Stacking Wood: Lessons in Asking the Right Questions
Episode 34 – October 27, 2019
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The Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Parable of the Pharisee & the Tax Collector. Bri-anne spent a lot of time stacking wood in the fall—and arguing with her brothers. What are the questions we should be asking? Where does God’s favour fall? We all get hot chocolate in the end. Music by Regina Spektor and Sufjan Stevens. Luke 18:1-16. Readings by Tina Conlon (Toronto, Ontario) and Catherine Stuart (Bedeque, Prince Edward Island).
Regina Spektor– “On the Radio”
Sufjan Stevens – “Chicago”
Reading No. 1
Luke 18-1-8 The Parable of the Persistent Widow
Read by Tina Conlon from Toronto, Ontario
Reading No. 2
Luke 18:9-14 The Parable of the Pharisee & the Tax Collector
I grew up in an old, Edwardian farmhouse in Central, Ontario. Our home was heated by a woodstove and so every fall, a truck showed up with a bush cord of wood and dumped it on our driveway. Now, some of you might be wondering “What is a bush cord? Is that a real unit of measurement?” I assure you, yes, it is! A bush cord of wood, when stacked, will measure about 4 feet high by 4 feet wide by 8 feet long. Except, the wood never actually arrived as a stacked bush cord. It arrived in a great big, messy pile on the ground.
We had a large property, and a large yard, so our driveway didn’t actually come close to our house, or the woodshed. So, getting the wood from the driveway to the shed was a pretty big job…a job delegated to me and my three younger brothers.
Every year we would need to carry and stack the wood. Every year this task devolved into heated arguments. Fighting, really. My approach was always that there was a finite amount of wood, so the more wood we each carried in a single trip, the faster we’d be done stacking. But for one of my brothers, his approach was “it’s fine if that’s what you want to do, but I’m only going to carry one log at a time.” At the time it felt a lot like, “And by the time we’re done, Bri-anne will have stacked most of it anyway” but 20 years later, I’m not sure if it was that thought out. I would get so, so, so angry, carrying three or four pieces a time to my brothers’ one. I was doing everything our parents asked us to do. I was following the instructions. But I was doing all the work, and I was pissed. So, I would get angry at him. Snap at him. I wasn’t very nice. Actually, I was pretty mean. I called him lazy. Inside I thought how glad I was that I was not lazy like him.
We’ve heard two parables read for us this morning, the Parable of the Persistent Widow, and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
Parables. I love parables, but I’m also afraid of them. I love them because I love stories. Who doesn’t like a story? I just spent a whole week studying storytelling! But…I’m afraid of them because as somebody who struggles with always wanting to do things the “right” way, I sometimes feel like I am trying to find the right answer about what these stories are supposed to be teaching. I want to find the conclusive, ultimate, true, historically accurate meaning behind these stories that Jesus told so long ago. That’s a lot of pressure, with a lot of layers making it a nearly impossible task. 2000 years of history, multiple gospel interpreters, cultural baggage, my own life experiences…and yet…I STILL WANT TO GET IT RIGHT! If there are any other Enneagram Type Ones out there, you will understand my distress.
Last episode, I mentioned Dr. Amy Jill Levine, a professor at Vanderbilt University in the United States. Reading some of her writing has been like scriptural therapy, mitigating some of my theological neurosis. Dr. Levine suggests, rather than looking at the Bible or the parable as an instruction manual where we are tasked with finding the right answers, parables are actually a gateway towards asking the right questions—taking what we think we know about and sort of destabilizing it. In the case of the Persistent Widow, it would seem Luke (because remember, it’s not like Jesus is writing this all out himself) is comparing this ornery judge to God, who will only respond once they’re annoyed and beaten down. It makes me uncomfortable. What am I supposed to do with that?
Then the Pharisee and the Tax collector. I find myself wondering, “Who is the Pharisee? Who is the tax collector? Who are we supposed to be like?” We actually discussed this parable in class last week, and I found myself likening the United Church of Canada, and all of us well-meaning social justice minded Christians, with the Pharisees, and that every time we proclaim how glad we are that we are not like those crazy Evangelicals, with their small-minded, anti-queer, misogynistic ways, we are falling into the trap of the Pharisees, who would have been the more liberally oriented religious leaders in the Second Temple period. I love the United Church, but I also might be one of its biggest critics. Sometimes, I might be too harsh. In this case, and after some pondering, I’m not exactly sure how the Tax collector fits into that reading. I saw what I wanted to see in the parable. But Dr. Levine suggests that for a first-century Jew, the Pharisee, who would have been encountered favourably by most Jewish people, was kind of doing things right…and it would have made people very, very uncomfortable to think that the Tax Collector had been…justified. The translation that Catherine read for us earlier says that the Tax Collector was justified rather than the Pharisee. Other translations say that the Tax Collector was justified alongside The Pharisee. Both are justified together.
Levine explains that culturally, Jewish listeners would have understood the Tax Collector, an agent of the Roman state, as tapping into the merit of the Pharisee and the communal Temple system — an extension of the Merit of the Ancestors. She likens the system to a middle school group project where three people do all the work and one kid does nothing, yet they all still get the ‘A’. Or, perhaps, how I and two of my brothers worked super hard at getting the wood stacked as fast as we could, yet we all got the hot chocolate reward…
And I could go on and on in this way, describing ancient Jewish context and tradition. But as I do so, I realize I’m still approaching the parables as some kind of puzzle to be worked out, and I wonder if that takes away some of the…mystery? Greater lesson? What are the right questions we should be asking here? And it might be different for everybody. I think for me it is, if I’m working with Levine’s understanding of the text, why does it bother me that the Tax Collector seems to be able to attach themselves to the Pharisee for a free pass? Why does it bother me where God’s favour lands? And I think it’s because if the Tax Collector is justified, then who else that I don’t like is also justified? I realize it’s less about me being certain that I’m in God’s favour (because I rarely do) but rather, feeling pretty certain that specific other people aren’t. Are prosperity preachers such as Paula White and Joel Osteen justified? Not justified as in their actions, of course. They are financially exploitive, just like the Roman Tax Collector. But does God’s love and favour also rest with the prosperity preachers? Did my parents love and favour still rest with my brother?
I joked this week that almost all of my prayers can be summed up like this:
“Holy One, help me learn how to not be an asshole. Help others who are assholes not to be assholes.”
Now, perhaps I need to add a final part:
“And help me understand how it is you still love all the assholes anyway.”
Are we the Pharisee?
Are we the tax collector?
Perhaps we are both at the same time.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter who stacks the wood. We all get hot chocolate in the end, and that’s probably good, because I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’m sure there are folks out there who think I don’t deserve a hot chocolate either.
Photo credit: Natanja Grün