Studies of the Lukan account demonstrate that the Lukan author pairs particular stories. These pairs often involve a man and then a woman (or vice versa) as the “hero” of the story. In offering these pairings, the Lukan author invites us to use the paired stories to interpret one another. The two parables that begin Luke eighteen clearly form one such pair. It’s worth our time, therefore, to see how these stories mutually inform one another (and us).
In both parables, one of the characters does the majority of the talking. In each case, that conversation is between the character and himself. That “interior” monologue is obvious in the case of the Unjust Judge (see Luke 18:4). I would argue, as have others, that our Gaston the Pharisee is also using an “interior” monologue. It’s just not as obvious.
Our Gaston stands “toward himself” and prays. We know that the NRSV and other renderings translate this phrase in Luke 18:11 as “by himself.” That’s an acceptable translation and probably part of the Lukan author’s intention. However, we know that the Lukan author is quite capable of employing double and triple meanings in the construction of a phrase. I am confident that the Lukan author intends for us to see our Gaston as not only standing toward himself but as also praying toward himself. Therefore, this prayer has the character of an “interior” monologue.
We know from previous texts and studies that the Lukan author uses these interior monologues in part to identify the “fools” in these texts. The parade example, of course, is the Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12. Both the Unjust Judge and our Gaston are made out to be “fools” in the sense used in Psalm 14. There we read that a fool says in his heart that there is no God. The Unjust Judge has no reverence for God and declares this to himself.
But what about our Gaston the Pharisee? Certainly, this character is not a godless fool? Look at the prayer – “I am thanking you, God…” Yet, the prayer is not about God. The prayer is about Gaston. I would suggest that our Gaston the Pharisee’s heart is so full of himself that there is no room left for God. And when there is no room left for God, there is certainly no room left for his neighbor. More on that later.
What are the parallels between the Persistent Widow and the Penitent Tax Collector? They seem quite different. The Widow demands justice in her cause. The Tax Collector begs mercy from God – the kind of mercy that will release him from the burden of his sins. The requests are different. But they are requests. Perhaps the Tax Collector has come to the Temple repeatedly begging to be set right. Perhaps the Widow has put away her pride and focused on the issue at hand. I don’t know, but it’s worth considering how these characters are connected.
In each parable, a powerful figure is portrayed as lacking and brought low. In each parable, a vulnerable figure is portrayed as being filled and lifted up. We continue, I hope, to hear the echoes of Mary’s song in these parables. I hope we continue as well to hear echoes of Jesus’ Nazareth sermon here.
Both the Unjust Judge and our Gaston the Pharisee are filled with themselves. Our Gaston didn’t do anything “wrong.” In fact, he clearly did it all “right” and more. Let’s not get caught in thinking that this parable is a critique concerning “works righteousness.” Jesus wasn’t a Lutheran, and he hadn’t read Paul’s letter to the Romans. In fact, the works of our Gaston are beyond good and right. He is, in that sense, beyond reproach.
Our Gaston had excellent faith practices. But those faith practices were a means to an end. They weren’t an end in themselves. How do our faith practices orient us for daily living? That’s part of the question here. Do our faith practices orient us toward loving God and loving neighbor? Then they are good and right and healthy. Do our faith practices orient us toward ourselves? Then they are obstacles to loving God and neighbor.
Does our piety move us closer to our neighbors? Then it’s a good thing. Does our piety keep our neighbors at arm’s length? Then it is not. The Unjust Judge used his power for himself. That’s what made him unjust. Our Gaston the Pharisee used his piety for himself. That’s what kept him unjustified. His piety should have moved him closer to his brother in need (of forgiveness and reconciliation). But he wasn’t having it.
In Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine argues that we should read this parable more positively when it comes to our Gaston the Pharisee. I hope you get the chance to read her interpretation. It’s an important and powerful corrective to our typical anti-Jewish readings. She concludes that the Tax Collector went down to his house justified “alongside” our Gaston the Pharisee. That’s a possible translation of the Greek in Luke 18:14. But I think Levine is over-interpreting in order to correct our anti-Jewish over-interpreting.
I don’t see that our Gaston was justified alongside the Tax Collector. That’s not because he’s “too Jewish.” Instead, I would argue that he was not justified because he wasn’t Jewish enough. Jewish piety begins with practice. That is certainly clear. But the goal of that piety is indeed to increase among the faithful love for God and love for neighbor. When Jesus holds up those standards for his followers, he’s not doing something new. He’s calling Jews to fully embody what is already in them.
The Unjust Judge has secular power and uses it for himself. Our Gaston the Pharisee has “piety power” and uses it for himself. With that framework in mind, I think we can make some headway in our interpretation. I am confident that this parable is addressed to the disciples just like the previous one was.
While Jesus may be speaking “to” those who put their confidence in their own rightness, I think it’s at least as likely that Jesus is speaking to the disciples “toward” those who put their confidence in their own rightness. He is speaking regarding such folks in order to teach the disciples. We know from previous interpretation that when the Lukan author is teaching the disciples, the author is also teaching us. So, once again, it’s time to listen up.
We can examine the ways in which we use our piety power to separate ourselves from God and our neighbors. I think, for example, of Christian congregations that keep their resources all to themselves. That’s too often the case with physical and financial resources. But it’s also the case with institutional resources.
Why is it that Christian congregations, at least in the States, can only be enticed into cooperative ministry when either (1) their congregation can be in charge or get the credit, or (2) their congregation is in desperate straits and needs the partnership of others in order to survive as a congregation? In our individualistic culture, we stand toward ourselves rather than toward our neighbors — even when those neighbors carry the same denominational or traditional label as we do. We can’t go home justified when we adopt such a stance.
I heard this put succinctly yesterday in a meeting. Our judicatory bishop quoted a colleague. “If you’re doing ministry alone,” that colleague declared, “you’re doing it wrong.” You can’t get much more countercultural than that in the States these days. If we’re standing toward ourselves in ministry, the chances are that we’re doing it wrong. If we try to function as church and never ask who else should be our partners, then we’re doing it wrong. We can’t go home justified when we operate that way.
Too often, we Christians stand toward ourselves in our attitude toward ministry. I’ve got mine – whatever that might mean – and it’s up to you to get yours. That’s not my problem. If we operate that way, we will find ourselves in the same position as our Gaston the Pharisee. Too many Christians in established congregations are satisfied with things as they are and hope that things stay that way at least until those established Christians are done with their own funerals.
I know that doesn’t describe all Christians in all congregations. But I can tell you from experience that it describes far too many of us. We won’t lock the door on those Tax Collectors who might wander into our sanctuaries and sit in the back pews. But we’re not going to do anything to stand toward them. After all, we’re not like “those people.”
And yet, in our parables, who are the heroes? The Persistent Widow gets justice. The Tax Collector gets justified. Taken together, they give us a picture of what the fullness of following Jesus offers – a right relationship with God and with neighbor. The “villains” in the parables have neither. And they’re not particularly bothered by the lack.
I will be asking my congregants on Sunday to reflect on how we stand toward ourselves in our daily lives and how we need to be converted to a different orientation. I will be asking us as a congregation how we stand toward ourselves and ignore both the needs for support and the opportunities for partnership that come to us through our colleague communities. I hope the conversation makes them squirm as much as it makes me squirm.
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.