Scripture Readings: Luke 18.9-14, Psalm 65
The prayer offered by the Pharisee begins well: “God, I thank you…” Thanksgiving, a foundational form of prayer, is always a good place to begin communication with God. Psalm 65, for example, models a communal thanksgiving prayer, in which the people acknowledge God, the giver of everything we are and everything we have, everything necessary to sustain whole and holy life, from the good things of the earth, to answers to our prayers, to forgiveness for our transgressions. In thanksgiving, we become aware of ourselves again as creatures no different from any other, humbled in gratitude for that which we can never repay but only receive from our generous and gracious God.
“God, I thank you…” the Pharisee begins. And yet, we know from Jesus’ conclusion that the Pharisee’s prayer goes awry somehow. Somehow, his thanksgiving defeats the central purpose of prayer. For, deeper than listing to God our wants, prayer is about the relationships at the heart of our faith. As one scholar notes, “Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety, carried out to demonstrate one’s relationship with God. It is that relationship with God. The way one prays therefore reveals that relationship.” [i] To pray for justice, like the widow in last week’s parable of the unjust judge, is to seek the restoration of right and life-giving relationships between human beings.
To pray for justification, central to today’s parable, is to seek to be restored in right and life-giving relationship with God. And, it turns out, we cannot truly have one without the other. After all, Jesus tells us, the greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind” and the second is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
So what does the Pharisee’s prayer tell us about his relationship with God and neighbor? In the introduction which precedes the story, and in the pronouncement that follows, it seems to be spelled out for us. This is a story aimed at people who, trusting their own righteousness, have contempt for other people, a story about how the exalted are humbled and the humbled are exalted. So it’s hard not to write the Pharisee off as example number one of the very kind of hypocritical religiosity we are talking about when we use the word “pharisaical.”
But the people of Jesus’ time would have seen the Pharisee differently. Let’s give him a name—Levi, say—to help us see him as a person rather than a stock category.[ii] Levi would have been known as a good neighbor and admired, a community leader extraordinarily committed to living out his faith. People could count on Levi to volunteer teaching Sunday school and serving on Session. People relied upon Levi’s financial stewardship. Not only does Levi go without food twice a week, offering penitent prayer for the nation, but he gives a full ten percent of everything he has, support the needy of the community. So when we hear Levi pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” there is some truth. Levi has gone above and beyond in living out of Torah instructions. Perhaps he is simply grateful to God that he has the privilege of living such a life.
Yet this is also the moment where his prayer turns away from thanksgiving. It happens when Levi starts looking away from God in order to compare himself with others. You can almost visualize him peeking at the tax collector, feeling maybe just the tiniest bit of superiority. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
Levi doesn’t realize that he’s feeling superiority, though. On the one hand, it feels like relief: compared to that guy, Levi has it together. How many of us haven’t compared our situation to someone down on their luck and concluded, “Whew! There but for the grace of God go I”?
On the other hand, it feels like frustration: when will the tax collector “get with the program?” Levi is working awfully hard on behalf of God’s kingdom, and he believes such faithful living could transform the world. If that tax collector (and everyone else) would truly repent, start showing up for church regularly, and start living out his faith—not to mention start tithing!—Levi thinks, we wouldn’t be in this mess! Sarah Dylan Breuer notes,
“…[W]hen someone doesn’t sign on to such a program, it becomes tempting to start seeing people on the other side as the problem, and it’s practically impossible to proclaim something that will sound like Good News to your audience if you’re doing it from a position of resentment.”[iii]
It turns out that, any time we compare ourselves with other people, we eventually find ourselves indulging in self-justification. Daniel Clendinnen points out,
“We’ll invoke almost anything to justify ourselves — intelligence (GPA and SAT), alma mater (“This is where I went to school thirty years ago”), money (“I’m frugal toward myself and generous to others”), family (“Great kids!”), sports (“I’m in shape, you’re a slob”), politics (“My vote is enlightened, yours is ideological”), and work (“I work at X; what do you do?”).”[iv]
All of our attempts at self-justification ultimately defeat us. We may feel good about ourselves for a moment, but it always comes at the cost of relationships, with God and with other people.[v]
So what about that tax collector? What does his prayer reveal?
We’d better give him a name, too, to be fair. Let’s call him Jack. The people of Jesus’ time would have seen Jack in much the same way that the Pharisee seems to: a greedy crook and traitorous collaborator with the hated Roman oppressors. Jack is wealthy, because he has been willing to squeeze whatever he can from his neighbors, above and beyond what he has to pay the empire. And Jack doesn’t share his wealth with his church or community charities—he spends it on fine food, flashy clothes, and expensive toys. It was widely assumed that someone willing to enrich himself thusly would also traffic with other kinds of shady characters—that’s why tax collectors are always mentioned with prostitutes and sinners in the gospels. It’s actually remarkable that Jack is in the temple praying, as he has rarely, if ever, been seen there before.
But in the parable, Jack is the image of humiliated defeat:off by himself, eyes downcast, beating his breast, praying, simply, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ And Jesus tells us that this one-line prayer has a result which is at the heart of all prayer: Jack goes home justified with God.
Now we don’t know what happens after this. There is no suggestion that the tax collector went home and repented of his crooked ways. There is no suggestion that this prayer was a magic pill which, “poof,” transforms Jack from brokenness to holiness. There is only this snapshot of one moment in his life. But there is also the promise that this man, who has looked at painfully, honestly, at himself and come clean before God, when he leaves that place, goes “home.” There is nothing said about “home” for the Pharisee.
“Home,” is a word with deep symbolic resonance. In its most ideal meaning, home is a place where I can rest, where I can be fully myself, “warts and all.” When I am deeply at home, there is no need to compare myself to anyone else, because there is no need to prove how loveable or worthy I am. At home, I can trust in and receive the love of others. The tax collector’s prayer, bare of all attempts at self-justification, casting all his hope on the mercy of the only One who can right what has gone awry in his life, can point towards our way home, too.
Now, this parable is a bit of a brain-teaser. If we come away from it, lifting up the tax collector as a paragon of true righteousness while condemning that hypocritical Pharisee, we have missed the point. Or maybe, ironically, you could say we have fallen upon it revealing the immaturity of our own faith, falling into the very pattern of the Pharisee that we now despise. Ultimately, this parable just gives us a “good man” who condemns himself in disparaging a “bad” man, and a bad man whose penance probably falls short of our hopes. And it turns out that every one of us can go from being one of them to the other in the blink of an eye, without ever realizing what happened. [vi]
So what is the point? To be justified with God is not to say “Thank God I’m not like other people,” but to recognize that I am, in fact, exactly like other people. I, too, am a sinner. I have fallen short of the glory of God. No matter what I do, in and of myself, I can never fully make everything right. All I can do is come honestly before my God and my Savior, asking for mercy.
The good news is that, trusting in that mercy, I can go “home.” Letting go of all of those comparisons I have used to prop myself up might make me feel vulnerable, but it amazingly liberates me to go where I never have to prove myself ever again. [vii] The home I find in that place is where I can finally find some peace in my own life, and peace in relationship to everyone I encounter.
To be at home in that way is to learn, what it means to be the kind of “humble” people who God exalts, as Jesus pronounces at the end of the parable. Thomas Merton once said, “Humility is being precisely the person you actually are in the presence of God.” [viii] No longer comparing my deeds or lack thereof with others, I can focus more fully on God’s presence and the Holy Spirit’s movement in my life. I can be more compassionate to other people, recognizing that it is not “there but for the grace of God go I,” but “there we all go together, every one of us dependent on God’s mercy.”
And I can return again to a prayer of thanksgiving, no longer separating myself out, but identifying with the whole creation like the Psalmist, who praises God, saying, “The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke¸Sacra Pagina series, 473, quoted by Stofroeggen , http://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/prayers-god
[ii] Sarah Dylan Breuer, http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/10/proper_25_year_.html
[iii] Sarah Dylan Breuer, as above.
[iv] Daniel Clendinnen, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20101018JJ.shtml
[v] David Lose, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=416
[vi] Paul Simpson Duke, The Parables: The Great Texts, a Preaching Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, 34.
[vii] Daniel Clendinnen, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20101018JJ.shtml