October 27, 2019, The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost 
October 27, 2019
The Rev. Anna C. Shine
 

Readings: Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Last week’s Gospel passage encouraged us to pray without ceasing. And this week’s Gospel continues with the theme of prayer – albeit with a more in depth look at praying itself. Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. We know right away that there will be a lesson to learn, because Jesus is telling a parable. His audience is those who believe themselves to be righteous. The text states that they regarded others with contempt, but a more accurate translation would be they regarded the rest, i.e. everyone else, with contempt. They are placing themselves on a pedestal above all others. We learn who “they” are as Jesus begins his parable. Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. So, we know now that Jesus’ audience is a group of Pharisees, and given the way in which the Gospel of Luke portrays the Pharisees, we know pretty quickly that they are going to be the ones learning the lesson. After all, the predominant theme in Luke’s Gospel is the radical reversal of norms and fortunes. So we can be pretty sure that the tax collector is the hero and the Pharisee is not.

 

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.’ What looks like the beginning of a prayer of thanksgiving quickly turns out to be a prayer of judgment and separation. The Pharisee is grateful that he is not someone else, someone whom he determines has a lesser value than himself – thieves, rogues, adulterers, and even the tax collector. What we discover with this prayer is less thanksgiving to God, and more self-congratulation and boosting of the ego. This continues with the next part of the Pharisee’s prayer. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. Here the Pharisee is showing that he fasts and tithes more than is required by law and his tradition. He is certainly a righteous man, right? But once again, he is lifting himself up, claiming those accomplishments for himself, without recognizing God at all in his prayers. It’s all ego.

 

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!’ Notice that the tax collector’s prayer does not discredit the Pharisee’s judgment upon him. He himself states that he is a sinner, which the Pharisee has judged him to be. But he shows the appropriate actions of repentance, beating upon his chest and asking God for mercy, naming his status as sinner and his seeming unworthiness in receiving God’s grace.

 

While praying without ceasing is encouraged, the way we pray is important. As Father Allan discussed last week, praying is not about a quid pro quo. You give me this, I’ll give you that. God shows us in prayer a solidarity with us, a suffering with us, a sitting with us in our joys and in our pains. God is very willing to hear us and listen to us, but we must also be willing to hear and listen to God. It is a relationship. In fact, prayer is our relationship with God. It is our direct line to the divine. And while our relationship with God can be manifest in our actions, in our way of life, it is also important that we keep that conversation with God open, that we allow God to speak to us and to sit with us, too.

 

If we look at these two prayers from the lens of a relationship with God, what might we discover? The Pharisee’s prayer shows no need of God. He is trusting in himself, not in God. Look at what I have done, what I have accomplished, who I am not. See God, I already know what I should do and who I should be and how I should be it. So much so, that I am in fact capable of judging others for the ways they are not doing or not being what I believe they should. I is the predominant word in that prayer. It is an isolated prayer, with no relationship with God. I’ve got this, the ego says. And the ego really is very tricky. Because it makes us think that we can do all things alone. Contrast this to the tax collector’s prayer. He is reaching out to God, asking for mercy, owning his faults. He wants connection! He seeks help. There is a call for relationship in this prayer. And that is what Jesus seems to be pointing out in this parable.

 

We’ve heard this parable many times, and we know it well, so it can sometimes be hard to see anything new to learn from it. We listen to the story, we may empathize with certain characters, identify with others. Thank God we’re not like the Pharisee, right? Did you catch that? In that one statement, I have just become the very Pharisee I have thanked God I am not like. Because in that statement, “thank God we are not like the Pharisee,” I have placed a value judgment upon an other. I have, like the Pharisee has done with the tax collector, deemed that the Pharisee is worthy to be judged, and I have done the judgment myself. But God is the judge. And thank God for that! Because God is much more merciful than we humans are.

 

That is how quickly our ego can sneak into our thoughts. It may be fleeting, but it still comes about. For us today, who might we be grateful we are not? The parable might say: God, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, the self-righteous, the poor, or even the rich, Republican, Democrat, a redneck, transgender, or even like this heathen over here who has no faith in Christ. There are so many ways we can fill in this statement. When we pray like this, however, we are allowing society, and sadly often the Church, dictate the value of others. And the danger in this is that it dehumanizes the other in such a way that violence can much more easily be perpetrated upon that other.

 

Father Allan and I had the privilege to learn more at our recent clergy conference about the Episcopal Church and the history of our relationship with the indigenous people of this country. One of the pivotal ideas that determined the relationship of Christians to the Indians was the Doctrine of Discovery. Established during the time of Christopher Columbus, it was given credence by a papal bull delivered by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. Essentially, this doctrine allowed for the seizure and conquering of land not owned by Christians, with the authority to claim that land as their own and deal with the inhabitants in any way that was deemed necessary. At best, the local people should be converted. At worst, killed.

 

It was this mentality that allowed for the near annihilation of the indigenous peoples of this land, a genocide on an atrocious scale that continued with the forced assimilation of these people. This mentality also perpetuated colonialism and imperialism on the African continent, permitting the enslavement of Africans for the benefit of the righteous Christian people. We see in these histories the danger that comes from a seemingly simple prayer – thank God I am not like…

 

So it does matter how we pray. Because it is our prayers that help us to connect with God. But we need to be aware of how we are building that connection. When we pray to God, we should give thanks for the gifts that God has already given us, not take credit for the accomplishments we have achieved, thinking we have somehow done it completely on our own. Like the tax collector, pray with humble heart, seeking true relationship with God, and allowing God to speak to us and give us that grace that is always available to those who acknowledge their shortcomings and make amends. That is the true gift that we seek in prayer. To meet the God of grace, the God of comfort, the God of justice.

 

And that is what is built into our own baptismal covenant. It is so easy and quick for our ego and humanity to show up and lead us to judgmental thoughts and separation from God and others. That is why we say, “and when we sin, repent and return to the Lord.” Not if, but when. Because we recognize that, like the tax collector, we are incapable of living a fully blameless life. So the cycle continues. We judge, which leads to separation from others, which leads to sin, or separation from God, which requires repentance and a return to that relationship with God. It is about trusting in God and not in ourselves, believing that God’s mercy is large enough to extend to all of us.

 

Let us pray. Dear God, increase in us the ability to pray without ceasing, to love without condition, to open our hearts without judgment, to seek your grace and accept your mercy, to give you thanks for all we accomplish, and to acknowledge our failings, allowing them to further connect us to each other, and encourage us to return to you, for you are a God of abundant love and mercy, showing us in Jesus the way of love, the way of peace, and the way of life.                             

Amen.