Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Shock of True Righteousness

Dear Parish Faithful,

Over the course of the last two days, we read two short passages from the Church Fathers – Sts. Basil the Great (+379) and Cyril of Alexandria (+444) – on the meaning of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Today, I would like to share some of the insights of a contemporary NT scholar on this same parable, as we continue to meditate upon its significance throughout the week. I am currently reading a book by Klyne R. Snodgrass, an Evangelical biblical scholar, entitled Stories With Intent – A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. This book seems to be nearly-exhaustive in its over-all study of the parables from the cultural, historical and religious perspectives explored by the author. Snodgrass helps us to contextualize the parables so that we can also understand the impact that they made on the contemporaries of Jesus, as well as their enduring and “timeless” meaning for us to this day:

The parable addresses the implied question “What counts as righteousness before God?” Righteous acts without compassion and love are not considered righteous by God. Jesus’ decision as to which man was righteous must have sounded paradoxical, surprising, and maybe even unacceptable to his hearers. This parable, like some others, is a veritable slap in the face. Jesus called a man righteous who was known to be unrighteous and refused the description for a man whom everyone would recognize as a righteous person, one who had done good things, even beyond what the law expected – that is, unless Jesus’ hearers were keyed to the love command. Modern readers must make the effort to realize the shock of Jesus’ statement to his first-century Jewish hearers. By implication, this parable also serves as a defense of Jesus’ eating with tax collectors and sinners and instructs against disdain for the so-called unrighteous. M. Hengel points out that the person proud of his or her orthodoxy and orthopraxy is in the most danger and, by use of a word-play, summarizes the parable as saying that those who are written off elsewhere are written by God in the gospel. “A proud prayer is … a self-contradictory endeavor.” Conversely, humility is an essential aspect of true prayer.

Stories of Intent, p. 473-474.