Challenging The Status Quo and Ugly Inhumanities…

Posted: November 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 23C, 2016 Luke 18: 9-14


Marcus Borg reminds us that the ministry of Jesus was about challenging the status quo and calling his own to an alternative life path. He says that:

“The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good). Rather, his teachings and behaviour reflect an alternative social vision. Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system. He was a critic of the domination system itself” (Marcus Borg)

In our reading from Luke, Jesus is confronted with some people who seemed complacent about their status in society, self-assured in themselves perhaps even somewhat arrogant about their own importance and making fundamental statements about their religious status. He tells them a parable about two people who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. Jesus says that the Pharisee, was standing by himself, he wasn’t participating in the prayer time with others but rather choosing a place on his own. And he was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, and looking across at the other man there with him, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Jesus has the second man a tax-collector, standing far off, making no gestures such as looking up to heaven, but rather just beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus finishes his parable by saying that 14I tell you, this man, the tax collector, went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian (Galilean) Jew. He was not a Christian. He never rejected his Jewish ‘family tree’ roots. His spoken language was a Galilean dialect of Aramaic, an identifiable accent and manner of speech disdained by the religious elite and urban dwellers.

Indeed more than that. One only needed to come from Galilee or be in a group of Galileans to arouse suspicion and cause trouble! The dialect could prove to be deadly. (Horsfield 2015:14)

The society he and his family were born into was diverse and highly stratified socially, economically, and religiously. Boundaries were part of everyday life. They were the norm. his was a society where they lived under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of compulsory offerings to the Jerusalem Temple, taxes to Herodian landlords, and tribute to their Roman conquerors. The sum total of taxes levied upon the people, including religious obligations, was nothing short of enormous.

While we might equate the situation where a small percentage of wealthy and powerful families lived comfortably in the cities from the tithes, taxes, tribute, and interest they extracted from the vast majority of people, who lived in villages and worked the land we need to be careful not to assume similarities of purpose and implementation. As several scholars have recorded the purpose of taxation was not social well-being  but rather enhancement of the position of elites. It was an acceptable social standard for the elite to be adequately sustained in their excess. Leadership was concerned with plundering rather than with developing! (Herzog 1994:180)

As with many human institutions of privilege and power many named among those who were despised and hated because of their abusive behaviour against the poor, were representatives of the Temple as well as Toll Collectors. The story we read from Luke is about the toll collectors.

Traditionally, there are three aspects that need to be considered when interpreting the parable.

The first is that the story has been called the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, but the challenge is that another translation and one considered more correct by many the word should be Toll Collector… And Toll collectors were not just tax collectors. They were “normally Jews who had become tax-farmers for the Romans – or in Galilee for Herod Antipas”. (Funk 2002:50)

The second aspect is that the story has been read as a contrast between two types of oppositional piety: the arrogant and the humble…

Thirdly that the story has been interpreted by some as a story about prayer: being persistent and humble…

All these traditional readings of the parable are, now considered to be unfortunate misnomers, because they ‘spiritualise’ the story, or make it an example story, rather than remain a parable with its raw, blunt edge challenge.

There is something both sad and radical about this particular Lucian Jesus story that we might think about.

The sad bits concern the Pharisee and the Toll collector…

The first is about the Pharisee, a member from the faction of society that assumed moral superiority and saw their task as being entrepreneurial in their application of their tasks and whose primary task was seen to be about making the rules. He stood apart. He did not want to risk contacting uncleanness from brushing the garment of an ‘earth-worker’ (read: ’sinner’) or those who failed to observe the rules of purity laws. The toll collector had to deal with the sinners so was one. The Pharisee’s standing apart’ it seems, was to emphasize his self-importance, his prominence, and his power over others. Blind to the corruption, the assumptions and unquestioning acceptance of privilege.

The second sad part is the Toll Collector’s ‘standing apart’ from the congregation. He was standing far off because “he was a deviant shunned by the faithful”. (Herzog 1994:185) He was hated. He didn’t belong. And he knew it! He sort to be inconspicuous. Acceptance of one’s place, Job defines status an unchallenged assumption.

Now the radical bits… A Toll Collector (and here we hear ‘sinner’). A toll collector in the Temple grounds was unheard of! And the hearers of this story – so-called fellow sinners – would have drawn that conclusion before the story’s end. Both he and they were excluded, despised, ruled and taxed over.

What we have is that the actions of the Toll Collector were outside the negative prescribed script. He refused to accept the limitations imposed on him by the religious pure and enters the temple. He doesn’t rebut the Pharisee’s shaming nor his efforts to reinforce the status quo, “but [he] does the unthinkable. He speaks directly to God, seeking mercy. He breaks through the intimidation and fear that the Pharisee’s words have created, (The Pharisees prayer and by his actions, challenges the Pharisee’s reading of God’s judgments… As W R Herzog writes; he claims God’s ear for himself”. (Herzog 1994:192)

Having God listening and speaking outside official channels! Having a ‘sinner’ at the Temple praying: How radical can one be?

We have a Jesus who has a positive regard for toll collectors and all who were outside the social and religious boundaries of others. We have a Jesus who smashes apart a brokered religion where priestly mediators are the necessary link between God and the individual. We have claim that God’s domain has no brokers. That everyone has direct access to the Holy One. That petitioners are their own brokers.

One progressive scholar takes all this to its logical end: He systemizes it by saying that “a brokered religion produces a cyclical understanding of the faithful life: sin, guilt, forgiveness – the latter at the hands of the church and priest… In addition, it tends to produce a passive relation to the Christian life… [a] passivity carried over into the social, economic, and political realms as well”. (Funk 2002:131)

It is no wonder that Jesus’ Galilean family and friends, were always under suspicion because they were Galilean. He was thought of as a threat to their welfare. He may even be mentally unstable!

It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers then, heard a voice that shattered settled reality and opened up questions and new possibilities!  He was challenging the basic structures of the accepted norms. And when the muted ones began to speak, when the suppressed were released as shown so often in the Book of Psalms, their speech was funded by “the burdens of rage, alienation, resentment, and guilt. These burdens had been reduced to silence, but now they are mobilized in their full power and energy”. Says Brueggemann 1989:51)

It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers now, who consider brokered Christianity (and here we might hear ‘orthodoxy’) as simply incredible, are shunned and considered heretics! And just in case we missed that: a non-brokered Christianity goes against nearly everything Christianity has structured and theologically claimed, since the early fourth century! How radical is that claim? Especially for those of us who like the church.

A major shift then was where the key focus became the worship of Jesus as the sole divine bearer of salvation and that is now our pious brokered assumption. We are expected to not rock the boat for fear of taking away people’s faith. We are not supposed to question these fundamentals for fear of getting it right.

A colleague is more pointed in his comments about the fourth century church where he says that “It is as if Jesus was the subject of a corporate takeover, where the new company retained his name and reputation but the values and aspirations of what he started were replaced by a totally different corporate ethos and agenda that have nothing identifiable to do with him”. (Horsfield 2015:290)

An example might be the Uniting Church of Canada, one of the most progressive churches in the world according to Gretta Vosper has built a rule that enables them to censure her. The system of oppression strikes again.

The challenge is to see that the early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a different essence, or saw a halo circling his head! He was not special in any sense of a special divine being. They made claims about him because they had heard him say and seen him do certain things. They experienced him acting in their lives. And what they experienced in the company of this person, was an empowerment as they were and deep seated movement within themselves. The life to which he called his followers involved a reversal of ordinary social and political, cultural – and – religious standards. (Kaufman 2006:111)

As A Dewey says “if Jesus is continued to be remembered, it will no longer be because people give him divine titles…He will be remembered as long as his words offer an abiding challenge”. (Dewey 2015:4) 

And as Kaufmann says; the challenge Jesus brings today is “the radical challenge of distributive justice. The empowering challenge to move forward from the ugly inhumanities “in which we seem to be trapped toward reconciliation of contending peoples, nations, cultures, [and] religions”. (Kaufman 2006:113)

Luke’s Jesus might have missed all this, just as the spiritualized Jesus of traditional interpretation. does, but as Walter Wink claims; we can “rescue Jesus from the cloying baggage of Christological beliefs unnecessarily added by the church”. (Wink 2000:177) The invitation of this parable is the call to accept the challenge to ponder some more credible alternatives. Both about the sage called Jesus. And about those we, our society, our church or our government exclude for political, cultural, economic or religious reasons. Amen.

Bibliography: Brueggemann, W. Finally Comes the Poet. Daring Speech for Proclamation. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1989. Dewey, A. “Editorial: Testing the Atmosphere of God” in The Fourth R 28, 1, 4. 2015.  Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002. Herzog 11, W. R. Parables as Subversive Speech. Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994. Horsfield, P. From Jesus to the Internet. A History of Christianity and Media. New York. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2006. Patterson, S. The God of Jesus. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998. Wink, W.  “The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in The Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.