Tuesday, June 2, 2009

10-28-2007: 30th Ordinary Time (C)

Sirach 35:12-14,16-18/Psalm 34/2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18/Luke 18:9-14
It’s hard to imagine where we English speakers would be without the indefinite article, or should I say without an indefinite article. The indefinite article, a/an, really does help us focus on what we wish to emphasize – or, more to the point, de-emphasize. For Catholic girls growing up in Queens, for example, there’s a big difference in saying I go to a high school in Jamaica Estates and I go to the Mary Louis Academy (with the use of the definite article, the, you don’t even need to mention geography). Lots of languages don’t use articles at all, definite or indefinite – like Russian, resulting in Russian emphasizing the bigger picture while forsaking details. For instance: Give me a glass of the Stolichnaya Vodka becomes simply Give me vodka. As if to say, let’s not worry about particulars.

Ancient Greek, the language in which Luke’s gospel is written, possesses definite but not indefinite articles. In other words there’s a lot of the’s, but no a’s or an’s. So, in today’s parable of the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector), the translators forsake literal translation for fluidity, robbing us of an added nuance, or perhaps the nuance, of the story.

Pharisees get a bad rap in the gospels. Jesus seems to always use them as examples of what we shouldn’t emulate. But, truth be told, they weren’t so bad. The Pharisee in today’s parable might have been too proud of the fact that he was fasting and praying more than everyone else – but, God knows, he wasn’t lying. And, even though most of us are reluctant to pay taxes, we wouldn’t shun someone just because he worked for the IRS. (Remember, those Jewish tax collectors were working for the occupying Roman government in the Palestine of their time.) To update the contrast implied in the parable, maybe we’d have to change the tax collector to, say, a pedophile – or better yet, a priest-pedophile. That might provide the shock value Jesus conveyed when he told his listeners that God justified one over the other.

But that’s not quite the whole story. The English translation has the tax collector pray: "O God be merciful to me a sinner." But, as you now know, there’s no indefinite article in ancient Greek, the “a sinner” is the product of the translator’s judgment. Literally, the tax collector prays: "O God be merciful to me, the sinner." Now that’s emphasis for you. In the parable the tax collector (or pedophile) not only acknowledges his failings and weakness, but admits his great need for divine assistance. The use of the definite article might help us appreciate the depths of his deprivation, his definite sense of alienation -- his need for forgiveness and, above all, acceptance.

By the way: some might argue that comparing first century Palestinian tax collectors to contemporary priest-pedophiles is a libelous analogy, since it was the tax collector’s profession and not his moral behavior which rendered him ritually impure (i.e. sinful). The tax collector might have been judged ritually impure, but that didn’t mean he was morally perverted. Granted. But I would bet his sense of alienation would have been just as acute. And it’s precisely this sense of alienation, of exclusion, of aloneness, that is at the heart of prayer. A need for this or that might urge us to mutter a prayer now and then, but the need for acceptance permeates everything -- no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

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