Who will save me?
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
Then he told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice (Ἐκδίκησόν ) against my opponent.” 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, (ἐκδικήσω ) so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ 6And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust (ἀδικίας) judge says. 7And will not God grant justice (ἐκδίκησιν) to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice (ἐκδίκησιν) to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous (δίκαιοι) and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ) 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified (δεδικαιωμένος) rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
15 People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. 16But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 17Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
Mark Davis: Cultivating a sense of self-assurance about righteousness leads to having a contemptuous view of others... Me: is this a general thing?
Also Mark D Davis: One way of looking at it is that when one is self-assured and contemptuous of others, prayer is one of the places where that assurance and contempt plays out. Another way of looking at it is that the ongoing activity of prayer is one way that one cultivates the self-assurance of righteousness and contempt of others. Me: ie does the way we pray lead to us being contemptuous?
Davis points out the -δίκ- root of justice (díkē) which is prevalent in the verses above this reading, and which is embedded in the notion of righteousness. And I end up with a surrender to God as Luke goes on to entering the kingdom as a little child, dependent and without conditions.
Greek Text: οἱ λοιποὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων the rest of men... which feels much stronger than NRSV's other people
Karoline Lewis: Sarah asked me to pray. And in this request, I thought about how too many would respond. Our impulse reaction is too often to save, to proselytize, to secure souls for the afterlife as if that will secure our own. And why? Because questions and statements like those of Sarah’s speak to our deepest fears. And in the face of our own fears, our default reaction is entrenchment. Self-justification. Setting up foils to dissuade our own discomfort and doubt.
Me: My hypocrisy began because nobody would look after me. It seemed no one cared if the bullies destroyed me. Much later, I realised that those same kids were on their own desperate journey to stay alive. And later again, in that odd clarity which sometimes comes with cognitive decline, my mother said, "I was so angry with those girls." She had known something of what was happening but had felt powerless to intervene.
Michael Hardin: What the Pharisee is doing is voicing the victimage mechanism that exalts himself at the expense of another. But the key is that the tax collector’s is not reciprocal. If we don’t notice the lack of reciprocity, then interpreters through the ages have provided it by exalting themselves at the expense of the Pharisee.
James Alison: Such a person has his identity, his ‘me,’ still constituted on the basis of victimizing, of expelling, of separation. Being convinced of the right-ness (and righteousness) of his position, it is very much more difficult for him to receive the dependence on what is other than him of the constitution of his ‘me,’ and thus have his ‘me’ transformed, have it healed from its dependence on persecution. (Alison)
Who will save me?
I am afraid.
When I have worked too hard and too long, and when life is throwing more at me than I can handle, I begin to fall apart. Always at the back of that disintegration is my fear: How can I go on? How will I survive? What will happen to me?
If I can't keep going, then I will die— and what will happen to me then? That is the root of the fear.
We can learn very young that nobody will look after us. There is a girl child who used to play in the street with her brothers. The boys would chiack the rich whitefella riding past, or maybe play chicken by running in front of me. But she would look at me with blank, dead eyes which, if I did not look away, began to smoulder with the deepest hostility I have ever seen.
Those eyes betrayed trauma I shudder to imagine. Her material poverty is worse than anything I have ever known. Yet we are the same. We have learned to trust in ourselves that we are righteous because there is no one else to trust. She and I live life in the same pattern, born of isolation as little kids, and there is not much of a distance between us.
Righteous, at base, simply means that we are worth being, and that we deserve life anyway. And that we have a right not to be destroyed and thrust down into the darkness of death.
In all this, gods— if we believe in such things— can't be trusted. If a god is simply a larger and more powerful version of ourselves— what else could there be— we might do what we can to stay 'in its good books,' but we'd be a fool to trust such a god. Better to show such a god— manipulate them into thinking, perhaps— that we've done the right thing and are worthy to be preserved. And hope that it does not see too much of our smouldering eyes. And hope, really, that it's not true that there is a god. Who needs another bastard pushing you around?
In the meantime, make sure we are not the ones at the bottom of the heap. Always have someone else to point to when the abusers and killers come. Have someone else to blame.
We dress life up to look prettier than this, and to make it more bearable. But this is the base basis of our being. The little girl lived a short walk away and she has a brother who still lurks within me.
Make sure we are not the ones at the bottom of the heap. Always have someone else to point to when the abusers and killers come. Have someone else to blame. This is the Pharisee.
He "is voicing the victimage mechanism that exalts himself at the expense of another." (Hardin) He is celebrating his persistence and victory in life, and he is reminding the god who can't be altogether trusted that there is a more appropriate victim than him, if needed; the tax collector. He is, says Jesus, "standing by himself." He imagines he stands... by... his ability to preserve himself, and he is standing as though he is not a part of the cycle of fear and violence and fear and violence, which is the basis of human being. He sets himself apart because he still imagines he is saving himself. He is still outpacing death. He is winning. He is good!
But the tax collector has been destroyed. Something in him has given up. He can't keep going. It has all fallen apart. God is all that is left to him. The tax collector, who knows he is far off from God, who knows he is "the sinner," (the Greek says the sinner) before the Pharisee tells him, does not even bite back at the Pharisee. He does not call him hypocrite. He does not snarl that at least he is honest about himself unlike some pious pretentious pricks hereabouts. The tax collector knows he is in too deep to fix things. He has seen that death cannot be outrun. God is all he has.
I notice that he has come to the temple. He is not at home in his self-pity which is one of my ways, at least, of still being in control, of still keeping me at the centre of things.
This is not a parable about morality. If righteousness is based in morality, we are forever lost. There is no one righteous, not even one. The tax collector, who went home justified, who went home 'declared righteous' was, at best, amoral. Even Zacchaeus, the tax collector who gave it all back, and with reparations, remained part of the Roman system of taxation. We can't live outside the system. We are all and always complicit in the human falling short of God's not yet completed Creation.
Even when we determine to do well. That's what I did as a little boy. And James Alison's words describe me perfectly. (I have edited the gender references.)
[Even the person who determines to do well] has their identity, their ‘me,’ still constituted on the basis of victimizing, of expelling, of separation. Being convinced of the right-ness (and righteousness) of their position, it is very much more difficult for them to receive the dependence on what is other than them of the constitution of their ‘me,’ and thus have their ‘me’ transformed, have it healed from its dependence on persecution.
What I fear for the little girl, and certainly what happened for me, is that I fought back against that which persecuted me— which separated and excluded me. I arrived at "a self-identity formed over against others." (Nuechterlein) In determining not to be like them, in opposing them, I became their mirror image. I persecuted by my judgementalism; separating and excluding others to build myself up. But much more than all that, formed by the ones who excluded me, I cannot live without persecution, without being excluded. What disorients me far more than someone opposing me— even now, or by their being unjust towards me, is if they regard me with favour. I don't quite know how to be... if that happens. When we form ourselves over against somebody we bury ourselves into the cycle of violence.
Anyone can do morality if they are driven enough, which is to say: scared enough. Morality is merely an agreed list of what you do to keep God and neighbour happy.
But this parable is about being, not about morality. It's about what makes us and forms us, and enables us to persist at ease and at peace with our created and limited contingency. It is about what makes us right; that is what gives us the right to exist. It is about where we find a declared righteousness; that is, a being made right and free and at peace that is not dependent on a world built of exclusion and violence. A being where the little child in me can mourn and weep and grieve what is lost, and yet, despite everything, find that we are loved.
Insisting on who we will be is to persist in being damaged. We have to give up. The longer we insist we can do it ourselves, the bigger the hypocrite we become. When we give up, which is to humble ourselves to become who we were made to be, God exalts us. For, at last, we allow God to lift us up and help us navigate all our small fallings short because we are finally able to listen.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 18:9-14 - The Levelling Love of God (2010)
Luke 18:9-14 - We don't have a prayer (2013)
Luke 18:9-14 - Thank God I am not like other people! (2013)