Here we go again – hearing another story Jesus told about prayer.
In last Sunday’s Gospel the setting was a courtroom where a widow is demanding the support owed her and an indifferent judge gives in just to get rid of her.The lesson being, God, unlike the judge, is listening and acts with undeserved and unearned kindness, and through our prayerful pleas we are connected to God and to one another, and are often used by God to be an answer to another's plea-ful prayer...so appropriate for last Sunday with its annual CROP Walk to invite the community to join in raising money to feed the hungry.
Today the setting is the Hebrew’s Temple where two people come to pray. One is a Pharisee, charged with preserving, teaching, and observing the Ten Commandments, the Laws for living, the other a tax collector, despised for being a Jew in charge of collecting taxes demanded by the occupying Romans – and increasing the rate to get rich on what he takes for himself. As we listen to them pray to God, we bring our impressions and judgments to the story.
The Pharisee – who, in the practice of Hebrew prayers of Praise and Thanksgiving raised to God, presents a noble list of his personal evidence:
he faithfully practices all the rules about eating and fasting
observed at the prescribed times of the year;
he has enough money to meet the requirement of handing ten percent over to Temple treasury.
The problem with his prayer is not what he is heard saying- and everyone can hear him, for he shouts out his word, but his posture and his gaze. He has separated himself from everyone else, and his gaze is not upward, but on all the people he diminishes with added reasons to be grateful: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
It’s his stance and his stare that make him guilty of breaking the law he was charged to reserve and practice: To love God through living and serving others; his stance and his stare indict him.
Bruce Maples tells the story of a band director who built a trophy winning program. “One tactic he used was to take coat hangers and shape them into a a circle, with the hangar part made into a handle. If you messed up the marching drill, you had to put down your instrument and carry one of these coat-hangars, while the other members of the band chanted a little ditty that called you a Zero.” (http://brucewriter.com/seeing-others-as-zeros) Bruce Maples is not condoning this practice, but using the story to describe the Pharisee who “treated others with contempt.” In Greek it reads “despised others” to the point of reducing them to nothing, to zero.
Something we, when needing to feel good about ourselves, may do as we reduce others to a zero.
Or, the more subtle form of contempt – to act as though others do not exist; they are less than human, they are a zero.
The blindness of the Pharisee when coming to pray and when leaving, the blindness of not seeing himself or others as God sees. A sad sight of a less than feel good faith.
The tax collector’s stance and stare are right for him:
standing far off,
not even look(ing) up to heaven.
Those he’s made poor have every reason to shun him, and God has no reason to accept him.
He has no right to be praying in the Temple.
Seeing himself for who he really is, he cowers in a dark corner,
beating his breast and saying,
‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
His is an ugliness, an emptiness, a self-accepted zero that drives him to do what is out of character for a man of that time. Only women beat their breast in public to express unbearable woe and anguish,
which he lets others see him doing before them and God,
which puts him in the right place praying the right prayer, and so the story ends with Jesus saying:
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified
rather than the other;
for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
“Justified” – a legal action of being released from a deserved judgment and condemnation, which in Paul’s New Testament Greek becomes the word for God’s action in Jesus Christ;
we are made right with God through God’s gift of forgiveness,
freeing us to live a new and Christ-like life.
The evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935), is quoted as having said the best thing that could happen to any person would be to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, walk out of the tent, be hit by a truck, and killed instantly. There would be no test-driving of one's faith, no opportunity to backslide, and no chance to move from "God be merciful to me a sinner!" to "By the Grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them –
though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Cor 15:10 - (Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. 2010)
Something we might find ourselves when going from prayers of confession to live out “the grace of God,”
needing to stop beating ourselves with guilt that makes us and everyone else miserable,
and, at the same time, working at what Billy Sunday called “test-driving of one's faith,” as we struggle to turn what we pray into what we do: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
knowing that is what it means to live with a feel good faith.
Now it’s our turn to admit there are times when we may find ourselves being the Pharisee –
needing to see our God-given blessings are gifts to be shared.
Other times we are the tax collector in need of letting God’s pardoning love send us home from worship to take up Paul’s words:
“His grace toward me is not in vain!”
In our senior year of seminary our choir tour had us singing in New England churches where, to make hosting easier, men were housed in one set of homes and women in another. When one woman heard Howard and I were married, she has us stay with her family, gave us the best room, and served us a fabulous breakfast – all while enduing the pain of working with one leg severely deformed from polio.
I wanted to send a small gift but didn’t have her address, and soon forgot to get it.
Several years later we met her pastor who told us she had died, and
I found myself taking on the unbearable weight of the tax collector’s guilt until, like him, I let God’s grace release me to find ways to do for others what it was too late to do for her and in doing truly experience
what can be called a feel good faith. AMEN.