Scripture - Luke 18:9-14
9He 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. 11The 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. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But 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!’ 14I 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.”
How many of you have heard the saying: “Be careful what you pray for, you just might get it?”
Certainly there are things for which we pray that are a bit more dangerous than others. For instance -- asking God for patience is a one of those dangerous prayers that we never really like having God answer - especially if you are an impatient person! Or I think about Mother Theresa’s - who experienced ecstatic visions of God’s love, and her famous prayer, “Lord, let me love you like no other has loved you” and for the next 50 years experienced a profound sense of God’s absence, what is known as the “Dark Night of the Soul” - and yet still demonstrated her love for God and others by ministering to the last and the least in the slums of Calcutta.
Prayer can be a dangerous thing, and yet it is central to the Christian life and discipleship. One cannot be a Christian and not - in some way - pray. I love this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that says “to be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
Yet prayer means a lot of different things to people. How we pray and what we pray for and why we pray varies greatly depending on your perspective. For some, prayer is a list of needs or wants that we bring before God to ask for God’s intervention. For others, as has been attributed to CS Lewis, “prayer is not for the purpose of changing God, but rather for changing us.”
But the bottom line is that prayer shapes and forms us. It sustains us and nurtures us. It brings us closer to one another and closer to God. It opens up space in our lives for the holy to enter and transform us as we are vulnerable before the one who knows our deepest and truest selves.
Prayer is what we find the two men in our story from this morning engaged in.
The only thing we know about who Jesus addresses this parable to is that they were people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. We don’t know if this was a group of priests, some very devout Jews, or a mix. All we know is they considered themselves better than others and scorned those who they thought were unrighteous and unworthy.
Their biases would have been set from the beginning of the story - “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” The Pharisee - a careful follower of the law - would be someone that would be held in high regard. Pharisees at the time weren’t people who held any kind of political power - they tended to be a modest sect who cared very much about helping people honor God in their everyday life. For them, this was done through careful observance of the Torah - which were the laws handed down from Moses. The hearers of this story would have expected a Pharisee to be in the Temple praying.
They would not, however, have expected the tax collector to be at the Temple. Tax collectors were among the lowest of the low in Jewish society. These were Jews who collected taxes from their fellow Jews for the Roman Empire. They could walk up to any man and tax him for what he was carrying - and more. The way they made their living was to collect from each person they taxed *more* than what they were required to take. They would hand over the proper sum to the Roman government and keep the extra for themselves. This was how they put bread on the table. Tax collectors were hated and despised and so those hearing this story would not have expected one of the men praying in the Temple to be a tax collector.
And the original hearers of the story certainly would not have expected the Pharisee to be deemed as the self-righteous one and the tax collector the one who was made right before God.
The Pharisee’s prayer is all about himself - I “this” and I “that.” I’m thankful, God that I’m not like *those* people - I’m not a robber or an adulterer or a tax collector. I do all these great things like fast and give. And it is a true prayer -- no one can fault him for that. He doesn’t ask anything of God, and it’s certainly a prayer that distances himself from his neighbor. It’s a prayer that reveals his ultimate reliance upon himself for his vocation and salvation. Whatever his purpose was in going to the Temple to pray, we don’t know - but his prayer reveals that in his view, he’s got nothing to worry about -- he’s doing the right things and avoiding the right things. He’s got it all under control. God hears this prayer.
The tax collector, on the other hand, prays a very different kind of prayer. His posture is different than that of the Pharisee - head bowed, beating his breast, not even looking up to heaven. Instead of a long litany like that of the Pharisee, his prayer is short and to the point - God, be merciful to me, a sinner. He didn’t enumerate his sins (though to be sure, the hearers of this story most likely could have come up with a list for him) - he simply asked God for one thing - mercy. He came to the Temple, daring to trust the depth of God’s mercy and that there might be some reserved for him. His reliance is not upon himself - though as a tax collector it would have been his natural inclination to do so to get by in the world. His reliance is upon God, and God’s boundless mercy, not his own works or his own strength. God hears and answers his prayer, and goes home as one who has been made right with God.
The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer was that it set up a divide between him and the tax collector. It’s even represented in the physical distance between them in Jesus’ parable. Instead of being a prayer that opened up the Pharisee’s life to be transformed by God, it closed him off to anything but his own righteousness and barred him from seeing God’s love and mercy for others. There was no way for the Holy Spirit to enter draw him closer to love of God and love of neighbor -- even his practices of fasting and tithing fail to move him toward the heart of God.
Now if I had to pick one of these characters to identify with -- you bet I would want to be like the tax collector. After all, God seemed to appreciate his prayer better. But truth be told, more often than not I am more like the Pharisee - trusting in my own self for my salvation, relying on doing the right things to be made right with God, and dismissing those who are “other” - not intentionally - but certainly through my lack of engagement with differing opinions and living in my own epistemic bubble.
To put this another way, if our response to this parable is, as Episcopal blogger and author Sarah Dylan Breuer puts it is, “"I thank God that I'm not like that awful Pharisee," we're in trouble.”
To be honest, that was my first reaction to reading this Scripture passage, and then I thought about my actions during this past Wednesday night’s political debate. I kept one eye tuned to the screen to listen to the candidates’ words and one eye tuned to my Twitter and Facebook feed, ready to like and retweet every snarky comment about the other side that scrolled by. And almost unbidden, that little prayer bubbled up inside of me “O God, I thank you that I am not like those on that other side, who believe this and that…and I’m certainly thankful I am not like this candidate or that candidate...” and the unconscious prayer goes on and on….and it sets up this divide between me and those who might think differently than I do. It’s a divide I don’t want to build, but it happens each time I consider myself superior to anyone else.
We all do this, don’t we? It may start innocently enough - a quick “thank you, God, that I am not like this other person or that group of people” - a fleeting comparison of someone else’s situation or beliefs or actions...but the problem here is that all too often that assessment turns to disapproval and judgment -- the “well, I would have done that differently” or “if he or she only knew about this” or “they don’t know any better” -- and that leads to judgment without understanding -- judgment that labels and dismisses -- judgment that dehumanizes -- judgment without empathy. It closes us off from seeing the other person the way Jesus sees them - as persons loved by God.
It also prevents us from acknowledging the areas in our own lives where we need to pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
When I acknowledge my own failings - my own struggles, my own weaknesses, my own brokenness - it makes it a bit easier for me to make room for others in their own sin and brokenness. When I stop trying to do all the right things to earn favor from others or from God, it makes me realize that God loves me exactly as I am...and God loves others exactly as they are. When I stop needing to prove my righteousness at the expense of others, I see the face of Jesus in those I had previously dismissed.
That’s the invitation of this story -- to take a cue from the prayer of the tax collector, and acknowledge the places in our lives where we stand in need of God’s mercy….acknowledge that we can’t make ourselves right before God under our own steam...acknowledge that we may act a bit more like the Pharisee in this story than we care to admit. But in recognizing this reality, we make room for God’s transforming love. We make room for the Holy Spirit to work in us to be more like Christ. We receive God’s gift of grace and mercy...and we begin to make room in our hearts for those we previously considered ourselves better than.
“God be merciful to me, a sinner.” It’s another dangerous prayer. It’s a prayer we are all called to remember, especially in this tense election season where our tendency is to vilify anyone with whom we disagree. But it’s a prayer that opens us to our common humanity, affirms God’s overwhelming love for each one of us, and leads to a deeper love of God and neighbor -- leads us to see God’s kingdom made real in those wrestling with addiction, those living with abuse, those struggling with mental illness, those without homes, those with whom we disagree politically, those who have harmed us, those who are refugees, and the list goes on.
I want to share with you a retelling of this Parable, written by Reverend Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a poet and United Methodist pastor serving in Acton, MA. He writes this:
Two people came into the temple to pray. A white man came up front and prayed, “God, I thank you that I’m not black. Thank you that I’m not a woman, or gay, or was abused as a child. I mind my own business, and I believe in you.”
An undocumented immigrant woman forced to work the street stood at the back and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” I tell you, she went home closer to God than the other. For all who are full of themselves will be empty of anything else. But those who make room for God will shine with glory.
May our prayers this week make room for God, that God’s love and grace and mercy may shine through the broken places in our lives, that we may live with hearts open to those who we think we’re better than, that we may know that each of us is loved wholly and fully by God. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the Chebeague Island United Methodist Church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two dogs, and soon will expect a new addition to her family. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the chuch community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.