Sermon: Starting Honestly

A Japanese woman praying beneath a waterfall.

October 27, 2019
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 18:9-14

by Eric Anderson

Let’s start with some honesty.

The Pharisee in this story tends to reinforce Christian stereotypes about first century Pharisees and about modern Jews. The Pharisee in this story tends to reinforce our own prejudices about them: Arrogant, hypocritical, self-righteous, uncaring.

If we dismiss the Pharisees as a whole, and if we dismiss this Pharisee that way, we miss Jesus’ entire point in this parable. Indeed, we probably miss the entire point of Jesus’ ministry.

As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg observes, Jesus came out of the Pharisaic tradition of first century Judaism. He spoke with Pharisees because those were the people around him. He debated with Pharisees because religious debate was a primary characteristic of the Pharisaic movement. They argued, they listened, they argued again, they criticized, and at the end of the day they sat down together for dinner and gave thanks to God.

Rabbi Ruttenberg writes on Twitter: “…when people use “Pharisee” to describe what someone horrible is doing, it implies that Jewish law somehow condones that thing (since Rabbinic Judaism came from the Pharisaic tradition historically). And I will tell you, in the cases I’ve see it used? Jewish law does NOT.”

If we start with the expectation that the Pharisee in this story is a bad guy, we will not hear this story as Jesus intended it. His hearers expected the Pharisee to be the hero. They expected him to represent the best human beings could be. They expected him, in fact, to be as he describes himself: righteous. Not a thief. Not a rogue (I’m not actually sure what Jesus meant by that). Not an adulterer. Not a tax collector, a heartless collaborator with the hated and feared Roman occupiers who gouged his own people for the benefit of the foreign emperor and to line his own pockets. They expected him to fast twice a week or more. They expected him to contribute to the temple.

This is probably the point I should mention that Loyalty Sunday will be November 17th

The Pharisee should have been the hero of the story, like the diligent shepherd or the prepared bridesmaids. Instead, he joins the unexpected antiheroes of Jesus’ parables: the faithful older son with a prodigal younger brother, the pious people who passed by the man beaten on the road.

What did he do that was so wrong?

If I were teaching a course on prayer – you know, one with homework assignments, tests, and grades – I would have sent both the Pharisee and the tax collector back to try it again. Neither of them offered a great, or even really an acceptable, prayer.

The Pharisee’s prayer falls within the category of a “prayer of thanksgiving.” It has some virtues. It’s got some detail. He named things that he was thankful for. It has two major problems. The first is the one that nearly everybody notices: the Pharisee compared himself favorably to the man praying near him. “I thank you that I am not like other people: …even this tax collector.” I grant you that that was a good thing not to be – not like a first century tax collector – but it was and is profoundly ungenerous to compare yourself with someone else that way.

The second problem with the prayer is more subtle and more serious. It’s a prayer of thanksgiving, but it doesn’t thank God for things that God has done. It gives thanks for the things the Pharisee has done, or not done. “I thank you that I am not like other people,… I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

As David Lose writes at Working Preacher: “It isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introductory sentence, he has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.”

It’s a prayer of thanksgiving for… me.

A better prayer of thanksgiving gives thanks for God.

The tax collector’s prayer is better, but it’s still not great. It’s a prayer of confession. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” As a prayer professor, I want some more detail. I want some more awareness. A better prayer of confession indicates some commitment to repentance. A better prayer of confession shows a pathway to reformation. A better prayer of confession declares what will change.

Go home and try it again.

However true that might be, it must be said that it has a major difference from the Pharisee’s prayer. The tax collector asked for something. The Pharisee didn’t. The tax collector asked for mercy. The Pharisee didn’t see the need for any. At the end of the story, the tax collector received what he asked for. The Pharisee, who hadn’t asked for anything, received what he asked for, too.

On this anniversary of the hate crime at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, which took the lives of eleven people at prayer, it’s essential that we not misunderstand who the Pharisee in this story represents. His self-satisfaction does not represent Jews. It doesn’t even represent first century Pharisees. In fact, if we pay attention to Luke’s introduction to the story, it’s more about Christians, “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” It’s about that voice within ourselves that says, “I am better than this person, than that person, than all these other people.” It’s about all of us who think God loves us because we’ve done the right things. It’s about all of us who think God doesn’t love that person who does the wrong things.

As Matt Skinner writes at Working Preacher: “The parable sets a trap. Whenever we want to be critical of one of the characters or distinguish ourselves and our values clearly from one of them, the parable exposes the disdain we harbor. What is disdain? It is the manifestation of a belief that we know better than God who should receive mercy and how they should receive it.”

How about we strive to do better than either the Pharisee or the tax collector? How about if we venture, in our prayers, to start more honestly?

Can we be more honest than the Pharisee? Can we acknowledge the gifts of God that have enabled us to live as well and as righteously as we have? Can we honor the teachings of those who went before us (and not just on All Saints Sunday); can we celebrate the ways that others lives directed our own? Can we recognize the disdain rising within us, repent it, ask forgiveness, and strive to change it? Can we amend the gaps in our righteousness before they become tatters of self-righteousness?

Can we be more honest than the tax collector? Can we look deeply at ourselves and face the things we should not have done and did anyway, the things we should have done that went undone? Can we name the things that prejudice us against other people: Religion? Race? Gender? Economic status? Criminal background? Cleanliness? Life choices?

Can we – and this is hard – can we look at the things of which we’re proud, and ask whether those things really contributed to the lives of others? Can we be honest enough about our successes to ask whether they might have failed our spirits?

If we can’t at first, or second, or third, that’s how it is. You keep trying. The life of faith isn’t a once-for-all decision. It’s work. It’s practice. It’s try, try again.

Starting honestly, and with all my criticism of the tax collector’s prayer considered, it must be said that Jesus gave it a passing grade. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” If you need a place to start, that’s a good one. An ancient variant, widely prayed in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, is “O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Wherever you may be on your prayer journey, whether it’s with that simple and desperate prayer, “Have mercy on me,” or further along where the details just fall into place: starting honestly, going on honestly, know that when you ask, you receive.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

The text above has been revised to more closely match the sermon as preached – but it is still not identical. That day is unlikely to come.

The image is by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Hatsushana Doing Penance Under the Tonosawa Waterfall (ca. 1841-1842). Public Domain, It has nothing to do with Jesus’ story, but offers a striking visual of the costs and blessings of prayer.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on October 27, 2019

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