It has been a good long while since I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in some blogging banter with my good friend Evan Garner, but he went to the Greek in his post yesterday, and that’s just an invitation for me to nerd out for a minute. In his post, “Rather Than or Alongside?” which I encourage you to read in its entirety, Evan played with an idea posited by the Rev. Dr. Bill Brosend, Professor of Homiletics and New Testament at the University of the South, that the Greek phrase that is translated in Sunday’s Gospel as “rather than” in the sentence “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” could just as easily been translated “alongside” as in, “This man [the tax collector] went down to his dome justified alongside the [Pharisee].” The argument, for those who might care about the Greek, is that the preposition para plus the accusative case “can mean ‘rather than’ but far more often means ‘alongside.'”
With all due respect to Dr. Brosend, “can mean” and “far more often means” does not an ironclad argument make. While I am certain that this phrase could be translated as “alongside,” I’m also certain that it should be rendered “rather than” because of two very important factors: math and context.
First, the math. In the study of probabilities and statistics, we find the idea of mutually exclusive events. That is to say, there are things which can not overlap; they simply cannot happen at the same time. Take, for a very simplified example, flipping a coin. It can land on heads or tails, but never both. These are mutually exclusive events.
Now we turn to context. Luke tells us that Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to a group of people who trusted in themselves “that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” These two things are mutually exclusive. To be righteous is to be in perfect relationship with God and neighbor. One cannot treat others with contempt and be righteous. It is impossible.
Jesus has taught this parable in order to make the point that righteousness does not belong to those who treat others with contempt, and as long as we engage in such behavior, we remain outside of the perfect relationship that God longs for. Sure, God could forgive the sins of the Pharisee, but it seems far more likely that God would demand some sort of repentance from him. To be unrighteous in one’s prayers may be the most damning unrighteousness of all.
I agree with Dr. Brosend that it could be that the both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector went home justified, i.e. made righteous, but math and context seem to argue that only one was made righteous.