tax collector pleads for God’s mercy
The Eleventh Sunday After Trinity
St. Luke 18:9-14
Two Came to Pray
Recently I struggled with a vexing spiritual and emotional dilemma. I began to doubt my own holiness. This trial almost laid me low.
The problem was bishops. It occurred to me one day that bishops are holier than I. There’s no avoiding it. Every bishop was a priest. He’s still a priest, of course . . . but the fact remains that he’s a bishop.
How does one become a bishop? He proves himself the holiest among priests. Higher holiness puts on purple. And I’m stuck in a shirt as black as a Pharisee’s heart. I grieved.
But then I had a thought that perked me up like a daisy after the rain. Or rather two thoughts. The first is that bishops have a boss . . . so there is someone holier than they. The bishops’ boss is the presiding bishop. So bishops may be holier than I but they’re not the holiest guys on the block.
And even the presiding bishop, I think, answers to God. Or his wife.
The second thought was even more reassuring. It lifted me higher than a space shuttle. It is this: I am holier than thou. It’s not even open to discussion. A priest is holier than a layman. Case closed.
And this, I suppose, is something like the rationale of the Pharisee who swaggers onto the scene today in St. Luke’s gospel. How does he know he’s righteous? Why, he is clearly superior to that low-life tax-collector over there on the other side of the temple court.
It’s a case of relative righteousness. As though there were such a thing.
J. C. Ryle, the noted English commentator of two centuries ago, put the matter succinctly. “We are all naturally self-righteous,” Ryle wrote. “It is the family disease of all the children of Adam.”
In fact, all men are sinners in God’s eyes, made righteous, if at all, by the saving act of Jesus Christ on the cross.
We find ourselves back in the Jerusalem temple today. A week ago, we saw Jesus cleansing it, casting out the merchants who had profaned the holy place. He referred to it as a “house of prayer,” and we considered that the term means simply what we think of as a “church.” God’s people assemble there to learn, to celebrate the sacraments, to sing praises and, yes, to pray.
Today, in a parable our Lord tells, two men have come to the temple for prayer, the Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. If you were to read the commentaries on this passage you would find that scholars see in it a lesson in righteousness:
The Pharisee, believing himself justified by his punctilious observance of the law, sees himself as righteous. The tax collector, knowing himself for a sinner in desperate need of God’s forgiveness, knows himself as unrighteous.
The former is afflicted by that family disease of self-righteousness; the latter bears within him a contrite and humble spirit that God will not despise.
This is the thrust of the parable, of course, and the focus I have applied when I’ve preached this lesson in the past. This time, I want to look at the story from a different angle. These men have come to pray. What can we learn from our Lord’s teaching on righteousness about how we should pray?
It may seem rather straightforward, even formulaic. Earlier in his gospel, St. Luke has described a scene in which an unnamed disciple asks Jesus to teach him and the others to pray. Jesus tells them to say, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”
Maybe you’ve heard that one before. But then maybe you haven’t heard it before. It begins with an address to a Person, a Father, who is in heaven . . . our heavenly Father. He who does not know God as his heavenly Father cannot very well pray to Him.
Noise may proceed from his mouth. He may shape the words. But how many bazillions of words of “prayer” have spiraled off into the nether reaches unheard because people prayed them into a vacuum? Because they didn’t know the God to whom they prayed?
This God has revealed Himself. First, in His creation. The world He made speaks of who He is. Then in His word, the Scriptures which speak of His nature and character. Finally, in His living Word, the Son He sent to represent Him perfectly in His creation.
He is eminently knowable, yet many pray to Him without knowing Him. They spill out words that may sound humble, even beautiful, but these words flit away unattended because those speaking them are unacquainted with God. If the Pharisee in the story had known Him for who He is he would not have exalted himself instead of God in his prayers.
That Pharisee was a sinner, as you and I are sinners. Our sin has defaced the image of God within us . . . but it has not annihilated it. It has corrupted and disrupted our communion with our Lord . . . but it has not eliminated it.
In His great mercy, God has provided us channels of grace that we might know Him and commune with Him even in our fallen state. One is baptism; it ushers us into the covenant community of God’s people – those He has set aside for His holy purpose.
Another is the Eucharist; it allows us to take our Lord into us and join the feast at His table on high until we arrive in His presence to sup with Him in glory. And another is prayer, through which we open our hearts to tell Him of our praise and gratitude, our hopes and dreams, our needs and desires.
A week ago we observed the folly of thinking we can turn up for worship now and then – once a week or even less – and go forth equipped to engage the enemies our culture arrays against us in spiritual warfare.
We noted that since the time of St. Augustine our Lord’s church has understood the Christian life to include three prayerful elements – the Eucharist, daily ordered prayer and private devotion.
Today we see the Pharisee engaged in the last of those, spontaneous prayer that issues from his heart. And we must not doubt that it does begin in his heart, for prayer reveals the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. It speaks of who we are.
The Pharisee will not look up because he has no need to call on God. The tax-collector will not look up because he is not worthy to look on God. With eyes averted from the holy presence above, the tax-collector smites his breast. “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” – all “those things that defile a man” (St. Matthew 15:19-20).
A dutiful Jew, the Pharisee would of course participate in the required sacrifices and other rituals of the temple. He would engage in all three forms of prayer as they were in his day. And still he would fail to pray – if to pray is to know the One to whom prayer is directed.
The cure for self-righteousness is self-examination. The Pharisee gazes fondly on his own sin-pocked image through spiritual cataracts and sees an unblemished holy man.
The tax-collector trains the 20-20 vision of humility on the reflection of a sin-marred face and his head snaps back; he looks away in shame.
The Pharisee is a religious man. He takes his duties ever so seriously. He cannot tear his adoring eyes away from his own reflection even for a second to cast a glance upward. This Pharisee stops just short of complimenting God on making him so pure.
But in the end, it is the self-abasing tax-collector who goes away justified – which is another way of saying “made pure.”
In telling this parable, our Lord puts a fine point on the jolting news He delivered to the multitude in the Sermon on the Mount: “. . . unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Pharisee should have read St. Luke’s previous chapter. The evangelist quotes these words of Jesus:
“. . .when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, `We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'” (17:10).
In his contrition, the tax-collector is beating down the sin that indwells him like a cancer. He has made his self-examination and named the disease inside him for what it is.
Now comes one of the most exquisite moments in the New Testament. The tax-collector pleads, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He asks God in a specific way in all humility for mercy and this plea comes from the depths of his being.
Songs – and sermons – that exalt man express the “meology” of our place and time that tries to drown out the theology of the Scriptures. Do not undervalue the treasure we have in our Book of Common Prayer. Its 17th-century ethic chimes true to the Bible on every note. A few phrases from the confessions:
“We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep . . . And there is no health in us . . . We acknowledge our manifold sins and wickedness . . . Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us . . . And we are heartily sorry for these our misdoings. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable.”
Our self-examination can yield no other verdict.
Jesus gives us in these few verses a double dose of theology. He teaches on the proper attitude in prayer and on the way of righteousness. And the manner of prayer of our two characters says enough about their thinking on righteousness to fill a library.
Again, the prayer book shuns “meology” and gives us theology. We have glanced at the confessions. What follows our declaration of our sinfulness? Pleas for mercy follow: “But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those who confess their faults . . . Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake. Forgive us all that is past . . .”
So we can examine our prayer life as a gauge of the depth of our relationship with our Lord, but as we do we must tread carefully to avoid certain pitfalls. We must not lose sight of one truth so obvious it is sometimes ignored: Any person’s faith begins with God.
Jesus called each one of His disciples; they did not seek Him out. So it is with us. If you do not pray because you do not know the One to whom you might pray, you can pray for Him to reveal Himself to you and establish a relationship with you. Your knowledge of Him will not come without His sovereign act, but you can request that act of Him.
For those who do know Him, one trap is expecting too much too soon. C. S. Lewis looms as a towering figure in 20th-century Christianity, a man of the highest esteem not only within our Anglican tradition but throughout the church. But did you know that Lewis said he didn’t have much of a prayer life until the end of his life?
Much of the church in our time has fallen into complacency, a comfortable mediocrity in our spiritual life. This was not the attitude of the fathers and the church well into the Middle Ages, which saw spiritual progress as the goal of a Christian’s life. We should be moving forward.
Yet those divines who held this view never saw progress as even. It comes in different measures in different seasons of one’s life and one person’s pace is not that of another. Do not despair if you are not a spiritual champion just yet.
Another snare is the devil’s lie that faith depends on intellect. When I was in Bible college I had a professor named Roy Ledgerwood, a godly man. He made his living by day as an engineer and taught at the college at night.
He told me one day over lunch that he had tired of teaching Sunday school classes filled with students who never gave a thought to the lesson from one Sunday to the next and who, somehow, didn’t grow in the love and knowledge of God.
So Roy took seminary classes at night and earned a master’s degree so he could teach eager students in Bible college.
I should point out that regardless of the level the quality of students will be uneven. I recall arriving a few minutes early one evening for a theology class. We were to take our second test of the semester. The professor in this class had us exchange papers with our neighbors when it came time for grading.
A middle-aged woman named Joan had taken a maternal interest in a young man named Billy who sat next to her on the front row. As I arrived, both were in their seats and Joan was asking:
“Billy, did you study for this test?”
“Well, not too much,” said Billy. “I don’t like to do anything to get in the way of the Holy Spirit.”
“Billy,” said Joan, “after the grade the Holy Spirit made on that first test you better get to studying.”
Well, Roy related one night an experience he’d had a few years before when he was taking classes for his master’s. On his way to the campus he had to make his way through a depressed part of town and on this particular occasion he spotted an old black woman pushing, very slowly, a grocery cart down the sidewalk.
And the thought struck him that there was an aged rag-picker who had every bit as much access to God as he.
Can you believe it? Him with all his fine learnin’?
And of course she did, because God does not demand theological acumen of those He calls. He wants a response of trust, a confession that we are all tax collectors in desperate need of His saving grace. We shouldn’t need a Ph.D. to arrive at that conclusion.
God redeems us as we are. He doesn’t wave a wand and transform a bag lady into a theologian any more than He turns a frog into a prince. He sanctifies us where we live. Martin Thornton takes Mary Magdalene as an example. The Bible, by the way, never identifies her as a harlot; Thornton accepts that verdict from the tradition of the early church as he makes his case:
“It is apparent that her innate characteristics remained to the end. Her sensuousness, her physical generosity, her passionate, impetuous self-giving, her sexuality and femininity; all this was once given to her revolting clients, then to the Son of God.
“Her kisses and caresses began in sin and ended in sanctity, at the feet of Christ, but they were still kisses and caresses. Her generosity started with harlotry and ended with precious ointment, but it was the same generosity. Her passionate love was first carnal and then contemplative, but it was the same love, the same nature, only sanctified.”
Over-dramatized a bit? Perhaps. But it makes the point.
We should not expect to be transported onto a cloud, given wings and handed a harp. God will accept us and love us and use us as we are. He asks only that we approach Him as who He is. Amen.