October 23, 2016
“How Not to Pray”
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.”
You and I, we are interpreters of scripture. We read these words and try to figure out what they mean for us. When I am writing a sermon I would like to offer God’s word to you as a gift, wrapped up neatly and beautifully in a package that you can take home with you, for you to use, and enjoy.
And you, if you have had the chance to teach a Sunday school class or talk to a friend or loved one about your faith, you probably try to do the same thing.
And when we sit down and read scripture for ourselves, we try to do this too.
What is the take-away for us in this moment? What is the answer we need to hear?
Parables resist our need to have a neat and tidy summary of what Jesus meant.
Parables escape the boxes of our interpretations.
We have talked about this before but the purpose of a parable is not to tell us a fairytale or fable, or even a joke (this almost sounds like the beginning of a joke: “Two men walk into a Temple . . .:), but to give us something to chew on.
Parables are not meant to confirm what we already believe or to make us comfortable. So if we walk away from a parable thinking “we already knew that,” then we have missed the point somehow.
Parables are meant to confront us, to upend us, to surprise us in the midst of all our certainties about what we know about ourselves or about God. In a word, parables should make us uncomfortable.
We seek comfort a great deal in our lives. We seek those things that will take away our pain, make us feel safe and secure, we want experiences that will not overwhelm us, and we want to have whatever that is not cost us too much.
I’m becoming more risk averse the older I get, but I am also becoming more convinced that following Jesus Christ is not about finding comfort in our lives.
We speak about God as the God of comfort. At a recent funeral we read from Isaiah 40 where God speaks comfort to God’s people who are in distress, who are far from God and far from home.
In our prayers we pray for God’s comfort. I’m realizing that one of the dominant ways I think about God is as the one who gives comfort, especially in those times when comfort seems almost impossible.
We speak about God as the God of comfort which implies that we are not the ones who are always comfortable.
This parable that we have before us feels simple and straightforward.
Two men walk into a temple.
And these are familiar characters to us – a Pharisee and a tax collector.
We think we already know the punchline.
The Pharisee is a member of the religious elite, he is wealthy, respected and respectable, well-dressed. He is a righteous man, he has done everything right, even gone above and beyond what was expected of him in the law.
He has earned his place front and center in the temple and standing alone he prays his prayer of thanksgiving. He has done good things and good things have come his way.
The tax collector we know from other stories in Luke’s account in Jesus’ life was technically considered the bad guy, the one who was likely stealing from the citizens to line his own pockets, collecting money on behalf of the Roman oppressors.
Tax collectors were unclean because of the handling of Roman money.
This man can barely make it into the temple, so great is the burden of guilt he bears. He cannot even lift his head, but hunches over, pounding on his chest in grief, and crying out to God for mercy.
Because we are familiar with Jesus’ stories, we might feel like we get it at this point. Pharisee, bad guy, tax collector good guy. Don’t be a self-righteous Pharisee, be a humble tax collector. The end.
But then we hear ourselves saying, thank goodness I am not like that Pharisee – and we realize we have missed the point.
Instead of looking for a neat conclusion, let us instead let this story sit with us until it makes a little uncomfortable.
The Pharisee, he feels awfully familiar.
We recognize his self-congratulations because there have been times we have spoken the same words.
We have done good things for the wrong reasons.
We have looked at other people’s lives and said to ourselves and God, “Thank God my life is not like that. Thank God I didn’t make that life choice. Thank God my life is better than that. Thank God I am not them.”
We also recognize that desperate unspoken drive that we see in the life of the Pharisee to prove himself, to make himself valuable and worthwhile, to prove that he is worthy enough and good enough to stand before God and not feel guilty.
He has worked as hard as he can to prove that he is worth loving.
And we know what that looks like because we have done it too.
We have worked hard to prove ourselves in our workplaces and in our classrooms because this is supposed to give us meaning, earn us the approval of others, prove that we are not failures.
We have worked hard to look a certain way, to take a perfect selfie or family photo, to prove to ourselves that we are lovable and loved, and we are so preoccupied with our concern about ourselves that we have difficultly being concerned about anyone else.
Sometimes we prove that we are worthwhile by trying to prove that others are not, and we find that in so doing the more lonely and insecure we become.
Sometimes we try to prove our worth by being as selfless as possible, and yet we cannot help thinking about how self-less we are.
Sometimes we just try to be as good as we can be – for there is no way that God or other people can’t love us if we are good people.
The tax collector – he feels familiar too.
There are times too when we know what it feels like to be ashamed, to be burdened and weighed down, to wonder about our worth and worthiness.
We know what it feels, that ache, like when we screw up and say the wrong thing but there is no taking it back. We know what it is to be alone and unsure and afraid.
So let this story sit with you, allow it to question you, and make you feel a little uncomfortable, and perhaps you will start to recognize a little of both in your life.
But we don’t end there.
Neither of these people is saved by how they pray, and neither are we.
The Pharisee is not loved by God because he has done so many righteous things and worked really hard.
The tax collector is not loved because he beats himself up about his sinfulness and unlovedness.
It is God who justifies at the end of the story, because God is the one who justifies from the very beginning, and it is only the tax collector, I think, who can see it because he knows he has no power do it himself.
Justification is a churchy word we don’t often use in our lives unless we are talking about word processing (justifying something by lining it up to the right or left of the page). It means simply “made right with God” and this is great time to be talking about justification because we stand on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (and next Sunday is Reformation Sunday) which changed the religious landscape and is the reason we are sitting here today together calling ourselves Presbyterians, and it was all started with a question, “How do we earn God’s acceptance? How do we know that God loves and saves us?”
And the answer of the Reformation is: we are made right with God by grace through faith. We don’t have to do anything to earn it, we only respond to it. So as one theologian puts it, “The gospel does not say, ‘Trust God and he will love you,’ the gospel says, ‘God already loves you, so trust him.’ Faith is not a work that saves us; it is our acknowledgement that we are saved.” (Robert McAfee Brown)
So this is the center, the cornerstone of it all – and because of his humility the tax collector is nearer to seeing this truth than the Pharisee, because he has taken himself out of the equation. It is not about us, it is about God. Our challenge is not to take sides and lift up one of these men as getting it right and one getting it wrong, thereby dividing ourselves up in a similar way.
Our challenge is always to keep our eyes not on ourselves, but on God, on what God is doing, what God promises. And what God promises is grace and homecoming and freedom from all the worrying and the trying so hard and all the burden of not measuring up. Amen.