It is Complicated - Reflections 10-19-16

Texts for Sunday, October 23, 2016

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84:1-7
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

We just need to hang on for three more weeks. This presidential election season has worn on the souls of many of us. Candidates have been contemptuous of one another to the highest “level of nastiness” seen in decades.  He said what?  She said what? 

People always joke about “holding hands around campfire and singing kumbaya” but actually that sounds wonderful to me. I need a little kindness about now… We pause for a word from Glenn Campbell, 1970…
You've got to try a little kindness, yes show a little kindness,
Yes shine your light for everyone to see.
And if you'll try a little kindness and you'll overlook the blindness
Of the narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

OK. Putting that aside, we turn to the Gospel text…

Look out! Luke has set up this parable so that as soon as you enter it, you are going to trip yourself up. He opens with a comment about self-righteousness and seeing others contemptuously (2016 election?). Then right away the reader (you) meet a Pharisee who sounds self-righteous and downright contemptuous about others, even the other guy down the pew.  “Well,” you say, “I would never judge the other people in church that way nor think that I am better than them. Thank God that I am so much better than this guy…” 
Ooops. Gotcha’!

It really is easy to think badly about someone else. I’d like to think I don’t get to the level of “contempt” but I imagine that may be self-deception… and so human. We seem born to compare ourselves and our lot in life to our neighbor - whether s/he is the kid down the block with a new bike or the co-worker who got a promotion or a grandparent whose grandchild “made it to state” (be that music, sport, or spelling!). Then that comparison leads to envy, self-doubt, judgement, and contempt. 

Is comparing ourselves to someone else the best way to evaluate our spiritual life?

You know, Pharisees were not horrible people. In fact, Pharisees were the kind of people that would today make up churches and civic clubs and community boards. Unlike the judge from last week, they did “fear God and respect people”. 

I have a book titled Short Stories by Jesus by Jewish scholar and New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine. She has written several books which help us non-Jewish folks understand what it meant that Jesus was Jew in the midst of a Jewish community/nation at that time in history. This book focuses on Jesus’ parables. Her take on those stories are quite a bit different from those which many of us have grown up hearing “the moral of the story is….”. 

That is not actually how parables function. They are stories told to make us think, not to give us answers. Somehow through the years, we have managed to tame them into one meaning. 

So, some thoughts from Professor Levine…

For the first century Jews, this Pharisee would have seemed like a humorous caricature of a good guy – a saint if you will. They would not have scorned or resented him. They would have smile at his fervent piety. The focus of his prayer is giving thanks to God which he demonstrates by fasting and tithing.  In fact, this guy was doing twice as much as was expected of him. 

Judaism is lived in community. Each member of the community is responsible for the other. That means that the sin of an individual can negatively impact the community, but also means that the good deeds of another person can have positive impact. 

So then there is the tax collector. His career implicated him as a cheater, traitor, or scoundrel and had a negative impact on his community.  His prayer is a confession. 

Professor Levine holds out the possibility that the good deeds of the Pharisee cover the not-so-good deeds of the tax collector. She suggests that the first part of verse 14 could be translated that the tax collector went down to his home justified because of the Pharisee instead of rather than.

Ultimately she says, there is no resolution for the parable. There isn’t a clear cut “winner” in this story with whom to identify. Was the Pharisee being self-righteous by his “extra credit work”? Will the tax collector change his ways? 

The only thing we know is that God’s grace is big enough to cover all that.

So what do you think? You can leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

More reflections found in the G.I.F.T. post for 10-23-16.

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Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Iowa City

Gathered by grace. Scattered for service.

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Iowa City, IA 52245