The good Pharisee and the scoundrel tax collector

Icon of the Pharisee and the PublicanJames Alison’s talk on idolatry (see previous post) ends with a characteristically brilliant Alisonian analysis of a biblical narrative that had been worn smooth by overuse: the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 8:9-14. In this story:

we are told of two men praying in the Temple. One, a highly religiously observant man, standing at the front, congratulates himself on his religious observance, and compares himself favourably with a tax-collector, who is skulking at the back. This latter, not daring to look up, is praying “God have mercy on me, a sinner”. We are told that the latter left the house of prayer justified before God, while the former did not.

Now it is perfectly possible to read this as though the problem with the highly observant person was that he was impenitent, while the tax-collector was penitent. It becomes comfortable therefore to tell this story in such a way that we can hold onto our idols. So we know that religious people, in order to be good, must always include a confessional element in their prayer, while the tax-collector, genuinely a bad man, is still a bad man, but at least has the saving grace of knowing this. Thus can I tell a pious-sounding story in order to ensure that nothing really changes.

However, if Girard is right, as is my bet, then this story becomes much more shocking, rocking my idolatry to its core. For it is what passes as good in our midst that is revealed to have nothing at all to do with God, there is no analogy available from it, while the shame and desperation of a genuinely despicable man is close to friendship with God. For the tax-collector was not a modest and unfairly-hated modern employee of a state bureaucratic system: he was a collaborator with a hostile, punitive, and rapacious foreign regime, someone who had chosen to flourish at the expense of his fellow countrymen. An enemy.

That is the point we often miss in this story: that the Pharisee was genuinely a good man, and the tax collector was genuinely a bad man, someone truly despicable. I wonder if this story recovered some of its bite in countries that had been occupied during the second world war, for whom collaborators were all too visible an evil? Or how about if we replaced “tax collector” with, say, “paedophile”?

(Incidentally, for a graphic illustration of how we get this parable wrong, try a Google image search for “tax collector pharisee“. See in how many pictures the Pharisee looks like a horrible person – conceited, frequently overweight – while the tax collector looks humble and likeable. This, we can see in the light of Alison’s remarks, is completely missing the point. The image I chose for this post struck me as one of the more neutral ones.)

Similarly, the story of the Passion can easily be twisted into a justification for idolatry:

I can tell the story of how Caiaphas and Pilate handed over Jesus to execution so that it becomes a form of divinisation by sacrifice. In this account the principal religious authority unwittingly yielded High Priestly authority to Jesus, and the principal imperial authority unwittingly handed over Royal authority to Jesus, who now reigns as Prophet, Priest and King, from his throne, the Cross. This then authorizes his followers to exercise combined royal and priestly power over all nations. Which of course, is to turn Jesus into a god, and is a form of paganism based around an idol which demands sacrifice.

Or I can learn to tell the story in such a way that, once again shockingly, the only icon of God available to me is one which shows up the completely fake basis of all religious authority, depending ultimately on a sacrificial lie; and simultaneously, the completely fake basis of all civil authority, depending ultimately on a murderous convenience. Here the only non-idolatrous perception of God we are offered is as a seditious blasphemer on his way to a shameful death.

But all this in turn means that my idolatry is “not a simple matter of misinformation”: of having “the wrong god, or the wrong number of gods”. This brings us back to where we started, with Luther’s (and/or Calvin’s) understanding of the human heart as a self-deluding “idol factory”. Alison, like Luther, recognises that we are not merely mistaken about God, as if we were in good faith but misinformed. Rather:

I am not merely mistaken about who God is, I am actually averse to who God is, as any human is averse towards a seditious blasphemer of whatever I hold sacred, on that person’s way to a shameful death. Which means that my being set free from idolatry means beginning to detect a form of love, mercy, and power that is actively breaking through my ingrained hostility to it.

In other words, it’s not that God is too big for me to understand, but that I am unaware of my deep-rooted hostility towards him – because he threatens my sense of the “sacred”. And as Alison concludes, this is an insight that we need to be applying above all to ourselves rather than to other people (which turns it into simply another means of exclusion and victimisation):

Anyone who helps me better to understand God whose loving communication with me is a certain breaking through my own structural hostility to God, whose befriending of me starts with me as his enemy, and anyone who helps my Church live out this discovery of a completely unknown love which traverses our hostility, is my friend.

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