This week’s brief gospel reading, because isolated from the parables around it, made me ponder a verbal connection that I’d not paid much attention to. For whatever reason, when in the past I’ve thought about the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, I’d always thought either of the “sinner’s prayer” that the tax collector is known for (I realize that many traditions call it the “Lord have mercy” or “kyrie eleison” prayer) or the contrast between the two men, but this time I noticed the ending of the parable, the punchline that accompanies some but not all of Jesus’ parables.
“I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (18:14, NET)
When pressed to explain the concept of justification, I normally would stick within judicial categories, noting the judge’s-decision character of the category and noting as well its resonance with classical ethical texts. But in this text, Jesus pairs it not with a statement about right standing with God or with a declaration of good moral character but with statement involving location. One who exalts himself, who performs the reflexive action of lifting one’s self up, is the one who will be humbled, while the one already humble will be exalted. In characteristic Lukan fashion, this brief saying blurs conventional lines between the “spiritual” and the “political” so that both the Pharisee’s social capital and his stiff neck could be at stake, just as the tax collector’s status as target of Zealotry and his private contrition are likely on the table. But at any rate, the idea that justice is itself a sort of elevation reveals nicely that the “justice” that the prophets and that Jesus (himself the greatest of prophets) speak and write of is not the iron-clad enforcement of contracts, the sort of thing that Anselmian pictures of atonement focus so strongly upon and that Charles Dickens so often found monstrous, but a sort of dikaiosyne that, because of an abounding and abundant grace, can in fact elevate “whosoever believeth” without necessarily throwing others down.
I realize as I write this that I’m flying in the faces both of those concerned with social justice and those who have a strong sense of double-predestination. And although one objection has more to do with the earth that breathing people inhabit and the other with the world that folks inhabit after they’ve stopped breathing, I think both objections at least need to exist in tension with big claims like this one in Luke. Certainly the New Testament is no stranger either to the idea that those who proudly assert themselves as lords of the earth will face their day of judgment (cf. the Magnificat) or to the idea that there will be spiritual powers resisting Christ until they are thrown down (cf. the closing chapters of Revelation). But I’m inclined, against both objections to extrapolate from those realities some sort of prior mathematical quota that will not be satisfied save with the completion of a certain degree of mortals’ suffering. I’m aware both of the Marxists’ arguments (and remember that the Marxists are some of the sharpest theorists about Capitalism) about the finitude of the world and the infinity of the desires of the warring classes; and I’m aware of the trilemma that predestination treatises lay forward about saving none, saving some, and saving all. But once again, as the disciple of Walter Brueggemann that I’ve become, I tend to read such statements as this one, that seem to extend offers of divine grace as far as those being saved will take them, as serious statements rather than hyperbole or wishful thinking or anthropomorphism or whatever the “don’t believe what the text seems to be saying” device of the season happens to be.
That digression out of the way, this text stands as a reminder for the Church as we approach the season of Advent that humility, properly conceived of as knowing one’s place in the schemata of creation and redemption, is a central virtue for the Christian witness not because God wants us to feel like crap about ourselves but precisely because our mission, to tell truthfully the gospel of Christ and thus to make disciples of the King, is entirely too important to lose a grasp on the truth, namely that those preaching salvation are also those being saved. May our eyes remain open, looking now in the mirror at our sinfulness, then on the world languishing and waiting for the truth, then perhaps once more, lest we confuse ourselves with the King whom we proclaim.