Sympathy for the Devil & Co.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Something incredible happens in this parable, and I'd really like to be able to explain it to myself. I tried with my sophomores today (remember, I teach at a historically Baptist school). I had them read it, and then I said, "Who are you in this scenario--how do you enter it as a reader?"

One who was confident in her own reading abilities raised her hand and said, "As the tax collector."


"Because I recognize that I'm imperfect, that I've sinned."

"So you... sympathize... with... the tax collector," I muttered, and then I was lost. I had lost direction. I couldn't even imagine my own purpose for the exercise. Then finally I pulled it together and said, "Okay, so you read this as though you were the tax-collector. How would one who is like a Pharisee have read this parable?"

"They wouldn't have liked it," one student ventured, fishing as if he was trying to tell me what he thought I wanted to hear.


Something incredible is happening in this parable. My thought is ill-formed. But I know I'm... I was going to say, "I know I'm right. I'm confident of my own reading ability and I feel that I'm a better reader than others."

So, if I do claim to understand the purpose of the parable, I make that claim over those who admit that they do not understand it. In making that claim, am I not taking on the role of the Pharisee? But to understand the parable, I must understand that the better of the two characters is the tax collector. I must understand that I'm a sinner to read the parable. To even make it through reading the parable. There's no getting out of this parable. Not for me.

Something incredible is currently happening in this parable.

Is it possible to enter this parable as the Pharisee? Is it even possible for the Pharisee to read this parable? What is required of the Pharisee who recognizes that the tax collector is his superior? Doesn't he say, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." What is required of the reader who realizes that he is confident that he understands what he reads? Isn't the truth that when a person who is exactly like a Pharisee is confronted with this parable, he will simply enter the parable as the tax-collector? Isn't that what my student did: "One who was confident in her reading abilities?"

I'm stuck in this parable. I don't know how to exit this parable. I suspect that if I could figure out a way to teach it effectively -- to put someone else in its grip -- I might be able to escape this parable.


Kevin said...

"Something incredible is happening in this parable".

Agreed. And Jesus constructed dozens like it, all of which are specifically designed to catch you trying to escape--i.e. those who try to escape it are precisely the ones it catches. Being caught using interpretations as evasions... The parable is built as a kind of moral labrynth trapping those who interpret in order to evade. And all evasive manuevers/readings are anticipated in the parable's original design. Ingenious.

Will come back to this when time--but you're on to something here.

Wishydig said...

i think jesus was almost as much of a genius as m.c. escher.

Casey said...

Agreed, Wishydig.