May 25, 2014
“The Pattern of Purposeful Prayer”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
14 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.”
We find this parable in scripture paired with another parable on prayer. It is the story of a widow who seeks justice from an unjust judge. And she just keeps coming to him with this plea over and over again, until she finally wears him out, and he vows to get justice for her so that she will leave him alone.
And the one that follows in the one we read today – a tale about the attitude of prayer, or what prayer reveals about our faith.
Jesus tells this parable to some who trust in themselves that they are righteous and regard others with contempt.
The Pharisee is set up to be the bad guy, as Pharisees often are in Luke’s gospel. Even in the manner of is body position we can tell how this man views himself.
Rather than praying with his fellow believers, he stands apart from them, in a conspicuous way.
Rather than sitting before the Almighty as was the custom, he stands. And then he speaks these words (my paraphrase), “God I thank you that I am not like other sinners, especially that guy, the tax collector sitting over there. I do everything right, and do lots of helpful religiousy things.”
The tax collector is set up to be the good guy. He could not bear to come all the way in the temple; he cannot bear to lift his hands towards heaven which was the custom for prayer. He beats himself and begs for mercy from God.
Now the folks who first heard this would have been shocked by the reversal happening in the story.
We are pretty accustomed to the Pharisees being the model for what not to do in faith, but those hearing this would have considered the Pharisee the model of how to live as a faithful person – he fasts, he tithes, he is as upright as they come, blameless, perfect.
The Pharisees were good people. Tax collectors screwed the system for every cent they could get.
We could maybe get a better flavor for the feeling if we retold this tale instead as the Pope and a drug dealer went into St. Peter’s Cathedral. And in the tale it is not the Pope who goes home justified.
So here’s the interesting thing: the tale is not really about how to pray or how not to pray, but rather what prayer does to us, which is the same way of saying what faith does to us.
Soren Kierkegaard says the point of prayer is not to change God, but to change the nature of the one who prays. The nature of the Pharisee is that he believes he is good with God, righteous before God, without really needing God’s help. And it has the effect of separating him from other people, not only by how he stands in prayer but how he prays – “at least I am not like those other awful people, like that tax collector over there.”
Brene Brown who calls herself a researcher storyteller, is a qualitative researcher in psychology, and she talks about the difference between sympathy and empathy.
Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy takes the perspective of another person, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in other people and then communicating that. Empathy is feeling with people.
It is like someone is in a dark hole and you say I’m here with you, you are not alone. Sympathy says, whoa, it is bad down there.
And she says rarely does an empathic response begin with “at least.”
“I had a miscarriage.” “Well at least you know you can get pregnant.”
“My marriage is falling apart.” “At least you have a marriage.”
This attitude of “at least” – this separates us from other people.
And we see this in the way that the Pharisee stands, and separates himself, and the way that he prays, in essence, “At least I am not like those sinners. Thank God for that.” And how often do we do that, think like that or pray like that? Probably more than we think.
The Pharisee has had enough religion to be virtuous but not enough to be humble – so that his religion drives him away from the tax collector instead of towards him.
And his faith doesn’t seem to be fostering tremendous connection with God either. He prays to God – but every word is self-focused.
His prayer is nothing like the one Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. That prayer is entirely God-centric, opening with God’s name, kingdom, and will, then moving to our need of him for daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance.
This prayer is the prayer of one who has no need of anyone or anything because he is already in himself perfect, especially with respect to the wretched tax collector.
The tax collector is the one who is made humble by his faith. But his story is not so simple. Tax collectors were despised in their culture and for good reason. They were tax-farmers who bid on contracts to collect taxes in the provinces.
In essence, they would pay the tax up front, they subsequently extorted what they could from the populace, keeping the difference as profit. In the countries subject to the Roman Empire, they were so hated that only people of worthless character were likely to be found in this employment. They were called extortioners, hucksters, shepherds of fornication.
Preacher Fred Craddock describes the tax collector this way: He is “working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people, a participant in a cruel and corrupt system, politically a traitor, religiously unclean.”
The tax collector’s prayer isn’t necessarily perfect – he states that he is a sinner in need of God’s mercy – but is he repentant? Is he going to change what he does? There is no repentance in the tax collector’s speech, no pledge to leave his work or make things right with those he has cheated, no promises of a better way of living. There is only the simple acknowledgment that he is utterly and entirely dependent on God’s mercy. The tax collector knows the one thing the Pharisee does not: his life depends entirely on God’s grace and mercy.
What Jesus points out is that it is the man’s humility that matters. And it is humility and vulnerability, as Brene Brown would say, that allows you to love other people. People aware of their need for forgiveness and grace have a hard time despising other people.
Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In order to exalt yourself, you have to think yourself better than other people and certainly as good as God.
And to be humble you have to know yourself as a child of God like everyone else, and to know that you, like everyone else, stand in need of God’s mercy.
The end goal of faith is not to make us more confident, more sure of our understanding, better than other people – the end goal is a depth of humility which comes from our wonder of God, and knowledge of our need for God’s grace, and our compassion for everyone else who is the same boat as we are.
So if we walk away from this passage thinking, “At least I am not like that Pharisee” then we have missed the point. In the end it is the humility of the tax collector before God which means that he is the one who goes home justified, meaning that he is the one who goes home restored to relationship with God. His sins are removed, that’s what justification means, but that means the thing which separates us from God has been removed, the relationship is restored, reconciliation has taken place.
Trusting in ourselves makes us blind to our position before God, and this parable challenges us to find those places in our prayer lives and our faith where we are self-righteous. The challenge for us perhaps is to notice that we rather like being exalted. We might think of it as the satisfaction of a job well done or a duty fulfilled. And we might begin to believe that things we do, like tithing, working at a charity, being upstanding members of society, or the things we don’t do, like cheating or lying or stealing, really might justify us, at least a little, might make us a bit better than those who fail where we succeed.
The parable tells us we need to let go of that idea or we will get stuck in our own small righteousness. Or, perhaps we may need to challenge an assumption in ourselves that because of our failings, because we do not measure up to the standards, we are in some way beyond God’s forgiveness.
The good news of the parable is that the role of the tax collector is available to all of us. We, and everyone around us, are all sinners and all beloved children of God.
The parable invites us to experience the freedom that comes with casting away our flimsy attempts at self-righteousness and throwing ourselves into the arms of God. Amen.