When I served as Chaplain at San Francisco Theological Seminary, one of the joys of my work was that each year I got to work with four Student Chaplain Assistants, planning and creating our daily chapel worship. They came from diverse backgrounds, each with their distinct personality and gifts – and over the course of the year – we’d create together – try new things in worship – even as we sustained the deep traditions of our faith.
Toward the end of each year, I’d interview for the next group of Chaplain’s Assistants – next year’s team. I remember at the end of one interview, I asked the student, his name was Asefa, if there was anything else that he wanted us to know about him. He got very quiet and replied, “Yes. I want you to know that I am very, very funny.” I think I laughed. But he didn’t. He said, “No. I’m serious. I am hilarious.”
And then he explained – you see, Asefa was from Ethiopia, he’d gone to university in Norway, and now seminary in California. Asefa knew a thing or two about living cross-culturally and translating culture to culture. He explained his experience that humor – doesn’t always translate across cultures – what’s funny in one culture – may not be funny, at first, in another. Over the next year, I learned that Asefa was indeed hilarious. I also learned that he was a courageous justice activist – as he invited us to stand with the persecuted Oromo people of Ethiopia. I learned that he was an insightful and caring pastor. And. Very. Very. Funny.
This morning’s parable is funny. Across cultures, across the centuries, across languages. This morning’s parable was funny then. It is funny now. I mean... you’ve got his guy, this Pharisee. He comes to the Temple. Walks up to the front. Stands alone, away from the riff-raff, where everyone can see. And he prays:
Thank you, God.
Thank you that I’m not like everyone else.
Thank you that I’m not like the thieves, or the evildoers,
Thank you that I’m not like that guy over there.
Thank you that I’m... well, better.
Thank you for making me.... good.
Thank you, God.
It reminds me of the line from the Bruno Mars song: “I’ve gotta kiss myself I’m so pretty.”
Over the past three years, you’ve probably heard me say, “There is no one right way to pray.” If there were, that wouldn’t be it. And we get it. It’s so over the top that we can’t help but notice that something’s amiss.
It’s easier, I think, to identify with the tax collector. The Pharisee points him out. Thank you that I’m not like that tax collector over there. Now, in the Gospel of Luke, we know about tax collectors. Tax collectors are the henchmen of Empire. They’re local independent contractors, hired by the Roman Empire to collect oppressive taxes – and on top of the taxes they collect, they add and collect their own fee. They stand with The Man, with their foot on the neck of the people.
But here the tax collector is off to the side, praying for God’s mercy. Now, maybe when Jesus first told this story, there was nervous laughter at seeing the powerful humbled. But it’s mostly poignant. Maybe this tax collector sees the part he plays in unjust systems, and he prays for mercy. Now, we don’t know that he changes. The story doesn’t say that he quits being a tax collector – only that he asks for God’s mercy and goes home a little closer to God, still living in the complexity of his world.
In our day, as we learn about systemic racism, and as I learn about my complicity in the systems that oppress – I get it. I think it’s easier to identify with the tax collector. I hope I’m more like the tax collector than the Pharisee, thank goodness.
Oh, did you see what just happened there? Thank God I’m more like the tax collector. Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee. Or maybe I am. As soon as we start to critique the Pharisee – there we are, standing in his shoes.
With its humor and its poignancy, this parable draws us in. The parable offers us what, at first, are basically caricatures. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In the Gospel of Luke, we know what Pharisees do, and we know what Tax Collectors do. We know what to expect. But the parable draws us in, stirs things up, and by the end, they become a bit more human. Maybe we see a little bit of them in a little bit of us.
But what does it all mean? What does this little story tell us about how we should pray – or how we might live?
Parables invite us to look at things from a different angle. So, I want to invite us to read this story backwards. To walk back through it – starting at the end, and then working our way back to the beginning.
If we start at the end, we begin with this statement: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those humbled will be exalted.” Does that sound familiar? It’s all over the gospel of Luke. It’s the song that Mary sings: “God is lifting up those held low, and bringing the mighty down from their thrones.” It’s what Jesus says at the start of his ministry: “I come to bring good news to the poor. Release for every captive.” It’s what Jesus says at the Last Supper: “Those who lead must be like those who serve. I am among you as one who serves.” It’s what Jesus is doing throughout the Gospel of Luke – Jesus is turning the world rightside up. The humble are being raised up. The powers are being brought down. The reign of God is here. The kingdom of God. Resurrection. New Creation. The chance to live into a new humanity. It’s what Jesus is all about. And it’s what this story is about. This story about prayer. Those held low are being lifted up.
If we begin at the end of this story, we begin with what God is doing in the world.
And we walk back into the story. And this time the first person we meet is the tax collector – off to the side – beating his breast: “God have mercy on me.” The tax collector’s prayer is putting him into the stream of what God is doing in the world. Whatever part of him that was exalted – his power over – it’s been humbled. Here he is, as broken as any of us – saying it out loud – and he's come to this place to pray. “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” And the story says he will go home closer to God. In his prayer, those exalted are humbled, and the humbled, lifted up.
We can stand here with this tax collector and look back at the Pharisee. And we should give them both a little bit of credit. They are both showing up to pray. They are both showing up with the intention of somehow connecting with God. But they pray different prayers. What does the tax collector see that the pharisee doesn’t? He sees his need for God. Standing in the midst of what God is doing in the world, he sees his need for God. “God, in my brokenness, in my troubles, Have mercy on me. Help me.” He begins with his need for God.
We try to do something like that here in worship. I don’t know if you’ve noticed – but our Prayer of Confession is phrased a little differently here. We call it Confessing Our Need for God. Our Presbyterian tradition loves a good prayer of confession. As I used to say at the seminary, we begin worship by saying true things about ourselves, so that we can lean into true things about God. We confess our need for God – so that we can open ourselves up and experience all the ways that God meets our need – all the ways God’s grace abounds.
Traditional prayers of confession focus on sin and forgiveness. My friend Hampton Deck – Pastor in Vallejo – says that both our need for God and God’s grace are so much broader than that. Sometimes we confess our need for forgiveness, and lean into that. But sometimes, our need is that we are hurting – and we need God’s healing touch. Sometimes the need is oppression, and God’s grace shows up with liberation and freedom. Sometimes we are alone – we feel like we’re in exile – and God comes and sits with us and walks us home. We try to pray our need for God – so with open, honest hearts we might name and experience all the ways that God’s love and grace are already here and always on the way.
In our Thursday afternoon Prayer & Connection group, from time to time, we’ve been trying out a way of praying that opens up a chance to name a need and then trust that need to God. I thought we might try it out here – here’s the basic flow. We settle in. Thank God for the day, and then allow a prayer to come to mind – a need – a person or situation that rises up for prayer. Then the invitation is
· to envision that person or situation surrounded by God’s love
· to envision that person or situation being made whole – whatever that looks like – to envision them being made whole in God’s love
· to pray in whatever words may come that God’s loving will be accomplished in that person or situation
· and then – when we’re ready – to release that person or situation to God’s care – to trust God to meet our need.
And then we begin again, we allow another need to come to mind...
So let’s give that a try.
[the congregation experiences the prayer together]
As we walk back through the parable, we come back to the beginning, and we remember that Jesus told this story to “some who trusted in themselves and held others in contempt.” And we remember the Pharisee. He doesn’t ask God for anything. He really doesn’t thank God for anything but himself. He is showing up, but he’s standing in a worldview that is convinced that we do all this on our own – this life. And if that’s true, that inevitably puts us in competition with each other, with comparison and contempt.
Some are exalted, and some pushed down and held low. We know that world.
This parable points us to a different world – to a New Creation. What we find here in this story is an invitation to name our need for God and to begin our prayer there – to draw near to God – and to discover a God of mercy, who has already drawn near to us. (And, also remember the parable last week of the persistent widow and the indifferent judge – we discover a God of mercy and of justice. Pray and never give up.)
There is no one right way to pray. There are an infinite number of ways to pray. They all begin with showing up. They grow richer and deeper as we come to understand that we need God and that we need each other – as we open ourselves to this New Creation – all around us, and within us – as we draw near to and experience this God of mercy and of justice.
In Christ there is a new creation, God is bringing down the powers that harm and oppress, and lifting up those who have been humbled.
What God is doing in the world,
God is doing in the humanity of this parable,
in the prayers of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
What God is doing in the world,
God is doing in us –
in the prayers we pray –
and in the life of Christ we live for the world God loves.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 For background on this text (including Pharisees and tax collectors), see R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 340-43; Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), pp.224-25; Francisco J. García, Commentery on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-3/commentary-on-luke-189-14-5 ; Matt Skinner Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-3/commentary-on-luke-189-14-4 .  Adapted from Teresa Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006).