What Is Your Prayer?
“Where are you in the Scriptures today, JC?” For a year of my life, I was asked that question. “Where are you in the Scriptures today?” Charlie would ask me that question. He was the founder and director of the religious non-profit organization I was working for at the time. The place was called the Campus for Human Development and today, it is known by the name Room In The Inn. It is an organization that was started to serve the homeless population of the Nashville area. It began nearly 30 years ago when Charlie was a priest in a local parish and each morning, a man named Michael would knock on his door at 5am and ask Charlie to share his breakfast with him. As the weather changed and grew colder as winter approached, Michael started knocking earlier and earlier. Several folks who knew that Charlie would share his breakfast with Michael would tag along in hopes of resting in the warmth of the sanctuary for a little while each morning. Soon, Charlie welcomed folks in to spend the night in the sanctuary and he enlisted several other priests in the area to also open their doors. And as time passed, Charlie convinced city officials that if they gave him a building, he would provide better services for the homeless and poor. Today, over 300 communities of faith are involved in this project, opening their doors nightly to provide emergency shelter for the homeless and they have renovated that building from the city to provide classes, case management, long-term programs to help individuals combat chronic homelessness and low-income housing.
I worked there for a year at the Support Desk – it was essentially the triage center. Anyone who came in – whether for the first time or the hundredth time, would come to my desk and ask their question. Depending on the season, I met anywhere between 60 to 300 people per day, and it was an honor to listen to the many stories that came with their questions. Sometimes, the days grew long and exhausting – others went by quickly, feeling productive and like I did something to help someone that day. But, no matter which day it was, Charlie would always ask, “JC, where are you in the Scriptures today?” – mind you, this was terrifying to me as I was not all that familiar with the stories of the Bible and therefore had a limited pool of answers to respond to the daily question by the Roman Catholic priest.
It took me a while to figure out why he asked that particular question – but, over the course of the year, I began to understand why that is his question, rather than a simple “how are you.” He asks that question because all of our stories have been told before. We can find them right here in the Bible. It is a holy text, a historical text, a narrative of the people of God – it is all of these things and our story can be found in it as well. When I got the phone call from Beverly inviting me to serve as your interim associate pastor, I found myself in a Psalm – praising God truly, God’s steadfast love endures forever and I wanted to make a sound of praise with lute and lyre. Last weekend, we hosted friends from Chicago and I spent a lot of time cooking and tending to the space to make sure everyone was comfortable – I felt a bit like Martha, toiling for the sake of hospitality. Our stories have all been told before – each of them. Yours and mine and Charlie’s and Michael’s and each person who draws breath. Our stories have all been told before.
Charlie’s second catch phrase was ‘the anawim’. Now, I can’t quite remember where he got this word – if you ask me, it sounds as if it is rooted in Hebrew, but the way that he defines it is from the Gospel of Matthew – ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ or ‘we all are in need of God’. In other words, each of our identities, both as individuals and as a community, is rooted in our need for God’s grace, our need for God’s love – no matter our station in life, we all are in need.
Our Gospel reading this morning is another parable from the Gospel of Luke. As we discussed last week, we remember that a parable is not a piece of Scripture on which an entire theology can be based upon. Though there is often a ‘go and do likewise’ quality to them, we must also listen for what it says about the realm of God and incorporate that into our experiences from other parts of Scripture. This morning, the parable describes the experience of two different men who went to the temple to pray. Perhaps we may find ourselves in this Scripture today – and I am grateful to be able to take a moment to reflect on the story and our place in it.
Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, surprise us with your love. May our ears be open to hear Your Word for us today and may our hearts be turned towards you in awe. Amen.
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. 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.”
Well, we have another parable here with some helpful instruction as to what to listen for as well as some interesting characters. So, let’s get into it.
The text begins by describing the intended audience. Jesus was clear that this parable would be directed at those ‘who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” This parable is directed to the faithful, to those who practiced piety, to those who are so confident in their faith they begin to lift themselves above others and start to point fingers of judgment. It is to this audience Jesus speaks and he weaves the story of two seemingly opposed characters together.
The Pharisee and the tax collector – both Jews (we can infer this because they are both going to the Temple); both pious (as they both go to pray) – yet each would approach the other with contempt.
Neither character has a name, much like the preceding parable of the widow and the judge that we discussed last week. We are simply given titles. The use of titles indicates that we should pay attention to that which each character represents. On the one hand, we have the Pharisee – Pharisees were known for their practice of piety. They sought to live lives in accordance with the law – to fast, to tithe, to not take advantage of others, nor cause injury. And, then, on the other hand we have the tax collector. Tax collectors in the ancient world were reviled: they consorted with the Romans, handled the money of local regions and extorted from the populace. The tax collector, typically a wealthy man, paid the empire a set amount for the privilege of gathering whatever he wanted from his neighbors, gathering for himself a hefty profit. One character representing good – the other bad – and Jesus ends the parable with the surprise ending that the tax collector, the ‘bad’ character is the one who is justified because of his prayer.
So, let’s unpack this a bit – there is much more at work here than a simple good vs. bad plot line where Jesus then gives the plot-twist ending. The Pharisee trusted in his own ability to obey the law and believed that justified himself to God and to the world. Yet, he was unable to see and name his own need for God. The tax collector, on the other hand, did not obey the law – he took advantage of other people for his own gain – but, as he went to pray, he acknowledged his need for God’s grace and mercy.
Jesus draws our attention to the posture in which the two men pray. Now, there a couple of ways to interpret the tone in which the Pharisee prays. But, when I hear it, I can hear it as a prayer that may be prayed in a church today – yes, it has hints of narcissism as he prays thanksgiving to God for the detailed narration of his own goodness. But, I also can hear genuine gratitude for not egregiously sinning, according to his own opinion. And, if I am honest, I think Christians today can relate to the Pharisee in that we also strive to live faithful lives – we try not to cause harm or take advantage of others, we volunteer and come to church and genuinely strive to live a life that will be pleasing to God. But we do, if we are honest and much to our own regret, find ourselves setting ourselves over and against others – praying gratefulness that we are not like some others.
The tax collector has an entirely different tone to his prayer. First off, he doesn’t even dare go near the Temple. Perhaps because of his social status, he feels alienated from the worshipping community or, perhaps, he has a personal sense of unworthiness. He doesn’t even lift his eyes to pray for God’s mercy. Emotional and wrought with pain, he admits his need for God’s grace for he cannot forgive himself. And, this is the prayer that Jesus affirms.
A natural inclination when interpreting this parable is to pick a side – identify with one or the other – am I like the Pharisee or am I like the tax collector? But, I want to try something different and I would like to challenge you to imagine both of these characters as one average follower of Christ – utterly sinful and depraved (shout out to Calvin on this Reformation Sunday) like the tax collector and utterly trying to love God and neighbor well, like the Pharisee. Our lives are complex and dynamic – a fabric of experiences and practices, beliefs and feelings. We are both of these men – we are pious, like the Pharisee, and we seek to do what we believe is pleasing in the eye of God. AND, we are the tax collector desperately in need of God’s grace.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” “God, I am not God.” “God, I need your grace.” This is a simple prayer but often it is the most difficult. The power of this prayer should not be underestimated. Because, if we are to truly believe that we are in need of God’s grace – each of us as individuals – then, we find ourselves at odds with the culture around us which promotes making judgments about one another, to know where we fit among the proverbial pecking order. If we believe that we are in need of God’s grace, we no longer have to look at someone else to compare ourselves to to either be humbled by or better than. The liberation of knowing that God is merciful and loving means that we can leave behind that perceived responsibility to judge one another and approach one another, with the humility of a child of God.
Our mandate as Christians is to love God and to love one another. This text helps us to understand that the good news of the gospel is not to love God and to judge another; it is not to love God and to look down upon another; it is not to love God and, by loving another, “love” someone else into who they are not. Through Christ, we are free from the responsibility of judging one another and set on a path to love God with all our hearts and to love one another with the humility of one who needs grace. As Charlie said, we are all in need of God’s grace and if we can recognize that in one another, we might be humble enough to be in relationship with one another, to serve each other, and not view one another on a comparison chart.
Charlie would ask where you are in the Scriptures today. But, I will ask you what you pray for. We learn from the text this morning that we, children of God, are loved and cared for and listened to. By learning the prayer of the tax collector, we are drawn to consider the great mercy of God – the great, mysterious, grace-filled and powerful love of God – and thanks be to God that we are all recipients of God’s great love. May God have mercy on us.