The first thing I want to do with this parable is to combat our tendency to make the Pharisee into “The Jew.” This parabolic character is certainly the villain in the story. But he is not the villain because he represents “Jewish legalism” or some other supposed Semitic shortcoming. It is so very easy for us as Christian preachers to make ourselves look good by making Jews look bad.
There is no text in the gospels more prone to this interpretation than the one we get for Sunday. Therefore, we Christian preachers have an even higher responsibility than usual to draw the anti-Jewish fangs from this interpretive serpent. I think one way to do this in a message might be to give the character an actual name. I know it’s a bit of a conceit, but I think it’s worth it. If we give the character a name, we might help people to see the character as one person rather than as a representative of an historic community.
The name I’m choosing is “Gaston.” I’m thinking about the villainous character from the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. Gaston is the village darling. Yet, Belle (the “beauty” in the title) dismisses his advances, rejects his overtures and, at least according to Gaston, publicly humiliates him.
Gaston’s sidekick is having none of it. For example, he sings:
No one’s slick as Gaston
No one’s quick as Gaston
No one’s neck’s as incredibly thick as Gaston
For there’s no man in town half as manly
Perfect, a pure paragon
You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley
And they’ll tell you whose team they prefer to be on.
So, Gaston it is.
“God, I thank you,” Gaston the Pharisee prays in the Temple, “that I am not like the rest of people…” That’s the real conflict in this parable. Our Gaston is suffering a profound failure of empathy. It may be that he is not a swindler, an unjust person, an adulterer, or (God forbid!) “even as this tax collector…” Our Gaston refuses to acknowledge the common humanity he shares with the tax collector. In so many ways, he is precisely “like” the rest of the people. But that is precisely what our Gaston cannot accept.
What causes such an empathic failure? Simon Baron Cohen argues in The Science of Evil that the erosion of our capacity for empathy results from treating other people as objects rather than subjects. “Treating other people as if they were just objects is one of the worst things you can do to another human being,” Cohen writes, “to ignore their subjectivity, their thoughts and feelings” (Kindle Location 182).
Cohen reminds us that this insight comes in part from the work of Martin Buber in I and Thou. Cohen’s work expands on this moral edifice and describes the psychological basis for such failures. “My argument,” he writes, “is that when you treat someone as an object, your empathy has been turned off” (Kindle Location 211). That’s how Cohen strives to explain, for example, Nazis using the skin of their Jewish victims to make lampshades.
I think Cohen describes the psychology and even the assumed ontology of empathic failure well. But I’m not sure he gets the mechanism right. For example, let’s think about how racism actually works in Western history. The Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the British, and the French (among others) want the land of natives in the Americas. They want to exploit that land using the bodies of African captives. That’s where the story begins.
In order to justify these behaviors, the oppressors develop stories that underwrite the land-grabbing and person-stealing practices. Those stories include things like the Doctrine of Discovery, the Curse of Ham, and dual origin Creation accounts. The documentary evidence demonstrates that the behaviors came before the stories. The stories were used to describe natives of the Americas and kidnapped Africans as objects rather than persons. Once the stories took hold, the behavior made sense to the perpetrators.
It is certainly possible to lose track of the relationship between the stories and the objectification. Anti-Semitism is such an established and ancient part of Christian practice and narrative that it’s hard to tell which is the rhetorical chicken and which is the behavioral egg. It seems to me that early Christians wanted to come out ahead in their cultural competition with the Jews in the Roman cultural setting. That desire took Christian stories and spun them to make the Jews the villains. The rest, as they say, is history – horrific history.
What causes empathic failures? The cause, I would argue is the desire to obtain and/or maintain power and privilege at the expense of another group of human beings. If I have more than someone else, I have to come up with a reason – a “justification” – for that imbalance of resources. If I don’t have a story to justify the inequity, then even a three-year-old can figure out that this is unfair and that I’m not a good person.
But if I can tell a story that demonstrates my superior worth, compared to those who are without, then I can keep my power and privilege and feel like a decent human being. I’m not like the great remainder of human beings who are undeserving of the good things of life. I’m not a scoundrel. I’m not a crook. I’m not an adulterer. I’m certainly not like this tax collector. I’m Gaston the Great – “Give five hurrahs; Give twelve hip-hips; Gaston is the best, And the rest is all drips.”
One of the themes of this section of the Lukan account, therefore, must be the perils of power and privilege. To maintain such power and privilege, we have to tell ourselves stories about ourselves that deform and disfigure our very humanity. Think about the “unjust judge” in the previous parable. He has no reverence for God and cares not a whit about the opinions of others. It’s only when his person, power, and privilege are threatened that he acts. That’s not a model of humanity we want our children to emulate.
Or think about the rich ruler who will show up in a few verses. We don’t get this story as part of our lectionary journey at this point, so it’s a good thing to point to it. When Jesus challenges him to surrender his possessions and become a Jesus follower, the man is deeply distressed. He can’t consider such a course of action. He’d have to change his whole story about how the world works. He can’t change the story and keep his stuff. He can’t lose his stuff and keep his story. So, he walks away, shaking his head in consternation.
Of course, the disciples are just as nonplussed. As the man walks away, they cry out, “Then who can be saved?” If the rich don’t deserve what they’ve gotten, then what hope is there for the rest of us who apparently are deserving of nothing? How quickly the Lukan disciples have forgotten the parables about the rich men in chapters 12 and 16. But never mind about that. Deserving is not the thing, Jesus tells us. If we trust in our stories, the ones that we use to justify ourselves, then we can’t be fit for the Kingdom of God. In fact, if we think about those other parables, we are nothing but well-fed fools.
Let’s go back to the beginning of our text, shall we? Jesus has left a painful question hanging in the air. When the Son of Man comes again, shall he perhaps find faith on earth? The faith Jesus seeks is trust in his way of life and love. It is the persistent pursuit of justice embodied in the story of that wily widow. That’s the faith Jesus wants to find.
That persistent pursuit of justice is not rooted in a story about what I deserve or don’t deserve. That’s up to God. The question is, will the Son of Man find anyone with the capacity to trust a story that doesn’t make me better — or worse, in the case of the widow — than everyone else?
Our Gaston is an example of those who put their confidence in the stories that make them deserving of what they have, that make them better than the rest. This is, I think, the meaning of that phrase, “having confidence in themselves.” Jesus isn’t criticizing positive self-image. He’s working on our inveterate tendency to tell stories that make us deserving of what actually comes to us as gift. We want to tell stories that lock in our gifts rather than the story that calls us to trust in the Giver.
The converse is also true. Those who have it worse, like the tax collector, must somehow be worse. Our Gaston the Pharisee makes that clear as well. But God doesn’t traffic in the currency of better or worse, deserving or undeserving. If we want, God will put us right.
What does this failure of empathy do to us? It twists and distorts and deforms our humanity – sometimes beyond all recognition. God’s acceptance restores that humanity. God’s acceptance makes us “right.” After all, the Son of Man came to save sinners. That’s the story we tell.
Resources and References
Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty . Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.