A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 23, 2016
Texts: Luke 18:9-14
“It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” If memory serves me correctly, I first encountered this Spiritual some time in grade school. I doubt that it is sung much in public schools today, but the 1950s were a different time. State-prescribed prayer and Bible reading were still widely practiced in this country. As children, we probably did not grasp the full import of the song. We sang with gusto its lively tune, rocking out on the chorus – “It’s me, O yes it’s me.” The irony of our childish intoning of the text was how each of us felt different, special, better than all those folk named in the verses. Of course, the point of the song is humble acknowledgement of one’s need of God’s grace, not elevation of my particular neediness to something superior to yours. I suppose it was somehow developmentally appropriate for children to emphasize the “me-ness” in the song as we worked to find our individual identities. I hope I have come to enough maturity to understand that the point of the song is not to stress the significance of my need over yours.
This is the same point Jesus is making when he tells this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…” It’s not the prayer per se that marks the Pharisee as the villain in the story. It’s the way in which he approaches his prayer. Richard Vinson tells us that the prayer is a berakah, a traditional Jewish prayer “praising or blessing God for what God has done” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, p. 569). Two of the best-known prayer-songs in Luke’s gospel are from this ancient tradition – Zechariah’s Benedictus and Mary’s Magnificat, both found in the first chapter. At the birth of John the Baptist, his father, Zechariah, sings, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them” (Luke 1:68). At the prospect of giving birth to her child, Mary proclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (Luke 1:46-48).
The parable sets a scene: It is late afternoon. A crowd has gathered in the Temple courtyards at the evening hour for prayer and sacrifice. Most lift arms, eyes, and voices to heaven in prayers of praise and thanksgiving. But some lie low in supplication and mourning, knees bent, eyes cast down, praying for forgiveness, healing, redemption. Jesus captures the contrast in this scene as he shares his parable. His listeners would have easily envisioned the setting and the characters. By now, they would have guessed that, in Jesus’ telling of the tale, the Pharisee is the villain and the Tax Collector the hero.
However, it’s not that simple. The point of a parable is to catch its hearers off-guard. There needs to be a surprise element for it to work properly. Where is the surprise here? If there had been some Pharisees, Tax Collectors, and other folk listening who were not familiar with Jesus’ message, they might have wondered at the role reversal. But, most his hearers would have already known Jesus’ perspective. He actually ends the story by saying, straight out, that it is the Tax Collector who goes home justified.
Still, let’s look a little more closely at the moral of the story. “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The Pharisee starts off just fine, “God, I thank you…” Remember a third of Anne Lamott’s formula for prayer is “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Even when he lists his practice of tithing and fasting, he can be seen as celebrating the fulfillment and joy of religious practice. Vinson observes that “It is not altogether wrong to thank God for spiritual progress made” (Vinson, op. cit., p. 570). I would guess that most of us, at one time or another, has prayed something like, “Thank you for helping me be good.” “Thank you for letting me avoid that temptation.” “Thank for helping me to keep my promise to read my Bible and pray daily.” “Thank you that I made enough money to give generously.” “Thank you that my presentation went well.” “Thank you that we won the game.” “Thank you that I made it through that meeting.” “Thank you for my lovely home, family, friends.”
The real problem for the Pharisee is his penchant for comparing himself favorably to the others around him as he prays. He makes of his prayer the winning entry in a sort of perverse competition. Vinson, again, says, “The Pharisee appears to be praying up, but he is really praying sideways, putting his attention on how he stacks up against others in the congregation. He has his face turned up, but in his mind’s eye he is looking around, thinking, ‘I’m the only truly righteous one here’” (Vinson, op. cit., p. 570).
It’s easy to make a cartoon character of the Pharisee. We are familiar enough with pompous, self-righteous people who are quick to pass judgment, telling others exactly what’s wrong with them and what they should do about it. Several of these folk are currently running for public office in this country. Often it’s much easier to fuss over the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the log in one’s own. However, that’s not us, is it? We would never practice self-aggrandizement or be caught judging others, would we? I wonder if one way this ancient parable might catch us off-guard today is to walk first in the Pharisee’s shoes and see if they fit?
I’m not trying to guilt-trip anyone who’s doing her best to make her way through this world. Nor am I suggesting that any of us is as arrogantly self-righteous as the Pharisee in the parable. I’m just suggesting that, when we pray, we stop to consider where our prayers are directed and what judgments might creep in. As people of privilege, I imagine that we are vulnerable to thinking we are justified in having what we have as opposed to those who do without. It is so easy to fall into an “us and them” categorization, whether we mean to or not.
What, then, can we learn from the prayer of the Publican, the Tax Collector – “God, be merciful to me a sinner”? The biggest problem with embracing his prayer is that we don’t like that label “sinner” and we would really rather not talk about sin. I think we’ve come to think of sinners as sad, unworthy, losers. I was leery about singing “Just As I Am” this morning. That old language about being “tossed bout” by “fightings and fears, by conflicts and doubts” doesn’t appeal to our contemporary sensibilities. I noticed that our hymnal leaves out the stanzas about being “poor, wretched, blind” and ridding ourselves of “one dark blot.” These images are over the top for many of us. Still there is power in recognizing that I may come to God just as I am. My religious practices and charitable activities are not the price I must pay for admission to the Presence
The Tax Collector certainly seems to be in crisis in the parable. He utters another element of Anne Lamott’s definition of prayer, “Help! Help! Help!” What of our own need for help, our dependence on God’s grace to be the person God made us to be? If sin is, as I have argued in the past, that which separates from God – from God’s grace, God’s love, God’s deep desire to be in relationship with us, then might there be something for us in the Tax Collector’s prayer? Maybe we don’t have to hit bottom to recognize the need for God in our lives.
But, in our lives in more than just a cursory manner. It’s ironic that the Pharisee’s very prayer can be seen as sinful. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says. Could it be that one so full of himself has no real room for God? Oh, he may fool himself that he is righteous, that is, that he is in right relationship, but can it be so? I doubt it. It should also be noted that, if the Tax Collector’s prayer doesn’t lead to change in how he lives his life, it may also ring as hollow as that of the Pharisee. Next we will look at a Tax Collector who experiences just such a transformation in his own life when encounters Jesus and the truth of the gospel.
I like Richard Rohr’s reflection on human being in today’s Words of Preparation: “Being human means acknowledging that we’re made from the earth and will return to the earth. For a few years,” he says, “we dance around on the stage of life and have the chance to reflect a little bit of God’s glory. We are earth that has come to consciousness. If we discover this power in ourselves and know that we are God’s creatures, that we come from God and return to God, that’s enough.” I think the Tax Collector comes much closer to understanding this than the Pharisee. I am not more and I am not less than God made me to be. Just as I am I come the Creator. Sometimes I cry “Help!” Sometimes “Thank you!” Sometimes all I can say is “Wow!” There’s no room for self-righteousness or judgment of others in this view of humanity.
God be merciful, kind, gracious, loving to me, a sinner – one who, in ways both large and small, feels prone to wander, to leave the God I love. This is a prayer of right relationship. It is me standing in the need of such prayer – and I wouldn’t be surprised if my parents and siblings, the preacher and the teacher, the stranger and the neighbor weren’t standing in the same need. The Tax Collector comes much closer than the Pharisee to understanding that we’re all in this together. It’s us, O God, standing in the need of your mercy, compassion, grace, and love until we are made whole and are moved to share this, your reality, with all creation. Amen.