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My parents have worked downtown for quite a while now and a couple years back there was a homeless man that sat outside the Subway restaurant near their building. He would hold the door for customers as they came in and out. When they could my parents would buy him a sandwich when they stopped into Subway for lunch. Over time, they had become friendly with the man.
A coworker of theirs approached them about what they were doing, and said that it was so nice but she doesn’t like giving to the homeless. My dad kindly replied, “Well, you never know they could be an angel.”
Well, this took their co-worker by surprise because that was definitely not what she had expected him to say. That next Monday she came into work and went right up to my parents. She said that she no longer had any money for the commuter bus the rest of the week because she gave all her change to the homeless between her bus stop and her building in fear that one of them could be an angel.
Now I don’t share this story to encourage giving out of fear or that there should be a fear of angels lurking—because they do lurk. But that we never really know someone’s story—we don’t know what brought that man to the corner on Charles Street or that Tax Collector to the temple to pray. What we do know is that they both deserved to experience the merciful love of God through the kindness of a meal and for the Tax Collector the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus gives us two parables in Luke that focus on prayer: the parable of the widow and judge from last week and now the Pharisee and Tax Collector. For Jesus it is prayer that allows us to inwardly focus our attention on God in order to outwardly share God’s merciful love to the world. It is prayer that helps us be mindful of sharing that merciful love by opening our hearts to move us to justice as Arianne preached last week.
But as this parable shows us today…prayer is not an easy task because our purpose for prayer to invigorate us and move us toward mercy can be derailed and distracted by judgments and assumptions.
That’s what makes this parable somewhat complicated. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like the tax collector—but he doesn’t even know his story, the Pharisee easily judges the man based on his profession. And when reading this parable, I can’t help but find myself judging the Pharisee for judging the tax collector.
Jesus creates a complex and complicated story where the judgment of the character causes the judgment of the reader. He uses this web to make think about who we are and how easily our own prayer lives are complicated and distracted by quick judgments and assumptions of others and less mindfulness of our actions.
That is why God calls us to be in relationship with God through prayer—to constantly work on our focus being on God and not on comparing ourselves to others.
For these men in the story they go to the Temple they’re seeking a relationship with God but for different reasons and also one becomes caught up by judgmental distraction. The faithful and righteous Pharisee goes to the temple to be seen—for people can witness his piety—for his prayer to be part of religious regimen. But the tax collector goes to be heard—not by the crowd but by God. He’s part of a corrupt profession and not expected to be at the temple to pray. But for him is relationship to God through prayer is one of heartfelt desperation “be merciful to me a sinner!”
We can see how the Pharisee’s assumption that that tax collector standing in the back must be corrupt and less than him pulls him away in his prayer from God’s mercy to his self-righteousness. His judgment then leads him to set himself apart from those around him because of his faithful adherence to the law to the point that he attributes his righteousness to himself and not to God.
HE is righteous because HE fasts twice a week, HE gives a tenth of his income to the temple, and HE prays. HE does all of this pious work but is it done for God? Or for himself? In his prayer there is no thanks to God for his pious life or his righteousness or blessings. This prayer of thanksgiving becomes distorted by his self-centeredness. And the part for this Pharisee is that he thinks that it is his righteousness and religious piety that sets him apart but it is actually his lack of humility.
Jesus shows us that judgment interferes with our relationship with God through prayer—distracting us from our own work.
But Jesus does not leave us here today with a story of false piety and arrogant judgment. He leaves us with hope that it is through our humility in prayer that brings us into even greater closeness to God and one another. Jesus says that “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Why humility when praying? Humility is essential to our prayer life because it is through humility that we are honest with ourselves about who we are when we to come to God. That Tax Collector came to God honest that he was a sinner. He did not hide it behind excuses or false piety. And that is why God showed him mercy and made him justified. The Tax Collector knew he was dependent on God’s mercy—praying with humility allows him to rely on God’s justifying grace, not on good works. The justifying grace that forgives him of his sins and allows him to be righteous.
Therefore, this parable demonstrates how out of judgment comes humility and mercy. How the goodness of the tax collector is drawn out. And how two men trying to live good lives and to be in relationship with God through prayer each struggle with the balance of righteousness and humility when judgment is thrown at them.
In this complicated tale of judgment and redemption, who is the example we should follow? The extremely pious man or the tax collector?
Both—despite his lack of recognition of his self-righteousness, the Pharisee lives a life where he fully gives himself to God through time and money. He finds purpose and meaning in giving toward his faith. And the Tax collector shows us dependence on God’s mercy that forgives, heals and renews. These two men have interesting stories that are still unclear and always will be. But these two men teach us how God wants us to be in relationship with him through prayer—giving, honest, and faithful.
We never know who may be an angel in one’s life and maybe for us today, it was tax collector.
The Rev. Jessica Sexton