Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

2 Timothy 3:10-15 / Luke 18:10-14

We know quite well the parable of the publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee, rightly, but with disdain for his fellow man, recites before God his own righteousness, asserting how happy he is that he is not like the publican, whom he also rightly identifies as a sinner. The publican, by contrast, stands in the back, considering himself unworthy of God because he, again quite rightly, identifies himself as a sinner. He relies not on his merits, which he knows are not merely inadequate, but positively contrary to God's holiness, and instead calls merely upon the mercy of God. Jesus assures us that it is the publican, and not the Pharisee, who walks away justified.

On the face of it, we might think that key to this parable is a warning about judgment, that we ought not to identify some people as sinners and others as living an upright and godly life. However, this cannot be the case. After all, the publican is in fact a sinner, and the works of the Pharisee more than fulfill what is required by the Law. Were one to choose the manner of life one ought to want to live, only the morally corrupt or confused would willingly choose to live as the publican rather than as the Pharisee.

Moreover, St Paul himself speaks quite explicitly in his second letter to the Thessalonians about the difference between the wicked and those who live a life in accord with Christian teaching. He is quite clear; one is to avoid the former and be zealous in remaining among the latter. Indeed, as Paul warns, that while all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution, nonetheless out of them all the Lord will deliver them. By contrast, evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.

How shall we square the explicit marking off of the sinners and the godly in Paul's letter from what seems to be precisely the counsel not to see the world that way in Jesus' parable? Do we simply chalk this up to residual Pharisaism in Paul? Or, have we missed something crucial in our reading?

If we attend closely to the parable, we will see that what is absent in the Pharisee, but present in the publican, is the recognition that goodness and justification come as a gift from God, that to be righteous is a cause of thanksgiving to be sure, but with due recognition of its source. The Pharisee thanks God for his goodness and uprightness, but rather than either acknowledge that, apart from God's gift, he would be standing with the publican, or what's more rather than praying that the publican, too, might be justified and live according to the Law, the Pharisee remains self-oriented, self-justified. It is only the publican who recognizes that only God is truly just, truly righteous, and that it is his mercy, not his congratulation or approval, that we ought to seek.

Yet, this is also precisely what Paul wants us to see as well. In rehearsing the sufferings he has endured, Paul points not to his merits, but to Jesus Christ as the source of his deliverance: but out of them all the Lord delivered me. It is not simply that the godly suffer persecution, but the godly in Christ Jesus who do so. To continue to live in accord with Christian teaching he asserts is not a reason for boasting of ourselves. Rather, we are to attend to the origin of those teachings, knowing of whom we have learned them, and that we keep to them to become wise unto salvation we must credit not to ourselves, but through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

This is why we can and must distinguish between wickedness and godliness. Jesus Christ did not teach us so that we would remain muddled about what directs us to a life with God and what turns us away, but that we might share in the divine light by which God knows, that we might become wise. Yet, in being wise, in seeing things in light of God, to see as God sees, means precisely to see our fellow men and women, our brothers and sisters, as, just like us, the beneficiaries of God's mercy. It is only to the extent that we love those who are still trapped in darkness, that we truly will their good, even while at the same time living a way of life apart from theirs and so inviting persecution at their hands, that we can truly be said to have learned what it is that Jesus Christ came to teach.

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