Tolstoy in his novel, War and Peace, included a paragraph that many of us had to memorize in high school. It read . . . “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of grace, it was the epoch of law, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of our despair, we had accomplished nothing, we had accomplished everything, we were going directly to Heaven, but we deserved Hell”–in short, the period was so much like our present world, that the story could have been told of us today. The two prayers . . . that of the Pharisee and that of the tax collector described in today’s gospel should speak directly to our hearts today because the times today are so similar with the times of Jesus that it is almost spooky.
This week we saw in Kenya a great coming together of God’s people in the Worldwide Anglican Church. Archbishops, bishops, clergy and people from all over the world met to praise God and to plan the future of the Anglican Church in Nairobi. They came to bear witness to the power of Jesus Christ and his gospel of truth and to also bear witness to the fact that far too many have fallen from the way of life and have embraced a false gospel – one of perversion and of sin- thereby tearing the fabric of our communion with each other.
Perhaps the keynote of this conference, at least for me, was a speech given by Dr. Michael Ovey of the United Kingdom who said . . . “My first encounter with worldwide Anglicanism came at theological college in 1990,” when a visitor from Africa asked, “What Gospel do you expect us to believe, the one you came to us with or the one you now believe?” Dr. Ovey at once was made aware by this question that England had embraced a very different version of the Gospel than the one it once believed, with much of the fault due to a belief in what Dietrich Bonhoffer calls “cheap grace.”
Ovey describes this grace as ‘cheap’ because it is self-bestowed at no cost to the individual, cancelling out the need for repentance, amendment of life and the subsequent, uniquely Christian blessing of forgiveness. This not only guts the Gospel of its central message, that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem,” (Luke 24: 47, Acts 2) but actually impoverishes our understanding of God. With cheap grace in place, there is no need for the forgiveness of an all-merciful Creator because repentance isn’t necessary in the first place, but something we give ourselves. And isn’t that what we’ve been hearing from our own Christian leaders in America for years now.
If you didn’t know it by now, you ought to know that the universe is at complete odds with itself. There is a tension that exists that forces us to choose sides every day. Each day we must choose between light and darkness, between good and evil, between right and wrong, between our own well-being and the well being of others, between giving gifts and withholding gifts, between helping others and helping ourselves.
We are forced all the time to choose on issues about war and peace, about our sexuality, about the extent and worth of our religion, about prayer in schools and about abortion and euthanasia . . . and this is only part of the tension that we live with day after day.
But, this tension is not the way it is supposed to be. In fact, if there were no one on earth, if man had never been created, this tension would not exist because the fall of man would never have happened. That is why Jesus came; that was his mission; to change the hearts of men to be more in line with the Father in heaven. Jesus tried to show us a new way of being one with the universe . . . and not at odds with it. He tried to teach us what we teach our children when they first start out in school . . . share your toys, help each other out and be kind to one another. Some of us listened, but the majority did not. The teachings of Jesus do not always fit easily into the world as we know it; a world that, for the most part honors self over sacrifice. The two prayers in today’s gospel show the dramatic difference between what man thinks and what God thinks.
Today, Jesus tells us the story of two prayers. The people from whom the prayers come in the first sentence are those whose confidence is in their own righteousness and who look down upon all others. Perhaps you know the type.
The first character in the story is a Pharisee.
Who were the Pharisees? Today, we have a prejudice against the Pharisees. We’ve heard so many stories about them that we immediately cast them as the bad guy. But that’s not the way they were seen by most people when Jesus spoke about them. Pharisees were well respected and honored members of their community. They were lay people and priests. They were dedicated to studying and diligently following the law. And that was no small law. As you may know, much of the Jewish law was known only by oral tradition, therefore this Pharisee probably had memorized most of the law of the Torah.
Our Pharisee knew and followed all of this law very carefully. He wanted to make sure God knew of his righteousness. Of course, he didn’t sin like others did – robbers, evildoers, adulterers. He was so righteous that he even went beyond the requirements of the law. The law only required one fast a year. He fasted twice a week. The law only required a tithe on certain parts of one’s income. He tithed on all he received. He was the best of the best . . . certainly a credit to God and deserving of a place in the kingdom, or at least in his own eyes.
Our other character in the story is the tax collector. There was little doubt in the minds of those listening to Jesus that this was the bad guy in the story. A tax collector who worked for Rome – the empire that had taken control of the promised land. Yet most were Jews themselves. So others saw tax collectors as traitors. A tax collector was assigned a certain amount that he was to raise from the territory assigned to him. He was free to collect whatever he could. If he could get more than the amount required by Rome, he could keep the excess. So he would also be seen by the people as an extortionist.
So what are the prayers spoken by our two characters?
First, the assumed hero of our tale, the Pharisee.
The Pharisee stands while praying. This was a typical posture for prayer. Standing, with head looking up to heaven and arms outstretched. Then Jesus says he prays about himself or, (and in some translations, to himself). That’s the first indication of trouble. Prayers are offered to one greater than yourself. But this Pharisee thought so highly of himself that he could pray to himself.
He addresses God, but is speaking to himself, building himself up by putting others down. “Thank you that I am not like [these] others – robbers and evildoers and adulterers – and especially that I am not like that tax collector standing over there. I fast more than everyone else and I give you more money than everyone else. I’m a great guy – look at me”.
The fault with this prayer is in caricature. It’s blown out of proportion by Jesus to make it easy to see and to make it a little funny. Listen to the prayer again . . .”Thank you that I am not like the others – robbers and evildoers and adulterers – and especially that I am NOT like that tax collector standing over there. I fast more than everyone else and I give more money than everyone else.”. . . . It’s a funny prayer. No one would really pray like that, would they?
But unfortunately, some do pray like that, and all too often. Listen carefully to prayers – especially the “thanks” part of prayers. How many times do we thank God for things that we have done and not for what He has done. How often are we thanking God for who WE are rather than for who He is? It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it has a first name – idolatry and a last name – Pride. When we start making this mistake, we’re worshipping ourselves rather than God. When we put our own efforts above God’s, we become idolaters – just like this Pharisee.
So, how then should we pray?
Look at the tax collector’s prayer. He stood at a distance, in the shadows, out of the limelight. He wasn’t there for everyone else to see him. He didn’t raise his hands up or look up toward heaven so that others would know he was praying. He was there to pour his heart out to God. He came with a burden of sin that he could no longer bear.
The tax collector’s prayer isn’t long and eloquent. It isn’t heaped up with fancy words and beautiful phrases. It is seven short words – only two of them with more than one syllable. It’s short, simple, and sincere. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” No trips to a dictionary needed to figure out what he is saying. No expert training in theology needed to discern subtleties . . . just the simple request of a man who has been convicted in his own guilt. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Seven powerful words that move heaven more than years of hot air from the Pharisee ever will.
What’s the end of our story? How do things turn out? This isn’t exactly a mystery novel, or a tale of suspense. You can already see what’s going to happen. Jesus tells us the tax collector went home justified before God, not the Pharisee. The bad guy, in spite of all he had done, was reconciled with God. The good guy, despite all of his good works, leaves without ever making contact with God.
The lesson, like so many in the Bible, is that God treats us backwards from how the world does. In the world, he who humbles himself is left in the dust. He’s passed over for promotions, ignored, forgotten and discarded. In the world, he who exalts himself is noticed by others. He’s praised, remembered and elected to office. But God is different. God exalts the humble and humbles the proud. God raises up those the world has forgotten and gives them a place of honor. He adds no glory to those who are proud of their own accomplishments.
The rule of life that we, as Americans, have all come to believe and accept in this world is that we are self-made through our own desire to get ahead; but the rule that Jesus tells his followers . . . ‘be it not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.’ In these rules lies the difference between God and man. Amen.