Mutually Exclusive Behaviors

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.

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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.

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The Power of a Direct Antecedent

Studying homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary in the early aughts was a distinct challenge.  As middlers, we were required to take three-quarters of a year of homiletics, split between a semester with one professor and a third quarter class with another.  At that time, the two different professors were nearly diametrically opposed in their understanding of the task of preaching.  One was focused on argument and rhetoric, giving a list of preaching rules which shall not be violated and assigning a book suggesting a hard and fast way to organize a sermon.  The other was interested in the art of preaching, focusing on presentation and at times, bordering on theatrical.  The preaching gods smiled upon my type-a personality, and gave me a semester with the former.  I can’t say I remember all the rules, and I certainly don’t organize my sermon in “Four Pages,” but I am keenly aware of the Rev. Dr. Judith McDaniel’s deep dislike of pronouns.  If there wasn’t a direct and very obvious antecedent, you had better just repeat the noun because “this” and “that” just weren’t going to cut it.

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I wish Paul had taken a class from Judith McDaniel because, like Meatloaf in his classic rock anthem “I would do anything for love,” Paul was pretty bad at having a direct antecedent for every pronoun.  Couple that with a real hack job by the RCL, and we have a lesson from the Philippians on Sunday that ends with a powerful line that makes little, if any, real sense.  Paul completes his thoughts on the goal of discipleship with these words “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”  To which, many who hear the lesson read and don’t know the larger framework of Philippians will ask “in what way?”

If we take into account the whole section from 3:12 to 4:1, which would make sense and one has to wonder why the RCL decided to skip the first six verses, then we find two occurrences of the same word I wrote about on Mondayteleios, to be made perfect.  The goal, the “in this way,” then is striving after God’s will for our lives, the perfection of our creation, which, if we go back just few verses further, is summed up in 3:10-11, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”  The teleios of the Christian life, at least according to Paul in his letter to the Philippians, is to share in Christ’s suffering so that we might share in his resurrection.  It is taking up our cross by choosing to care for the poor, the lost, and the hopeless more than we care about our own comforts and desires.  In so doing, by standing firm and living lives of agape love, we share in the resurrection of Jesus in the joy of abundant life and the peace that passes all understanding not in some far off time and place after we die, but right here and right now as the Kingdom comes to earth.