How Shall We Pray?
First Reading Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm Psalm 84:1-6
Second Reading 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Gospel Luke 18:9-14
“Happy are the people whose strength is in you! * whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.” In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Earlier in the gospel according to Luke, the disciples pleaded, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and Jesus offered us the Lord’s Prayer. Last week we heard a parable about the need to pray always and never to lose heart. Today, Jesus expands the lesson with a parable about the nature of prayer. Based on the surrounding text, we should assume disciples, Pharisees, tax collectors, and all sorts of people are listening to Jesus. He tells the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt."
Two men went to the Temple to pray. We might say both of them are pious, approaching God, and serious about their faith. At the beginning of the parable, there is no difference in the two men, except their occupation. But to Jesus' hearers, a Pharisee and a tax collector embody all sorts of reputation, perception, and expectation. The Pharisee’s are supposed to know how to pray, to do it right, and be an example to the people. Tax collectors are despised, working for the occupying Romans, doing the dirty work, and often cheating their own people for personal gain.
The Pharisee begins to pray, or does he? Is this a prayer at all? He is standing by himself, but the Greek construction suggests he is amid an audience of Pharisees. He does offer something up to God, but what he offers is his self righteousness, so others can hear. He gives thanks, but it is thanks that he is not like others, the less righteous. The Pharisee even scorns others, in the elitism separating those who are righteous and "the rest" of the world. In the full narrative of Jesus' preaching, the Pharisee's prayer is not only self aggrandizing, in terms of the gospel narrative it is also false. Jesus chose the social archetype of a Pharisee in this parable for a reason.
Perhaps the Pharisee is not all bad. He practices tithing, giving a tenth of all his income to God. [Another subliminal plug for our stewardship campaign.] This is the second week in a row scripture has promoted tithing. Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people!
Then the tax collector begins to pray. Tax collectors, along with sinners, have consistently been portrayed as open to the prophet and conversion, thereby "justifying God." Luke indicates four aspects of the tax collector's humility in prayer. He prays far off, not in a showy way for all to hear. He keeps his eyes lowered. He beats his breast. He cries out to God for mercy. The tax collector assumes God knows the things he has done right, or what is expected, but does not cling to those or argue his case. The tax collector also assumes God knows all the things he has not done right ... what he has done and what he has left undone. He does not put down others to lift himself up. He simply asks God for mercy. The tax collector prays for God to make his shortcomings whole, and in being made whole with God, he might be a better servant of God for humanity. The tax collector expresses his full dependence on God.
Perhaps we should pause here for personal prayer perspective. We often find meaning in scripture by placing ourselves in the shoes of one character or another, hoping to find how we are to live.
So where are we in this parable? Shall we pray like the Pharisee? Despite the Pharisee being the expected role model and standard of perfect prayer, we can see he is not authentic, even self serving. In the end, the prayer of the tax collector is praised. "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.” So we are called to be the tax collector; he is our example. Or, is he?
If we claim we are the tax collector, do we not become the Pharisee? Could we not cry out "God be merciful to me, a sinner!" with the same self-righteous piousness for all to hear? The parable warns of the dangers of self-righteous religiosity no matter the prayer. The absolute trust in God's mercy is what makes the tax collector's prayer our model. The one offering the prayer must be willing to stand before God without excuse, without special pleading, without expectations, and without a single claim on anything but God's mercy. The tax collector's sins are undoubtedly real and serious. But if a tax collector can find mercy before God, who will be excluded?
Perhaps we are neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector. Perhaps we find ourselves more as the disciples. Imagine the disciples and other followers around Jesus listening to this story nudging each other as the story begins. Jesus is taking another jab at the Pharisees. "We" aren't them ... this part is about "them." Then, in a grand reversal, Jesus justifies the tax collector. But "we" aren't "them" either, because tax collectors are the worst kind of sinners. The disciples are probably as confounded as the Pharisees. God gives this tax collector a pat on the head?
We probably find ourselves with the disciples, somewhat confused, and somewhere in the middle. We are clearly not the Pharisee, but also do not identify with the tax collector, or are we at varying times both? The lesson remains the same wherever we are. "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Our challenge is to discern how to offer our life in Christ to God in prayer. Deep in the heart of every human, love of God can so easily turn into idolatrous self-love. Gifts from God can so quickly be seized as a possession. All the blessings we enjoy from God can so blithely be turned into self-accomplishment. Prayer can easily be transformed into boasting. Piety can be confused as to the audience and the object.
The example of the tax collector's prayer is utter simplicity and truth. He requires God's gift of righteousness because he has none of his own. Jesus does not condone the tax collector's sin, but absolves it because he both needs and recognizes his need for God's mercy. Perhaps that's the point ... you have to want God. Not anything else, just God. This picture of prayer is faith in relationship. Prayer is not a public exercise in piety carried out to demonstrate one's relationship with God. Prayer 'is' our relationship with God. Anglican theologian William Ralph Inge states, "Prayer is the lifting up of the soul to God, and the descent of the Spirit of God into the human soul."
We all succumb to our own piety from time to time. It is easy to quote a verse from scripture or offer the 'churchy' platitude that is expected of us. We all want to say the right things and act as we should. A priest asked a group of children, "What's gray, has a bushy tail, and gathers nuts in the fall?" After some silence, a child hesitantly answered, "I know the answer should be 'Jesus' but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me."
We have all attempted to exalt ourselves in the eyes of others, or at the expense of others. Sometimes we even exalt ourselves to God. It is easy to lose sight of who is Creator and who is creature. This is why we remind ourselves weekly in the Collect for Purity, that we submit completely to God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hid. Jesus challenges us to avoid trusting in our own efforts, rather to humble ourselves before a merciful and loving God.
Paul offers us himself, an example of prayer as relationship with God. He writes from prison, facing impending death, and reflects on his life and ministry ... a converted, transformed life lived in submission and service to God. He reflects, "I am already being poured out as a libation." Paul does not claim to be the purest water or the finest wine, but one who quenches thirst by pointing to the One who saves. Paul claims a crown of righteousness, not that he has earned on his own accord, but that is the gift from the Lord. And this crown is not his alone, but shared with all those who long for Christ. Paul offers forgiveness to those who deserted him, but cannot claim this forgiveness on his own. Paul is only capable of such forgiveness because of God’s forgiveness of his former life of violence and persecution of fellow Jews who followed Jesus. Paul claims righteousness that is not Paul's to boast about, because righteousness is not Paul's, or ours, but God's. May we seek to live a prayerful life given to God without personal claim or piety. Let us depend on God's righteousness, not our own. Amen.