He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But 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!’ I 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.” –Luke 18:9-14
An unfortunate human tendency, magnified during difficult times, is that of trying to appear superior by pointing fingers of blame at others. Of course, we’re used to seeing it politically with the partisan politics playing out at nearly every juncture, but lately we’ve also seen it geopolitically. How quickly the criticisms of China vaulted to the forefront, labeling that country as the villain of this terrible time. I’ve wondered how things might have changed had the criticisms been transitioned into cooperation. I mean, what if we took this opportunity to befriend the Chinese people? How much difference would there be in the world that is and the world that will be in the “new normal”? Today’s parable reminds us that God is concerned with much more than the appearance of righteousness and that, in God’s eyes, humility trumps pride every time. Luke introduces our parable by telling us that Jesus told this story “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.” We assume that the tale’s characters were going to one of the temple’s two daily services, which were held at 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. The description of the two men was that one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Now, I think we should work hard at trying to hear this story as Jesus’ listeners would have heard it. For one thing, we need to be careful to understand that our biases against the Pharisees were not shared by most of the people in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were lay leaders with a zeal for doing the right thing. Even during the Roman occupation with its natural bent toward pluralism, the Pharisees lived their lives in devotion to the Jewish way of life. These men were generally well-respected in their communities. The tax collector, on the other hand, was the Pharisee’s polar opposite. While we may have sanitized the tax collectors because of Jesus’ interaction with them, almost giving them a benefit of the doubt, we need to remember that the tax collectors had negotiated a sweet deal with the Romans which allowed them to get rich by taking advantage of their countrymen. They made money off of the oppressed and became oppressors themselves. So, as we listen to this parable we need to be careful that we don’t bring our own preconceived biases into the story itself. The Pharisee would have been a well-respected churchman, and the tax collector a despicable shyster. John Dominic Crossan has a playfully correct depiction when he paraphrases this story by saying, “A Pope and a pimp went into St. Peter’s to pray.” With these caricatures noted, we now observe the two. Interestingly enough, Jesus tells us that the Pharisee stood by himself, basically placing himself center-stage. Could this Pharisee be like one of those ministers who loves to hear his own voice and his own platitudes when he prays? Maybe . . . But perhaps the prayer simply follows the Jewish model for giving thanks. His gratitude, we will see, stems from his having been spared an ungodly life and from his living in obedience to divine command. In fact, he exceeds divine command. However, as the Pharisee prays, it might be interesting to note that he doesn’t follow the old admonition of “every head bowed and every eye closed.” He casts a sidelong glance at the tax collector next to him, saying that he is grateful “not to be like other men: extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector.” The Greek word, “houtos”, used here for ‘this’ is a distancing word of superiority. The tax collector, by contrast, looks downward. Abandoning the Jewish model of prayer, head and hands lifted up, this one will not even look to heaven, but beats his hands on his chest in anguish. His prayer begins like the Pharisee’s, calling upon God, but immediately plunges into repentance. While the Pharisee prays a sanctimonious prayer in gratitude for what he isn’t, the tax collector prays a petition of lament for what he is – a sinner! The contrast between the two prayers is pointedly obvious – one profoundly religious and proper, the other intensely personal and poignant. Hopefully, today’s parable will call us to consider our own conversations with God. John Grisham, the popular fiction writer, knows something of the sinner’s prayer. His novel, The Testament, portrays a character by the name of Nate O’Reilly, a disgraced corporate attorney plagued by alcoholism and drug abuse. After two marriages, four detox programs, and a serious bout with dengue fever, Nate goes to church and repents. “With both hands, he clenched the back of pew in front of him. He repeated the list, mumbling softly every weakness and flaw and affliction and evil that plagued him. He confessed them all. In one long glorious acknowledgment of failure, he laid himself bare before God. He held nothing back. He unloaded enough burdens to crush any three men, and when he finally finished, Nate had tears in his eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered to God. ‘Please help me.’ As quickly as the fever had left his body, he felt the baggage leave his soul. With one gentle brush of the hand, his slate had been wiped clean. He breathed a massive sigh of relief, but his pulse was racing.” I think Grisham’s story is not just good fiction; it’s the truth about our need to be honest with God and ourselves, seeking God’s grace and not our justification. But lest we think that such prayer is sweet and passive, the call to honest prayer will require a courage that demands all that we have. It will not be easy; it will have an antiseptic sting that goes to the heart. In his book The Culture of Disbelief, Stephen Carter describes how, when he speaks to civic groups, he often addresses the topic: “The Most Dangerous Children in America.” To introduce this theme, Carter tells two stories. The first is about the terrifying day that his daughter, five-years-old at the time, was caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between rival gangs in Queens. Adding to the terror was the fact that Carter and his daughter were separated by the gunfire, and he could not get to her until the shooting stopped. When Carter tells this story, his audience generally gasps in horror and sympathy. Then Carter relates another personal experience. He was commuting on the train from his home in Stamford, Connecticut, to New Haven. As the train made its various stops, many teenagers got on board, headed for private schools along the train’s route. At one stop, a group of girls got on, and Carter happened to overhear their conversation. They were heatedly debating which community was more fashionable and exclusive, Westport or Fairfield. One of the girls from Westport, named a person of great wealth who lived in her town, only to be countered by a Fairfield girl, who named an even wealthier resident of her community. The argument raged back and forth until one of the Westport girls came up with an announcement she clearly saw as a trump card. She named a world-famous entertainer who, she claimed, actually lived in Westport. Not true, said one of the Fairfield girls. The entertainer did not live in Westport but was only visiting a friend there. She knew this for a fact, she said, because she had met this entertainer at her father’s store. Hearing this, the Westport girl raised up and hooted disdainfully, “Your father has a store?” The Fairfield girl, realizing too late that she had said too much, cringed in shame as the Westport girl drove the blade home. “What does he sell there?” she crowed. “Hardware?” After telling these two stories, Carter asks his audience which of the two groups of children is more dangerous – the Queens gang members or the wealthy girls on the train. Predictably, most of Carter’s hearers will say that the gang members are more dangerous. But then Carter points out that the gang members, as violent as they are, are closed in by their neighborhood, and most of them will likely be dead or in jail before long. The girls on the train, though, are admitted to the finest universities and will go on to important careers where they will make decisions that affect many other people. In the long run, the words they speak and the attributes behind them may be in fact more lethal than the gang’s bullets. Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, knows something of gangs and their pasts. He is a Jesuit priest, founder and director of Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles, which, since its founding in 1988, has evolved into the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program in the world. Taking the spirit of this parable to heart, one of Father Boyle’s initiatives involves a team of physicians who are trained in the laser technology of tattoo removal. This team is part of a program that removes the tattoos of ex-gang members, helping to wipe their slates clean. For many, it is as crucial a service as it is merciful. You see, gang-related tattoos prevent many former gang members from getting jobs or being trusted in society. There is no fee for the removal; it is a gift made in the name of Christ. And Father Boyle pulls no punches. He tells those who come that the process of tattoo removal is extremely painful. Patients describe the laser treatment as feeling like hot grease on their skin. And yet the waiting list is over a thousand, each name representing a life that longs to be free. I think that Jesus came to set us free, but he knew that wouldn’t be easy. He calls us to dig deep and become honest before God. Today, fellow Pharisees and publicans, let us pray . . . together as one . . . A Time of Reflection and Prayer
What do our prayers say about us? Is it possible to strip away the comfortable habits, postures and vocabulary of our daily prayer lives to draw closer to God?
Why is there such a difference between public and private prayers? Should there be a difference?
Craig Barnes recently wrote about prayer for our times: “It’s hard to think of anything more effective than placing a sick world back in the arms of its creator and healer.”
A Poetic Guide to Prayer: William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29 When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself, and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, With what I most enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee—and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate; For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.