Last night was the final session of the book discussion group I facilitated at Our Lady of Lourdes Church this spring. Our subject was Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus, about which I’ve written before.
In our session last night, we considered three chapters, those dealing with the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Many good observations came out of our discussion. One is that we would do well to curb our tendency to decide one party is the “good guy” and the other the “bad guy.” Each of these stories is much more nuanced than that.
For example, in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we tend toward thinking one “was justified” and the other not. Levine suggests that this either/or reading is encouraged by what some commentators suggest is a bad translation. The word commonly translated as “rather than” they suggest is better translated as “along side that one.” That suggests both the tax collector and Pharisee are justified. Others think the better translation is “because of” or “on account of”, which would suggest the tax collector received his justification on account of the Pharisee.
The translations of “along side” and “because of” make greater sense in historical context, and they also prompt the greatest challenge of the parable. Judaism is a communitarian movement in which people pray in the plural, and in which each member of the community is responsible for the others.
We have seen that the Pharisee has more good deeds, a greater store of protection, then he could need. First-century Jews then might conclude that the tax collector has tapped into the merit of the Pharisee as well as, given the location and his use of atonement language, the communal aspect of the temple system. Just as one person’s sin can create a stain on the entire community, so one person’s righteousness can save it.
We would be do well to spend some time reflecting on how our view is changed if we accept that neither party in these parables of “pairs” is totally virtuous and neither ought to be written off.