The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry

As I read this Sunday’s Gospel of the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), I’m also reading and digesting N.T. Wright‘s brand new book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Based on a thorough reading of Scripture, Wright consistently critiques on three fronts the popular reading of the cross in recent generations of Christianity:

  • A Platonized goal, or eschatology (doctrine of end-times): that the cross’s goal is to enable believer’s souls to “go to heaven.” A properly Jewish eschatology reads the cross and resurrection as the launching of the New Creation, or heaven coming to earth.
  • A moralizing view of sin, or anthropology (doctrine of being human): that the cross addresses the problem of sin as the breaking of moral codes. A closer reading of scripture sees the problem of sin as much deeper: idolatry. Human beings worship other gods/powers of this world and give up their vocation of being “image-bearers” of the Creator.
  • A paganized version of the solution, or soteriology (doctrine of salvation): that the cross is appeasing the wrath of God for human sin (as breaking the moral code). A Jewish-Christian reading of scripture reveals a God who faithfully forgives sin and rescues God’s people in a New Exodus.

Wright does the church a great service in reading scripture to give us this desperately needed three-fold correction in our theology of the cross — and making it thoroughly grounded in reading the Bible.

But I’ve been mulling over what I see as a major misstep in his reading — one that I think is informed by this Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. In a 400-page book that reads all of Scripture for these themes, he devotes by far the largest chunk, 92 pages, to Paul’s Letter to the Romans alone. And I believe he commits a huge error by resisting Douglas Campbell‘s thesis of Paul having represented the views of a Jewish-Christian opponent within Romans, most notable in Romans 1:18-32. (For more on Campbell’s thesis see “Nuechterlein on Reading Romans 1-3 in a New Way.”)

Instead of taking Romans 1:18-32 as Paul voicing the view of a Jewish-Christian opponent (including Paul’s former self as a Pharisee!), Wright reads this passage as the quintessential description of human idolatry — as precisely the correct, robust picture of sin that Wright proposes. And the corollary, I believe, to this grave misstep is to virtually ignore in his reading the pivotal nature of the verses that immediately follow 1:18-32:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” (NRSV Romans 2:1-2)

I propose that St. Paul gives us in Romans 1:18–3:26 a theologically argued version of the picture in Jesus’s Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 portrays a Pharisee focusing on someone else’s sin — namely, a Jewish perspective on Gentile idolatry. It is a picture of focusing on someone else’s sin and missing one’s own. Paul in Romans is trying to get to the thesis that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). To do that he has to expose his own previous sin of idolatry which was to violently (the “wrath” in Rom. 2:5) judge the idolatry of others. (See also Nuechterlein on the “Wrath of God” in Romans.) Isn’t this Jesus’s same move in this parable: in contrasting positions of someone focusing on the sin of others vs. someone who recognizes one’s own sin? But Paul extending it within the framework of “all falling short” and needing God’s grace? By resisting Campbell’s thesis about Romans 1:18-32 and ignoring the pivot of Romans 2:1-2, I believe that Wright has missed the full, deeper picture of human idolatry.

And it thus falls short of fully confronting the sacred violence done in the name of focusing on the sin of others. Specifically, in the case of holding onto Romans 1:18-32 as Paul’s own view of idolatry, it leaves open the idolatrous sacred violence of heterosexism — the heterosexual majority suppressing the freedom of LGBTQ persons to flourish and be who God created them to be. Reading this passage as Paul’s own view holds onto verses 26-27 as proof-texting against alleged ‘homosexual sin.’ And for someone like Wright it even comes within a deeper analysis of sin as idolatry, not simply the breaking of moral codes.

But I’m proposing that Wright’s reading misses the pivot Paul is making by exposing the idolatry of making an idol out of someone else’s sin, and so he misses the deeper truth about human sin as idolatry. Wright is correct to understand the Jewish insight into sin as idolatry. But then he misses Paul’s insight into what form Jewish idolatry takes. A Jewish person’s idolatry is different from that of a Gentile’s precisely because it sees sin as idolatry. A Jewish person could often boast that they were righteous by virtue of avoiding Gentile idolatry (hence, Paul’s theme against certain kinds of boasting in this portion of Romans).

As formerly a Pharisee who lived out his anti-idolatry in persecution of the church, Paul did not miss his own former idolatry. In order to expound the view of all people falling into sin, Paul has to go to extra lengths to expose the idolatry of the typical devout Jew, whose devotion manifests itself precisely in being against Gentile idolatry. So he speaks the position of a Jewish Christian railing against Gentile idolatry in 1:18-32 and then makes the pivot in 2:1-2 that that railing is its own form of idolatry — the idolatry of judging other people’s sins.

In our modern context, we are coming to allow for LGBTQ brothers and sisters to judge for themselves whether their sexual identity is sinful idolatry or a manifestation of the diversity in God’s wonderful Creation. As they choose the latter expression of their identity, for others to continue to judge it as sinful idolatry continues the sacred violence that the Gospel exposes as satanic accusation — in short, one of the Powers that Wright so eloquently speaks against. Many Christians are finally coming to name one of the Powers as “heterosexism.” Rather than speaking against ‘homosexual sin’ in Romans 1:26-27, the wider passage of Romans 1:18–3:26 can be read in today’s context as exposing the Powers, and precisely including “heterosexism” as one of those Powers. It flips the reading to see an out-of-context prooftexting of 1:26-27 as an instance of the deadly Powers that work themselves out as judgment and wrath against one another.

To tie a bow on these reflections I point to a particularly apropos moment in the corpus of Mimetic Theory: Sandor Goodhart‘s reading of the Book of Jonah in his book Sacrificing Commentary: Reading the End of Literature (ch. 5, pp. 139-67). I suggest that it has the same structure as my reading of the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector and Romans 1:18–3:26, but that it also gives us wonderful language to name it. Goodhart proposes that if Jewish Torah is quintessentially the “law of anti-idolatry,” then the story of Jonah gives us the Jewish prophetic reading of Torah in Jonah as the “idolatry of the law of anti-idolatry,” or more simply, the idolatry of anti-idolatry. I highly recommend reading Goodhart’s essay.

I don’t want to conclude these reflections without making clear my highest recommendation for Wright’s new book. I have a major bone to pick with it (and a renewed invitation for Bishop Wright to complete his elaboration of biblical anthropology by reading the work of René Girard), but the overall importance of The Day the Revolution Began for the church’s theology of the cross is immense. In addition to the threefold critique of popular readings of the cross sketched above, the last two chapters (Part IV,  “The Revolution Continues”) brilliantly describe our “cruciform mission.” Ours, as disciples of Jesus, is the vocation of participating with God in the furthering of New Creation. The Powers continue to put up a fight, which means that this vocation will continue to come precisely through suffering (which our consumerist lifestyle resists). But the suffering can be endured for the joy of knowing that the complete and final victory will belong to God’s Power of Love. Love wins!

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