October 23, 2016 “ 23 Pentecost C, Proper 25
Jeremiah 14:7-10; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Lord, teach us to pray, the disciples ask Jesus pretty early on in their ministry. Jesus responds to that initial request by teaching them what we refer to as the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, the Pater Noster. Later on, after they have presumably been using that form of prayer for a while, Jesus takes up the question again, even though the disciples haven’t asked the question again. After Jesus teaches them a form of prayer, he digs deeper to teach the substance of prayer. God’s word does that to us repeatedly: it challenges us to live our lives differently, to change what we do. And then God’s word challenges us – inspires us – to examine not only our actions but our intentions and motivations.
How we do what we do matters a great deal. What we do and how we do it are always being brought into the light by the Cross of Christ. It’s not so much in a shaming way where we see how shallow and self-centered we are and just quit because we know we can’t ever do it well enough. It’s more in a nurturing and persuasive way where we see that God wants more for us and we decide we want more too. Our desires start to line up a little closer with God’s desires.
So, later on, after Jesus teaches a prayer that continues to hold us together, he teaches about the substance of our prayers which will lead us closer to God and our great potential as children of God.
Last week, in our gospel lesson at the beginning of the 18th chapter of Luke, Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. The parable is called the parable of the Persistent Widow or the Parable of the Irritable Judge. A widow persistently pleads her case to the irritable judge. The first few times the widow comes to him, the judge refuses to hear her case. But she just keeps showing up day after day until the judge relents and hears her case and awards her justice. If a crummy judge will grant justice to a persistent widow, Jesus says, obviously God will hear our prayers and bring justice and hope to us. So don’t lose heart when you pray. Hang in there even if it seems like no one is listening. God is always listening.
Then, without taking a breath, Jesus tells the parable we read today. Reading scripture in little pieces like we do in church is helpful to provide focus points but sometimes we just need to read a big chunk of scripture all at one time to get a feel for how it fits together. Every year, make it a point to sit down and read each of the four gospels in one sitting. It really helps.
The parable we read today, coming on the heels of the parable of the Persistent Widow, continues the teaching on prayer. Two men went up to the temple, Jesus says, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. In other words two guys are in the temple praying, one we would expect to see there and one that would have caused us to take a second glance. Wow, what’s he doing here? The tax collector has just as much right to be there as the Pharisee but, while everybody in the temple likes and admires the Pharisee, everybody in the temple hates the tax collector. He’s Jewish, like the other worshipers, but he’s seen as a traitor. His allegiance is more to the empire than the faith. He collects taxes for the empire and is paid, not by extra money from the empire but from a percentage of what he collects from the Jews. He’s here praying with us but he’s taking our money and giving it to the enemy. That’s just not right.
But, hated as he is, the tax collector has come to the temple to pray. The Pharisee sees him across the way and lifts his nose up to heaven and says, God, I thank you that I am not like him. I do all the right things and I am so glad you didn’t make me like the schmucks I see all around, especially that you didn’t make me like this guy who represents everything that is wrong in the world.
Years ago I pulled up to a stop light and up beside me pulled a car with all its windows down and the stereo on so loud with horrible music, so loud that my car was vibrating with me in it. I cut a glance over to the guy in the car, my eyes sending the clear message: You are what is wrong with this world. He turned and looked at me and I saw in his eyes exactly what I was feeling about him. He was looking at me and thinking, You are what is wrong with this world. And in that moment I saw that he was at least as right as I was.
While the Pharisee looks at the tax collector with contempt, the tax collector has an entirely different posture, and an entirely different prayer, revealing an entirely different heart. He is looking down rather than up, hiding instead of making sure everyone notices him, and he says, God, be merciful to me a sinner. That’s the punchline, that’s the teaching point Jesus is trying to make. That’s the guy whose heart is in the better place, Jesus tells us. Seeking humility rather than glory is the spirit of true prayer.
Whenever I am comparing myself to others and justifying my actions by what others do or don’t do, I am glorifying myself. When I take stock of my own life, authentically and honestly, I am in a humble place. So, in his teaching on prayer, Jesus starts with the elementary school message of form and then goes to the graduate school message of substance.
Self-reflection, we all are learning, is our part in the wonderful gift of transformation. As we honestly name who we are to ourselves, to a trusted friend or guide, and to God, the burdens that we carry begin to lift. As we name aloud our broken motivations and selfish desires, we begin to be healed and enabled to live more for others. As we admit our great need for help and begin to put some authentic skin on those skeletons we’ve been carrying but have only wanted to keep hidden, we come to know the love and forgiveness of our Savior Jesus Christ. That love and forgiveness has been waiting for us, surrounding us, even coaxing us into that place of self-reflection where we can name what is really in our hearts.
And that starts us on a path where we find that God is making us new, healing us, transforming us into all that we are intended to be. We might hope we could have that come-to-Jesus sort of awareness once and be done with it because it’s hard. But self-reflection is a daily dance where we are led further and further into God’s grace.
It’s tempting to read this story and imagine that the tax collector was just always a better person than the Pharisee but I’m willing to bet that when he heard the Pharisee berate him he himself thought, what a jerk, and then maybe that jarred him into a place of humility. When others go low and we react lower, a still small voice comes to us and invites us to move to higher ground. Sometimes we are forced to see that we really are broken and out of that comes a desire for grace. And the grace of our Lord sweeps in and makes us new. Admit to yourself who you are, tell the Lord who you are, and watch who you are be transformed and made new.