Sunday, April 17, 2011
“A Humble Prayer” - Luke 18:9-14 - April 17, 2011
Jesus understood this scene differently. He knew how fickle the crowd was. They came full of their own hopes and expectations. They knew what kind of savior they wanted him to be. They own religious traditions so defined their experience that could not see Jesus – and they could not image he had come not to change a governmental system, but to change them. He knew that they did not understand and would turn on his in a matter of just a couple of days. The disciples saw this as a day of triumph. Jesus knew it was a parade that would ultimately lead him to a cross.
Jesus had tried to help them understand from the day of his baptism to this spontaneous parade of religious passion. Some time earlier he had gathered Peter and the other disciples around him. Those walking with them gathered close to hear what he was saying. They wanted to know more about the way of God. Jesus taught them with a parable. It invited us to be a quiet imaginary witness two very different acts of faith. Let me warn you in advance, as quickly as we hear that the two central characters of the parable are a Pharisee and a tax collector it will be easy for those of us who have the around church for any length of time to presume that the a negative view of the Pharisee and a positive view of the tax collector, But, it is important to remember that the original audience would have heard the story from a 180 degree perspective. They would “presuppose a positive image for the Pharisee and a negative image for the tax collector.” (1)So, to help us hear this story like those first listeners would have heard it, let me recast the story using characters that we can relate to.
Instead of hearing the word “Pharisee”, I want to invite you to imagine that the person is a key leader in the church of your youth. This leader is named Bob Pharisee and is the picture of devotion. Not only is he there every time the church doors are open, he was the one that opened them. He was probably the one that turned on the coffee pot for his Men’s Sunday School Class. When you needed someone to serve as a committee chair for an important task, your church called on Bob. In regards to the Bob Pharisee, “no one can doubt his disciplined adherence to the moral and ethical code of his faith. He is the faithful, dependable, tithing type who pays the salaries of ministers so they can preach.” (2) The only problem is that Bob thinks of himself as a gift to the God and the church rather than one who needs God and the support of the church family.
Instead of hearing the word “tax collector,” I want to invite you to think of him as Jim Traitor. He is the neighbor whose yard is a mess and that the rest of the neighborhood is always whispering about. You just know that he is a conniver and a crook. He has money, but you know it is because he has conned and exploited others. Imagine that Jim works “for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people, a participant in a cruel and corrupt system, politically a traitor, religiously unclean, a reprehensible character.
If you listen closely you will understand that the parable of Jesus would have been scandalous – turning the comfortable and expected cultural norms on their heads. Let’s listen in. 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. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 13 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!' 14 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."
Did you notice the target of Jesus’ parable? Our passage begins, He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Our translation chooses to use the English word “contempt.” I am not sure that this word fully captures the word that Luke uses in the Greek to report the words of Jesus. It might be better understood if we heard that the righteous in the parable “utterly despised” those they thought were their lesser and “treated others as of if they were of no account.” (3) Jesus wanted a religious audience to understand a danger that they faced…that it could be hard to be righteous.
Hear the words of the Pharisee. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' These word are almost shocking to us but we need to understand that that the Pharisee followed all the cultural religious rules and expectations – the only problem is while he satisfied the expectations of the crowd – we would soon hear that he had fallen short of what God has in mind. At the birth of the twentieth century a British scholar named Alfred Plummer did a commentary on Luke that still stands as one of the finest ever produced. In his review of this text he noted that as the Pharisee comes to pray, that “There is no prayer, even in form; he asks God for nothing, being thoroughly satisfied with his present condition. And only in form is this utterance a thanksgiving; it is self-congratulation. He glances at God, but contemplates himself. Indeed he almost pities God, who but for himself would be destitute of faithful servants.” (4)Can you imagine that anyone could come to the place that they thought God was fortunate to have them as a follower? The danger with being righteous, is the temptation to become self-righteous. The problem for the Pharisee is not that he was religious, but it was that he had forgotten whom he was supposed to worship. When we come into this room to worship, do we come because we know we need to have a fresh encounter with God – or because we believe that God and the church needs us?
With the Pharisees prayer floating in the air, Jesus claims a character from the other end of the social and religious spectrum. 13 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!' The contrast of the stance of the two could not be more profound. The tax collector stands at a distance. He knows he is unworthy of God’s attention. He is clear he needs God, not the other way around. He knows his only hope is for God to respond to him with mercy. He offers a prayer born in humility – a prayer that makes the way for God to change him and make a way for him. The crowd around Jesus would have wanted to celebrate the Pharisee and would want justice – not mercy for the tax collector.
Then Jesus says something they would have heard as scandalous. “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." In a single sentence Jesus turns religious tradition on its head. He teaches that it is not about our place in culture, how others perceive us, or even our religious expectations or traditions. Regardless who we are or where we fit in the world, the only way to come to God is to strips away everything else and come to God bare, calling out in humility, seeking the power of God’s mercy.
As we sing the Hosannas of Palm Sunday and begin our journey into the streets of Jerusalem toward the cross and the Easter empty tomb we need strip down our expectations and come ready to have an honest encounter with Jesus. We must make sure that our heart is a heart that seeks to be made right with God. Our songs must be born in an authentic humility – a humility that confesses that we need God’s mercy – we need a Savior. May we settle for nothing less. Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!
(1)Nolland, J. 1998. Vol. 35B: Word Biblical Commentary : Luke 9:21-18:34 (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; Word Biblical Commentary. Word, Incorporated: Dallas
(2)Craddock, F. B. 1990. Luke. Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching . John Knox Press: Louisville, Ky.
(3) Plummer, A. 1896. A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke . T&T Clark International: London