Jesus reminds us that there is one prayer we can and must pray. It is a prayer that reflects our understanding of who we are in our relationship to God and others.
The Only Prayer We Can Pray
9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
One of the things I like about scripture, particularly passages like this, is they tell us exactly what to look for. By this time in his ministry, Jesus has become somewhat famous for telling parables. The word parable comes from the Greek word parabole’ which means to “throw alongside.” Parables were stories tossed to the hearers to make a point.
But sometimes the parables were enigmatic and mysterious. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus has to explain some of his parables to the disciples, who seem as mystified as the crowds about the point Jesus is trying to make.
But here, in this parable, Luke tells us several things. First, Luke tells us about whom Jesus was speaking –
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable…
Now that’s pretty clear. There is no doubt to whom Jesus is speaking and what problem he’s addressing. So, this parable is going to be one of the easy ones, one of those that is blatantly apparent when it gets told.
And, it is. Jesus then tells the story of two men who went up to the Temple to pray. So, this is not just an ordinary day, or an ordinary time of prayer. Going up to the Temple to pray usually involved some special occasion, a feast day, or some event in the life of the worshipper that brought them to the Temple. Going to the Temple wasn’t like our going to church on Sundays. A Temple visit was a special occasion which required ritual preparation, the exchange of Roman coinage for Temple currency, and the purchase of a sacrifice if one was going to be offered.
The righteous Jewish man would make his way up through the winding streets of Jerusalem, assiduously avoiding anything that might make him ceremonially unfit for Temple worship. As he ascended the Temple entrance, he entered the Court of the Gentiles.
This large portico, the outer court of the Temple, most of which was out in the open except for the colonnades, was the place for God-fearers to gather to pay homage to the one true God, the God of Israel. This was the court from which Jesus ran the money-changers. His words were, “My father’s house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” What sometimes gets lost in the account of the cleansing of the Temple was that when Jesus said, “My father’s house is a house of prayer” everyone who heard him would have filled in the rest of the scripture, which read, “…a house of prayer for all nations.”
In other words, the moneychangers and the merchants were taking up space allotted for non-Jews. The Gentiles couldn’t go any further into the Temple upon penalty of death, so disregarding the purpose of the Court of the Gentiles in order to exchange money and sell sacrificial animals deprived the non-Jews of their place in God’s house.
Okay, enough of that, but I wanted you to get the picture. But back to our two Jewish friends, two men going up to pray. So, they pass through the Court of the Gentiles, and then bypass the Court of the Women. Remember that this is a paternalistic society, and Jewish women could come past the Court of the Gentiles, but no further than the next courtyard, the Court of the Women. The Court of the Women was an enclosed area, unlike the Court of the Gentiles which was an enormous open space.
I’m not sure why our church has two front doors, but many old churches have two front doors because the women entered in one door, and the men entered the other, and they sat separately during worship. The Old German Baptist Brethren still practice this to some extent. Men sit on one side of the church, women on the other, but they do have families seated together in the middle.
Once they are past the Court of the Women, our two friends enter the Court of Israel. This is where Jewish men can gather, offer prayers, give their sacrifice to the priest, and worship God.
So, it is in this part of the Temple, most likely, that this parable takes place. Perhaps it is a high holy day, or a day of festival. Or perhaps one of our worshippers has experienced the blessing of God in an extraordinary way. We don’t know what brings our two friends to the Temple, but we do know who they are.
One is a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. Which is very much like Jesus saying, “Have you heard the one about the Pharisee and the tax collector?” By putting these two types of men in the same sentence, Jesus has already crossed the line of propriety. You literally didn’t mention “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same breath.
So, immediately Jesus has the attention of everyone standing around, some of whom are — you guessed it — Pharisees. Oh, and there’s at least one tax collector, or former tax collector named Matthew in the crowd, too. Not sure where Zacchaeus is on this particular day, but Jesus already had the reputation of eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” The phrase itself was redundant in first century Jewish society.
Let me tell you about the tax collector first. Tax collectors were a hated bunch of guys in Jesus’ day. They were hated because, first, they collected taxes and for thousands of years people of every cultural stripe have hated paying taxes. And, Roman taxes were high, and systematically collected. You remember that Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus to be counted, and the counting was so that the Roman government could know from whom to collect its taxes. Unlike my grandfather who told my grandmother that the IRS didn’t know he existed. He found out differently.
But, if that weren’t enough, tax collectors could also collect whatever amount they wanted to. You might have owed the Roman governor 15 denarii, or fifteen days wages, but the tax collector could tell you that your bill was 20 denarii, or 25, or 50, depending on how much money he wanted to make, and his ability to enforce his demands.
Not only was the Roman system of taxation spread widely, but it also dug deeply into the coin purses of every household. And paying through tax collectors was the only way to get your taxes paid, and your name duly checked off. So, you paid extra because that was the way the system worked.
But you didn’t have to like it. And you didn’t have to be kind to the tax man, or speak nicely to him, or befriend him, or even act in a civil manner. You could show your complete disdain for him and his dirty business. Tax collectors, needless to say, were never invited to the best parties, or asked to lead civic events, or held up as model citizens. They were Jews stealing from their fellows Jews, and so in this way, they were worse than the Romans.
But, let’s turn to the Pharisee. Everything the tax collector was, the Pharisee was his exact opposite. Pharisees have a bad reputation today because we know they were always on the wrong side of whatever it was that Jesus was doing, until finally they orchestrated Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution.
But, if we lived in Jesus’ day, we’d like the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the keepers of the Law, the defenders of the Torah. In our 21st century language, Pharisees loved Scripture, studied it endlessly, memorized it faithfully, and practiced it publicly.
Pharisees were conservative in their views of religious life. They weren’t for changing things. They had made an uneasy peace with the Roman government, and as long as the Romans let them worship and practice their faith, the Pharisees were fine with Rome.
The Pharisees were also good men. I say “men” because a woman might be married to a Pharisee, but women were not called Pharisees as such. But Pharisees were good men. They gave generously and sometimes flambuoyantly of their income. In the Temple were great receptacles for monetary offerings shaped like the open end of a trumpet. A Pharisee could make a great show of rolling coins around the horn of the offering trumpets, making sure all around both heard and saw his generosity.
Pharisees observed the dietary laws, the sabbath laws, the laws of ceremonial cleanliness, and on and on. They were the good, solid citizens of Jewish society, and they even believed in the resurrection of the righteous, which their counterparts the Sadducees, did not.
If our church were situated in the first century, instead of being called Chatham Baptist Church, I am sure we would be called Chatham Church of the Pharisees, and we would be proud of it! To call someone a Pharisee in Jesus’ day was to pay them respect and honor them for their faithfulness to God. Or so everyone thought.
And this is where Jesus really gets under their skin. He says, “A Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the Temple to pray.”
But then he goes on, “And the Pharisee prays about himself.” Actually, this could also be translated, “The Pharisee prays to himself.” That’s right, either way, Jesus is letting his hearers know that the Pharisee is either praying about himself and not God, or to himself and not God.
And here’s what he says: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Actually, that’s not exactly what he says, but it means the same thing. “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men — murderers, thieves, adulterers, even this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
We’re glad today, 2,000 years later, that we are not like murderers, thieves, and adulterers, or even dishonest tax collectors. I mean, none of us wants to labeled among the vilest of society, like people who break the Ten Commandments two at a time.
If we were in this story that Jesus tells, we’d all be Pharisees. And I think that was kind of the point. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
But now look at the tax collector. Jesus says, “He doesn’t even lift his head.” That doesn’t seem strange to us, because we bow our heads when we pray, but the practice of prayer in the Temple was to look up, hold out your arms, bellow your prayers so that others could hear. (Which is why Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “Don’t pray like the Pharisees, standing on the street corner, saying a lot of pious sounding words.”)
All the tax collector says is, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Okay, you get to pick. Which one of these guys gets a gold star today? Is it the upstanding, well-mannered, scripture-quoting, tithing, fasting, praying Pharisee? Or is it snivelling, dishonest, disgraced, traitorous tax collector? I’ll give you minute to think it over.
Okay, time is up. Of course, you know this story so you know that Jesus says of the tax collector, “I tell you this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”
Bang! the Pharisees get hit right between the eyes. “How could this happen?” I am sure they asked. “How could a tax collector be justified before God over a devout Pharisee?”
Now, remember, Jesus doesn’t say, “A former tax collector.” Or, “an ex-tax collector.” Or even, “a repentant tax collector.” No, this is a real, honest-to-goodness, tax collector who is still collecting taxes, still cheating people because that’s how he makes his money. But, and here’s the important point, something is stirring in our tax collector’s heart.
This tax collector knows he’s a sinner. He knows his life is not pleasing to God, and is not helping his community. This tax collector has taken the first step toward God. He hasn’t repented yet, but he has recognized his sin. He now knows that he is a thief, a liar, a cheat, a betrayer of his own people. He sees himself for what he is. He sees himself as others see him. He sees himself as God sees him. And he is cut to the heart, stricken by what he sees. Heartbroken by his own sin.
And so his only prayer is a prayer for mercy. What else can he say? “Lord, this is the only job I could find.” Or, “Lord, somebody has to do it, and there are worse people than me.”? No, he says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Sin as a word and an idea has really fallen out of favor in our society. About the only place we talk about sin is in church, so we get the impression that sin isn’t a real problem in society anymore. Several years ago, the psychiatrist, Karl Menninger wrote a popular book titled, “Whatever Became of Sin?” Well, sin isn’t fashionable anymore. But it’s still around. And the tax collector knew he had committed sins, and that made him a sinner.
But back to our friend the Pharisee. What’s wrong with the Pharisee? Luke sums it up for us: they were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.
Why is that such a problem. The Pharisee was a better man than the tax collector by all outward appearances. He tithed, the tax collector did not. He fasted, the tax collector probably feasted. He kept all the holy days at the Temple, but this was probably the first time the tax collector had been in the Temple in a long time. The Pharisee was by anybody’s account the better man.
Except the Pharisee didn’t think he was a sinner. He knew the tax collector was, he knew the murderer was, he knew the thief was, and he knew the adulterer was because those people broke commandments, and violated the Law of God. But not him. He was righteous. Upstanding. A good citizen. A model religious leader.
But he was also arrogant. Self-righteous. Self-centered. Self-satisfied. He needed nothing. Except, of course, for others to know that he was not like the tax collector.
Because the Pharisee’s arrogance doesn’t end there. Arrogance leads to separating yourself from others. Arrogance leads to believing that you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Arrogance leads to thinking that everyone should be like you. That if everyone in the world were like you, wouldn’t the world be a better place?
Arrogance also damages the community. Here were two Jews — not a Jew and a Samaritan, not a Jew and a Gentile — but two Jews. Brothers by ancestry, adherents to the worship of the one true God, the God of Israel. Two men who were both outstanding in their own ways, one famous perhaps, the other infamous no doubt. But arrogance has separated them.
And not only has arrogance separated them, it has cut off the tax collector and his family and his children from the warm traditions of their faith, and cast them out of the closed society of Judaism to which they rightfully belonged. Some wonder how the tax collector even got into the Temple, much less was given time to pray.
Normally, we talk about how we shouldn’t look down on others, or think more of ourselves than we ought to think, or we draw other similar lessons from this parable. Jesus helps us by saying the exalted shall be humbled, and the humble shall be exalted. So that’s the lesson. But this story has more than just personal application.
When we put ourselves above others, think of ourselves as different from our fellow human beings, bad and terrible things result. In our own country, clergymen preached from prestigious pulpits of both the North and South that the Bible affirmed the inferiority of the negro slave, and therefore, the white man had the right, and the duty, to tame the savage and command from him good, honest work. The fact that slavery served both the economic interests of North and South, of course, was never mentioned.
In Hitler’s rise to power, the Jews were seen as the problem. They were different, an inferior race, a mischievous group who not only reject Jesus Christ, but who killed him. They and their nefarious schemes were to blame for the economic woes of pre-war Germany, according to Nazi propaganda. So, Hitler’s appeal to Germans as the superior race, better than others like Jews, or Gypsies, or homosexuals, led directly to the “final solution” — the extermination of those inferior peoples. Six million Jews were killed, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Romany (Gypsies), and others who did not fit the Third Reich’s portrait of a superior people.
Religion often contributes to this “I’m glad I’m not like him” syndrome, but not always. I was gratified to read that an evangelical group, known for its opposition to gays, had suspended a nationwide anti-gay high school program after the suicides of several young gay students, students who took their own lives because they were bullied for being gay. Cancelling that program was a good thing to do, and showed that some realize that when we position ourselves as superior to others — morally, spiritually, ethically, genetically, or in any other way — the consequences can be deadly.
I have titled this sermon, The Only Prayer We Can Pray. Perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement. But the prayer of the tax collector is certainly the first prayer we must pray. It is the only prayer we can pray in relationship to others. And when we recognize that we are sinners, despite our appearance of respectability, and that our only real option is to beg for God’s mercy, then we begin to live our lives truthfully before God and each other.
The tax collector’s prayer is the only prayer we can pray if we are honest with ourselves. It is the only prayer we can pray if we see ourselves as God sees us. It is the only prayer we can pray if we are interested in reconciling humanity to God, and bringing the shalom of God to earth. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Amen.