Sunday, October 08, 2017

Uncovering Jesus's Radical Message: The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector

It's been a while since I've written about Christianity, but I'm reading a book right now by a Jewish scholar about understanding the Jewish context in which Jesus lived and worked, and I've been inspired. This might be the first in a series of posts about uncovering the radical message of Jesus, or it may be a one-off thing. We'll see. 

The Gospel of Luke preserves a parable of Jesus known as the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. It goes like this: 
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.
To modern Christian ears, this parable is both familiar and totally not radical. We know pharisees, after all, were self-righteous hypocrites that Jesus was constantly bickering with, while tax collectors were common symbols of "sinners" who received the gift of forgiveness from Jesus (in addition to this parable, recall the story of the tax collector Zaccheus [the "wee little man" of children's song] and the tax collector Levi who became the disciple Matthew). So it comes as no surprise that the pharisee in this story is a hypocrite who extols his own virtues while the humble tax collector admits his sin and receives Jesus's grace.

The 21st century moral of the story is this: don't be a condescending hypocrite; humble yourself, confess your sins, and be forgiven. Full stop.

That was the 1st century moral of the story too, except for the "full stop" part. We've lost today the radical and even potentially offensive edge of the story that would have been fully appreciated by 1st century Jewish listeners.

In Jesus's day, pharisees weren't bad guys. They weren't regarded as self-righteous hypocrites. They were, in fact, well-respected and highly regarded religious leaders and scholars who represented the largest and most mainstream Jewish religious group. Think of them today like Roman Catholics in the northeast or Southern Baptists in the south.

But even that analogy isn't good enough, because today we are so accustomed to religious leaders who are corrupt or evil or perverts or whatever. We've all heard numerous accounts of pastors and priests and televangelists getting caught with strippers or prostitutes, putting hits out on people, laundering money, or molesting children. A bad priest? Big deal. A corrupt televangelist? Duh.

But in the 1st century, Jews wouldn't have had that sort of cynical view of their religious leaders. They didn't, after all, have 24-hour news stations, social media, whistle-blowers, or investigative reporters. Like Americans of an earlier, more innocent generation, Jews of the 1st century would have put their religious leaders on a special, almost untouchable pedestal at the pinnacle of society.

So in this parable, think of the pharisee not so much as an average religious leader, but think of him as someone like Mother Theresa or Billy Graham - a virtually universally-respected religious leader that no one would dream of criticizing. 

As for tax collectors, they weren't just guys who collected taxes and so therefore were looked down upon by society - they weren't, in other words, just agents of the IRS doing their unpleasant, but necessary, jobs. And they weren't looked down upon because they sometimes stole from people by taking more taxes than they should have, as is commonly assumed (I have an old "study Bible" which makes this argument in the accompanying commentary). Instead, they were looked down on because they were local Jews collaborating with a foreign power (Rome) that occupied and oppressed the Jews, taking hard-earned Jewish money and sending it to support the Roman emperor and his regime - and getting rich in the process, while everyone else suffered.

In 21st century America, it's hard to find a modern parallel for this. We aren't occupied by a foreign power, after all. Instead, imagine that Germany won World War II and took over and occupied the United States. In that scenario, imagine an English-speaking American - perhaps your neighbor - born and raised under Old Glory, now working with the Nazis collecting a huge war reparation tax from people, taking a cut of it, then sending the rest to Berlin to support Hitler and his regime of world domination.

You'd probably hate the guy, right? He's not only robbing you for the benefit of the Nazis - which is bad enough - but he's also a traitor and a betrayer and a collaborator with an evil foreign oppressor. Screw that guy!

Now you may be a little closer to understanding how Jesus's 1st century listeners would have responded to a story about a native Jewish tax collector working for Rome.

So let's plug our two analogies into the parable and read it again:
Two people went up to the church to pray, one was Mother Theresa and the other an American-born tax collector for the Nazi overlords. Mother Theresa, standing in front of the cross, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, drunks, cheaters, or even like this tax collector. I've won thousands of souls to Christ; I give millions of dollars to the poor.’ But the tax collector, standing at the back of the church, would not even look up at the cross, but fell to his knees with his face in his hands, crying ‘God, please forgive me for the terrible things I've done!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than Mother Theresa.
How does the parable strike you now? There may be a number of reactions. You might think it's preposterous to describe Mother Theresa this way. You might even find it offensive. Mother Theresa wasn't a self-righteous jerk! She was a humble servant of Christ who brought people together and served the poor with humility! How dare you! Further, while you might grudgingly appreciate the tax collector's apology, you won't soon forget the thousands of dollars he took from you, which helped him build that huge house in the fancy neighborhood, bought him that Ferrari, and otherwise went to Hitler's treasury in Berlin so that the Nazis could continue their conquest of the civilized world. Meanwhile, you couldn't pay your bills because of the heavy tax burden, the bank subsequently foreclosed on your house, and you're now living with your family of 5 in a 1-bedroom apartment. Maybe if he sells everything he owns and personally repays you, THEN you might feel a little better. Otherwise, screw him!

This is how that parable would have sounded to and struck a 1st century Jewish listener. Preposterous. Offensive. Outrageous. But also challenging in the extreme. Challenging because it asks you to take a totally different perspective, to completely change your way of thinking. In the kingdom of heaven, well-respected religious leaders are not necessarily the winners, and people like Nazi collaborators are not necessarily the losers. Instead, it's the humble and repentant that inherit the kingdom of God, regardless of their past or their background or what good they think they've done.

Jesus's rural and largely uneducated Galilean listeners would have likely found the parable preposterous because it turned the world on its head, but they would also have undoubtedly liked it's message. Many Galileans, after all, tended to look down on the urban Jerusalem ruling elite - represented by the pharisee in the parable. Think of how many people in modern rural America look down on suburbanites and "the big city."

Still, it's not hard to see why Jesus made enemies and pissed people off - especially in Jerusalem, which is where he was eventually arrested and executed. A lot of people loved his subversive message, but some - especially those who stood to lose by his vision of the world - didn't care for it at all. It's no wonder they thought he was a rabble-rouser and wanted to get rid of him. He threatened the status quo by giving the oppressed Jewish people hope and by undermining the powers that be - both the political and religious powers that be, represented by Rome, its governors, and its legions, and by Jewish religious leaders who were seen as traitorous collaborators with those Roman overlords.

And before you condemn all those "Jews" who rejected Jesus, it's important to keep in mind that if Jesus were to come around today, preaching a challenging and subversive message like the one above, most Christians would reject him too. (I would argue most Christians HAVE rejected him, accepting in his place a watered-down, domesticated shadow that they find comforting and not at all subversive... but that's for another blog.)

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