Parables as Imagination 6

The parables of Jesus summon us to the edge of the world in order to imagine a world that can only be called “kingdom.”

In this world we have stereotypes, like the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14, after the jump). In this imagined stereotyped world the Pharisee is self-righteous, hypocritical, unloving, and conscious that God is on his side. In that world, too, is the tax collector who, knowing his low status in society and his own sins of robbery, realizes his position before God and so confesses his sin. Instead of claiming his own righteousness, he longs for God to establish him as right. He sees himself as a sinner; the Pharisee sees himself as righteous.

But Jesus wants us to imagine the world where the least desirable people, those who are stereotypical sinners, repent and turn to God. A world where the most self-righteous of people are seen for what they are.

What Jesus wants us to imagine is a world where truth about ourselves is held in the highest honor, where compassion is what matters, and where self-congratulations are abandoned.

To jolt his readers into this kind of world, Jesus uses a Flannery O’Connor-like set of bold images: the righteous man is not, the unrighteous man is. The imagined world of Jesus subverts our images of who is good — the parable is very much along the line of the Beatitudes of Jesus.

18:9 Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. 18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ 18:13 The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ 18:14 I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

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  • Randy Gabrielse

    “What Jesus wants us to imagine is a world where truth about ourselves is
    held in the highest honor, where compassion is what matters, and where
    self-congratulations are abandoned.”

    I struggle almost daily with how this statement captures much of what I find uncomfortable in my home of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Here “Christian knowledge” and the self congratulations of academic degrees seems far out of balance with “truth about ourselves” and “compassion.”

  • Rob Bradford

    Here we have a good case example of needing to see the Pharisee as the bad guy: he’s arrogant, compassionless, and places himself in a higher status than he should. But, within the context of the story, this second-Temple Pharisee is rightly concerned about purity. He can’t enter Temple worship if he is somehow made impure by the Pharisee. He does see himself as part of a higher level of status because, again within the context of the story, there are only two categories of Temple status: pure and impure. And, again, in the context of the story, the Pharisee, according to his evaluation of himself and the tax collector, he is more righteous.
    The reason for the story is for Jesus to proclaim that Temple purity is not the measure of persons. Obedience to Temple tradition is superceded by an equality based upon the immediacy of the Kingdom. To Jesus, God’s Kingdom is here now and the rules have changed. As things are in Heaven, so will they be on earth to paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer.
    We too have the habit of dividing people into categories of good guy and bad guy. However, this smacks mightily of judging people according to OUR idea of who’s clean vs. unclean. If we want to follow the Jesus Way, we need to recognize the “other” as our equal. The Kingdom is here, act upon it.
    Final thought: Perhaps Flannery O’Connor was using a bold image from Jesus.