In the 1500’s (on the eve of the Reformation), if you wanted to know more about God—you had two choices. Either you went to church and listened to what the priest said, or you joined a monastery. In the 1500’s most people couldn’t read. But if you could read, you probably wouldn’t be able to get your hands on a Bible (they were rare enough that most church Bibles were chained to the pulpit!). And even if you could read, and could get your hands on a Bible, you STILL probably couldn’t read God’s Word for yourself—because it was written in languages not many people knew—like Latin or Greek.
Martin Luther had grown up and had been sent to law school. But he wanted to know more about God. So he joined a monastery—and he began to read the Bible for himself. The more he read, the more he felt that people ought to read about God’s love and mercy for themselves, in their own language. And so Luther translated the Bible into German from the original Greek and Hebrew. This is one of the Reformation gifts to all of us: the opportunity to “read it for ourselves.”
You may have heard me tell that when Dad and I were in Geneva, and we visited the church where Calvin preached and the assembly room next door. Every morning at 7am, Calvin would present and answer questions for an hour, moving through the books of the Bible, verse by verse. It was set at that hour so working people (as well as those of more leisure) might benefit from studying about God. And our guide said that there was standing room only! So on this Reformation Sunday, following in the footsteps of Martin Luther and John Calvin, may we find a renewed excitement about God’s Word to us.
I think both Luther and Calvin wanted people to deepen their relationship with God. And this included knowing God’s words to us, knowing the story of God and God’s people, remembering those that went before and imagining those that will come after, and spending time with God in prayer.
And this is where truth telling comes in. Prayer is not a “to do” list for God—listing all the things we want God to fix, or make happen for us. Prayer is not to be a register or “wish list” of our most urgent needs and wants. Pray doesn’t even have to contain words—Paul says in Romans 8:26 “For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.” Prayer is our opportunity to be in the presence of God, to let God have all our attention, to open up ourselves to God, and to listen to what God has to say to us. In other words, prayer is the foundation of our relationship with God. No wonder Paul says elsewhere (I Thess. 5:17) “Pray without ceasing.”
In today’s parable Jesus is trying to help us figure out how to pray (and maybe beyond that how to live). He uses two very well-known people of his day: a Pharisee and a tax-collector. Now Pharisees have become the bad guys through the lens of the New Testament. But as one commentator put it, “Pharisees were the kind of people that you would want as your neighbors”(David McLemore, thingsofthesort.com). They followed the law. They paid their taxes. They were upstanding citizens and members of their communities. They had all the indications of being blessed by God. And so, when this Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, he stands proud, looks up to the sky (this was the normal way to pray in those days), and he speaks to God:
“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.”
And then Jesus turns to the tax collector—and probably a low hiss would have come from someone in the crowd. Tax collectors were people who were in league with the Roman empire—the oppressors. Tax collectors often got an extra percentage, a commission, so to speak. And sometimes tax collectors cheated people of even more money. They were generally despised.
In Jesus’ description, when the tax collector goes to the temple to pray, he stands far off from where others are, maybe he doesn’t even go into the sanctuary. He doesn’t look up to heaven, he is beating his breast (a sign of repentance) and he says to God:
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus focuses on who is justified (who gets God’s mercy)—and says (shockingly) that the tax collector was humble, and so will be exalted, and the Pharisee (also shockingly) was not justified because he exalted himself (and in Jesus’ formula, thus he will be humbled).
I want to go one step further today. Since we are talking about prayer as our relationship with God, I want to ask, Who tells the truth about himself before God in our parable? Certainly not the Pharisee, who doesn’t hide himself, who prays as he does many things (by the rules), who thanks God that he has a good life (a God-blessed life), and then proceeds to enumerate how good he is.
The easy answer to “Who tells the truth before God?” (in the way Jesus sets up the example and his ending of the story) is the Tax Collector. He told the truth, because he knew that he was in need of God’s mercy, and he humbled himself, in where he stood, in how he stood, and in what he asked of God.
I think the answer about truth telling is a little more complicated. The more I thought about it—the more I came to the conclusion that I don’t think either one tells the whole truth to God. The Pharisee sees only his “good” side, only the things he can take pride in. He doesn’t come to God with his whole self—for surely there were some aspects of this Pharisee that could have benefited from God’s mercy.
On the other hand, the tax collector, although getting the humbling and groveling before God right (one can even imagine him talking about himself in words from Psalm 22 “But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.”) yet, it seems to me, if we are talking about the “truth” of each of us, the tax collector forgets, and maybe even denigrates, the fact that he is made in the image of God! He can find no good in himself!
Because Jesus is quoted as talking about exalting and humbling, we have taken from this parable that we should abase ourselves before God, that we should be in a perpetually negating stance. That we can’t look up to the heavens (remember how we are often taught to pray), that we can’t be exuberant about our blessings, that we can’t get too close. Now what kind of relationship is that?
In the best relationships (at least in my humble opinion), you can share your blessings without jealousy (and without being thought arrogant), you can admit your failures without beating yourself up, you can depend on the other, no matter what. Why is it that we would think it was different with God?
God wants to share in our successes and be there for us when we don’t succeed. The Holy One is like a parent, Jesus calls God “Abba,”—and good parents root for their children, and take great pride in their accomplishments, and also try to pick them up when they fall, and urge them to get back into the game.
God wants us to be our best selves, and that means looking at who we are and what we have done truthfully—and trying again and again. We can be safe in knowing that God’s steadfast love and mercy endure forever.
God wants us to come close. In the verses right after this parable Jesus calls for little children to be brought to him, that they might be touched, (and I like to think to crawl into his lap) for “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:17).
When it comes to prayer, we are to approach God in real relationship—not a Pharisee, not a tax collector, but our very selves—we who have been wonderfully and carefully made,
we who have fallen short of God’s desires for us,
we who have been taken into God’s family, and named “children of God.”
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.