October 31, 2021

Resume Reading to God

Passage: Luke 18:9-14

Gracious God, we humbly ask that you would grant us
the gift of the Holy Spirit so that in the hearing of your most excellent word we may know our need for your grace and ask for it:
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Resume Reading to God

“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others. Two men went up into the temple to pray . . .”

“Ask someone what they believe about God, and they may say what they think they are supposed to say, what they think is the church’s orthodoxy, or right teaching about God, derived from the Bible and the Church creeds.  But if one wants to know what a person truly believes about God, it is not so much what he or she says about God but what he or she says to God.”  (George Stroup, Before God, 157).

The ancient church put it like this: the law of prayer is the law of faith.  What we really believe about God comes through in our prayers to God.

In the parable we read this morning from Luke, we meet two men at prayer.  They both go up into the temple to pray.  These individuals and their prayers are worlds apart.  One man is a religious rigorist; the other, a cheat and a traitor.  One is eloquent and composed in his praying; the other coughs out a single repentant sentence.  One man stands has the choreography right (standing with eyes toward heaven); the other pounds his chest, eyes downcast, “standing far off.”  One man has a high estimate of his own goodness; the other calls himself a sinner.

It is so very easy to read this parable and to sympathize almost completely with the tax-collector.  After all, who could warm to this Pharisee?  He struts and poses in prayer.  The whole litany he offers is peppered with the word “I.”  And then he calls attention to the wicked, not to pray for them, but as fodder for his own ego enhancement.  It is tempting to read this parable and to say to ourselves, “thank God I am not like this Pharisee.”  The trouble with that, of course, is that we then commit the same self-righteous error as does the Pharisee.

The truth of the matter is that the Pharisee is a good person.  We’d all want him to do our taxes.  The truth of the matter is that the tax collector is a bad person. You would not want him to take a 50% royalty for filling out forms.

Everything that the Pharisee says in his prayer is true.  Jesus gives us no reason to believe that the Pharisees’ favorable comparison to bad people – extortionists, the unjust, adulterers, or tax collectors – is fake news.  He does behave in a manner that is morally superior to the behaviour of such people.  His fasting and tithing go way beyond what was required.  What the law asked for once a year, he does twice a week.  He is a man in moral overdrive.  He is a really good person, an extremely good person.  An annoying good person.

And the tax collector really is a cheat and a traitor, an employee of the occupying Romans.  If he is like most tax collectors, he fleeces his own people in the service of the enemy and for personal profit.

It is not false humility when he’s self-deprecating.  He is a sinner.  His life of extorting his neighbours comes home to roost.  He’s humbled here.  To be humble is to be close to the ground, near the bottom.  He is a sinner, personally and corporately.  He wasn’t trying to act like he couldn’t pray.  He couldn’t pray.  He’s liturgically challenged. He wasn’t standing far off because he forgot the way around the temple.  He hasn’t been here before.  He’s the kind of man who doesn’t come to church because he is afraid the roof will fall in.

So why is it that the genuinely ‘bad’ man goes away ‘justified’ set right with God, in God’s favour, while the good man just goes away?  Why is it that God is moved by a plea for mercy but not a resume of moral excellence and good work done?

Imagine two people were in church on Sunday.  One, a lifetime church goer, never misses a Sunday, when we cancel services because of snow, he comes anyway.  This is a guy who attends church on vacation and puts pictures on facebook to document it.  There is not a committee she hasn’t served on.  He’s a lay leader of the Bible class.  He says, she prays, “God, I thank you that I was brought up in church, learned the Bible, am not like the people who just walk by the building at 11 a.m. on Sunday on their way to brunch.  I give 10 percent off the top, am volunteer of the year, and I don’t smoke dope, ever.’

Another man, seated near the back of the church, mutters, “God have mercy on me a sinner.”  That’s all he could say.  He was lousy at prayer.  He left the service when the choir sang since he thought it was the intermission.  He walked to church since he lost his license because of addition.  Hadn’t joined yet, nobody asked him.

They both go home after church.  The Bible believing, never miss a Sunday person, says, “I didn’t get much out of that service.”  It was all been there done that. Could have cited the passage preached on by heart. O well, maybe next week.

The other man, stayed in his seat, long after it was all over.  The ushers had to ask him to leave so they could lock up.  He couldn’t explain what happened to him, all he could say to anyone who would listen is, “me, a child of God.”  He even told the preacher in words preachers don’t usually here: now that was a helluva good sermon.

Two people come before the presence of God.  God came close to one and not the other.  The bad guy goes home justified, set right with God, blessed.  The good-guy goes home empty.  Why?  Why does God bless the prayer of one and not the other?   It seems mixed up to me, as a religious official.

I think the clue is found in their prayers.  What both the characters in the parable believe about God and themselves is found in what they say to God.

The Pharisees’ prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving, and while God is addressed, one translation of this text says, ‘he prayed with himself.’  His prayer has the character of self-congratulations, and ‘God’ is marginalized in a eulogy to his own moral and religious superiority.  The deficient part of the prayer is that it contains not a single request.  The Pharisee finds no deficit in himself, and so he asks God for nothing and gets everything he asks for.

He is so full – of moral superiority and religious accomplishment – that there is no room left for God to give him anything.  He can’t accept a gift from God because his arms are full of his own purchases.  “He trusts in himself” . . . and so he asks the merciful, loving, gracious, recklessly generous God for nothing.

Jesus says “I’ve come to seek and to save the lost.  I’ve come to call sinners.  If you can’t acknowledge your need, how’s the doctor going to heal you.  Jesus said, “I’ve just come for those who are sick; not you people who imagine you are o so well.”

The problem here is that the Pharisee won’t come out from behind the mask, the camouflage of his own accomplishments.  He feigns wellness.  His life is lived before other people, and his own fond estimation of himself, not coram Deo, that is; before God.

The Reformer Martin Luther made the point that while most of us live our life before our own eyes and the eyes of other people, what counts most is our life as it is lived before God - “where, says Luther, “all men are under sin” – both those who are manifestly evil and those who in their own eyes and the eyes of others appear to be good. (George Stroup, Before God, 10-11).

A mother and father visiting their university student son greeted me at the door after the service.  Father said, “We are so glad that our son has found a church home away from home.  He speaks so well of this church.”

Ordinarily, I would have taken this remark as a compliment to our church.  However, this son, I was sure had never set foot in this building.  His panicked, and then down cast eyes confirmed it.  I said to his parents, wanting neither to expose the son nor to be untruthful to his parents, “we are most glad to welcome student visitors whenever they choose to come.”

Petition and plea are what remain when every mask falls.  Our privation and deep need remain when all the roles we play, all the accomplishments we have to our credit fall away “before God.”  In prayer, we place ourselves outside the roles we play, the accomplishments (actual or fraudulent) we attain, and become who we most truly are: a needy one, one who comes to God in simple petition, who prays for mercy and help.  We’ve done wrong and we can never do enough.  We need to be set right with God by God.  We need justification by faith alone!

The tax-collector’s prayer is brief and is sheer petition, all request.  The tax collector comes with nothing but a need for God, eyes downcast.  Whatever his accomplishments in the tax revenue business – they are left behind.  When he comes before God, it is with a simple request.  He comes with empty hands, spread out before God and filled by God.  The tax-collector “has nothing either to represent or to present to God except himself as the one who has to receive all things from God.”  (See Karl Barth, CD III/4, 97).  “God be merciful to me a sinner,” he says.

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, it was all petition, all asking.  Apart from the opening address and the concluding ascription of glory – the whole of the Lord’s prayer is asking, pleading with God to do and to give, to bring and to change what we cannot.

Our Father . . .
hallowed by thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
give us this day our daily bread,
forgive us our trespasses,
lead us not into temptation.

All asking, all requests, all petitions to God . . .

Theologian Karl Barth wrote:

“True prayer is just asking.  For obviously it is in asking that man is what he can be only in relationship with God – the needy one who lacks and therefore desires and is wholly and utterly directed to the grace of God” (Karl Barth, CD, III/4: 98).

My suspicion is that we live between the poles of Pharisee and tax-collector.

Some weeks, I go up to prayer on top of the world.  I can recite the Creed without looking it up.  We have a Bible verse on the tip of our tongue, know the words to the hymns without the book, wish the prayers of thanksgiving and intercession would have stopped at the end of thanksgiving – we’re fixed, all is secure.  We feel so blessed we ask nothing from God; don’t really need a blessing from God; got all the daily bread we need. We find asking God for mercy almost a little embarrassing. We’re feeling pretty-near self-sufficient – self-made even.  Prayer is so much frosting on the cake.  “God, I’m thankful that I’m not a bad person; I’ve got it together. I am together.  After all, here I am at church.”

I think our parable offers a word of warning to us in that state.  G.B. Caird, a former professor of New Testament at McGill, offers these words: “No man can genuinely place himself in the presence of the holy God and still congratulate himself on his own piety. This means that piety can become a barrier between God and man.” (G.B. Caird, Luke, 203).  Or as Oscar Wilde said, ‘you can be a good person, in the worst sense of the term.

Other weeks, we come to church, not knowing whether or not we should even be here.  After all, we have secrets.  We’ve done things, we should not have done.  We’ve messed up.  Some Sundays everyone else looks so righteous, so close to God, so near to getting it right.  We say to ourselves, “I don’t belong with these good people, these accomplished people.”  When it comes time for prayer, we don’t know which words to use.

If you are humble, down close to the earth, empty-handed, unsteady, unsure, then this story is for you.  Hold out your empty hands to receive what God has to give.  The church calls it grace.  Unmerited, free grace.  The Psalmist confirms it: “The Lord is near to the broken hearted and saves those crushed in spirit.”  Perhaps a good word today in this congregation as you grieve the loss of The Rev. Herb Summers.

When I was still a theological student, I invited a friend who worked at a restaurant where I worked to church.  He was going through a rough time in his life.  He came to the university group Bible-study/prayer meeting.  I was involved organizing and leading the meeting.  I was at the front, selecting hymns, saying prayers, leading the discussion on the Christian life, and making sure it all went just right.  At one point, I looked up and he was gone.  I didn’t know where he went.  Someone said, “I saw him leave.”

Later I met up with him at my home.  “What happened,” I asked.  He said, “those people are so good.  I’m just not one of them.  The prayers and the discussion just left me feeling that I didn’t belong, I’m not that together.  I have done things I shouldn’t have.  I not a good person.  I don’t belong at church.”

I wanted to say, you should have stayed and got to know us, I know those church people; we’re not that good.

Two people went up to the church to pray.  One a theological student; a virtual minister, a leader.   The other a waiter; not a particularly good person or much of a church goer.  Guest which one went away justified?  Guess who got made right with God?

If you’ve got ears to hear, listen!

And now may the God of all grace who called us
to his eternal glory in Christ,
restore, establish and strengthen us.
All power belongs to him forever and ever.

Amen.