founded the Catholic Worker Movement; Thich Nhat Han who lives his Buddhist commitment to compassion and nonviolence; Rev. Carl Kline who works tirelessly to bring about nonviolent social change; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose devotion to Torah and the mystical closeness of God brought him to walk side by side with Martin Luther King; Dr. Catherine Keller who continues to educate another generation of clergy in their closer walk with the Holy. It may surprise you to know that each of you slip into the role too as you inspire my faith. So there are just a few of my righteous Pharisees – people who pay close attention to faithful living under the commands of God. By their goodness, my own life is elevated. At times, I am the righteous Pharisee for others as well – – doing for others what has been done for me. I trust in the more ancient translation of Jesus words. Living in the Grace of the Holy One, there is no either/or. It is a both/and proposition. In God’s sight we go down to our respective homes justified, made right in our relationship with God alongside one another – – even because of one another. This is a description of the work of discipleship that Jesus puts in front of us.
Another enigmatic parable from a controversial rabbi! Jesus said, “Those who have hears to hear, let them hear.”

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