I recently commented on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector on this blog. I remain convinced that the parable has little or nothing to do with classic legalism at all. Those who read it to prove such a position simply import their assumptions into the text. The text does not demand such a reading at all. In fact there are all sorts of good reasons to read it otherwise.
The Pharisee believed that God had marked out Israel as His special people by graciously giving them the Torah and that his upholding of the Torah (not at all the same thing as perfect obedience or meritorious obedience, for that matter) marked him out as one that God would justify.
The question about who is ‘righteous’ is the question of the identity of those who belong to the true Israel that God has marked out by the gift of the Torah. Let’s give some sort of modern-day analogy. The question of who is righteous is the same sort of question as one which seeks to ascertain the identity of the true Americans.
The Pharisee is like the patriot who is thankful that he is a true American. He raises the stars and stripes every day. He sings the national anthem before every meal. He has fought for his country and has the medals to prove it. He celebrates Independence Day and Thanksgiving. He can name all the American states according to ten different ordering principles and has an exhaustive knowledge of American history. He visits Washington DC at least once every year to see the great government buildings.
The tax-collector is like the recent immigrant. He speaks his own language at home and can only speak broken English with a thick foreign accent. He has forgotten the words for the national anthem. He has no interest in American sports and knows the history of his country of origin, but not of the US. If the two teams played in sport, he would not be supporting the US. Some have even rumoured that he once burnt the American flag in protest over the war in the Middle East.
The ‘works of the Torah’ function like the national anthem, Declaration of Independence, stars and stripes and celebration of Thanksgiving do within American life. No thoughtful person believes that one ‘earns’ one’s American identity by observing such things. These things rather ‘demonstrate’ a status that one never earned.
However, those who abandon the boundary markers of American identity will often be looked down upon by those who still adhere to them. This explains the Pharisee’s attitude to the tax-collector. The Pharisee regarded the tax-collector as one who had abandoned Israel’s God-given identity and was not fit to be regarded as a true son of Abraham.
God accepts the tax-collector because the fundamental thing that really marks out the true heirs of Abraham is not possession of the Torah and the symbols of Jewish national identity but an attitude of penitence and faith towards God. This was lacking in the Pharisee, but present in the tax-collector.
If we were to claim that the recent immigrant in the illustration above was the true American and the arrogant patriot was not — that true Americanism consisted in, say, a determination to resist tyranny and practice freedom, charity and maintain an open and welcoming attitude to people from all nations, rather than a nationalistic arrogance — many people would be shocked. Jesus’ redefinition of Israel was no less radical.
This observation, I believe, exposes the error of those who wish to answer the claims of Sanders, Wright and others within the NPP about Second Temple Judaism by reintroducing Pelagianism at another level. Yes, they will grant, works of the Torah were not seen as the means of getting in, but they were the means of staying in. The Reformers’ reading of Paul’s arguments against the Judaizers is more or less correct and the New Perspectivists are just pastorally naïve, not recognizing semi-Pelagianism when they see it. The chief problem with such claims is that they mistake what is meant by ‘staying in’. They presume that it must mean some sort of works-righteousness. I believe that the language is not the most helpful, but I completely fail to see how it must be works-righteousness.
Perhaps one of the deepest problems that I have with all such approaches is that they tend to reduce the primarily object of Paul’s attack to some more general sin (e.g. earning one’s own salvation, self-righteousness) that can be completely abstracted from the redemptive historical context in which he is operating. The Judaizers simply had the wrong form of religion. A number of NPP readings seem to fall into this trap themselves; Paul’s argument becomes concerned with the general sin of nationalism, exclusivism, ritualism, or use of boundary markers to mark out the people of God in general. Many of these thigns are legitimate overtones of what Paul is saying. However, Paul’s fundamental point is firmly rooted in the historical context. It does not have to do with general sins, but with the appropriate way to act at a particular moment in redemptive history. It has to do with the way in which we read the OT story. What was God’s purpose for the covenant with Abraham? What was the role of the Torah?
The problem has to do with the role that we see the narrative to be playing. Is the narrative the important thing, or is the narrative merely designed to illustrate timeless and abstract truths that exist independent of it? Is the Bible concerned with the narrative of God’s salvation and maturation of humanity and the cosmos, or is its chief concern conveying a timeless form of religion and way by which individuals can get saved? Is the story of Israel merely given as a set of examples and a repository of helpful metaphors for some reality outside of it, or is the story of Israel God’s great historical plan of salvation already in action? Do we find ourselves within the story told by Scripture, or is the story of Scripture to be reduced to serving us with nice parallels and illustrations that help us to live our lives, which are quite detached from it?
These are probably the most important questions that theologians like Wright are raising for us today.