The Rev. Peter M. Carey
Sermon – 27 October 2013 – The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
St. Paul’s Memorial Church, Charlottesville, VA
"Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." ~ Rumi
There are indeed hundreds, if not thousands or millions of ways to pray. Lately, I have found myself not only praying more, but also talking about prayer more with people I have met with over the last several weeks. Prayer can take many many different forms, perhaps as many forms as there are people.
Of course, Jesus gives us many models to emulate when we pray. One of his most prevalent "ways" of prayer seems to be that he would "go off to a deserted place" or would go up to a mountain, or go off by himself to spend time with God. Do we know exactly how Jesus prayed, we have some glimpses from the Bible, but we don't exactly know, of course.
In addition to seeing how Jesus prayed, we also hear him tell stories about how to pray. His prevalent use of parables can be a tremendous guide when we encounter questions in our lives, even questions about how to pray. On the other hand, parables can trip us up because they are stories, after all, and, like jokes or comic strips, if you don't "get it"you just "don't get it." Have you ever had to describe the joke in a comic strip to someone who doesn't "get it"...this can be a painful and frustrating thing to do...the humor and irony get lost. Sometimes, this is how I feel talking about Jesus' parables...but here I go...
This week, in our gospel from Luke, we turn to the often discussed parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who are both praying in the Temple. Once again, Jesus is critical of the self-oriented, arrogant, proud Pharisee who seems to be most concerned with his appearance, his "public spirituality," and his comparisons with others, in this case, with the Tax Collector.
And then there is the Tax Collector, who for those hearing the story would immediately make them think of the crooked way that Tax Collectors stole from the people in order to line their own pockets, and also support the Roman oppression of Israel. Tax Collectors were held in pretty low esteem, and were certainly "sinners" as they stole from the poor and gave to the rich, and got rich in the process. So, once again in Luke's gospel, we see Jesus making a great reversal, embracing paradox, and certainly shocking his hearers with this story.
Jesus is shocking his hearers with this strange and crazy story! You see, the "religious type," the "ethical one," the "model student," the "community award winner," the one who is fulfilling all the demands of his church and temple is the one who has slipped into complacency, hubris, pride, and in so doing, his prayers are null, void, and a house of cards. You see, we each have a part of us that is the Pharisee! We are the Pharisees very often. We want to know what we need to do to accomplish our goals. How many hours do I need to play the scales in order to make first chair in the orchestra? How many sales do I need to make before I can make it onto the plaque on the wall? How many salads do I need to eat before I might lose those 10 lbs? We work hard, we think that if we do x we will get y, and we often spend a lot of time looking around at what others are doing.
However, God wants us to be in relationship, not to check off the "religious boxes" on some "to do list" or "seven habits of highly spiritual people." God wants us to have an open heart, to practice forgiveness, to open ourselves up to God, and to our neighbors. God wants us to place ourselves in a position where we might be humble before our Lord and Maker. God wants us to look deeply within ourselves and admit that we mess up, we ruin things, we screw up royally. You see, God already knows what we're up to; God already knows us down to our bones. God even knew that the Tax Collector was a terrible crook, the reverse of Robin Hood - that he was one who stole from the poor and gave to the rich. God knew the Tax Collector. God knows us. And loves us anyway.
God knows us. And loves us anyway.
Like the tax collector, we can place ourselves in prayer before the Lord of the Universe who also loves us and cares for us as a "Mother hen loves her young." There is no need to pump ourselves up. There is no need to check off the spiritual boxes. There is no need to compare ourselves to those around us. There is only a need for us to open our hearts, and realize that God even loves those parts of ourselves, those things we "have done and left undone" which cause us great pain and regret. God knows us, and loves us anyway.
This is Good News, indeed!