Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost Jeremiah 14:1-10, 19-22, Psalm 84, 2 Timothy 4:6-18, Luke 18:9-14
This week, the husband of Kim Kardashian, the rapper Kanye West released an album titled JESUS IS KING, which I think is a sentence no one ever thought would be said out loud.
It is very good, I would thoroughly commend it to you.
Its language of faith is not especially complex and the theology could do with some development conceptually, but his words are deeply sincere. He wants to tell the world that he has met God and been changed by him, and now desires to live his life following Jesus.
He has probably shared this message of life-changing love with more people than every pastor in America combined this week.
Yet here we are, in this year 2019, when a celebrity power couple have had their whole family baptized and are now telling anyone who’ll listen that they should follow Jesus.
Some have scoffed, and some aren’t really convinced. But I think that for Jesus, Kanye’s sincere prayer is enough. Sometimes though such a prayer from the lips of the unexpected is not enough for us.
Last Sunday our Gospel Lesson instructed us to pray without losing heart, to cultivate a life of prayer for justice, for the coming of God’s reign on earth. In Jesus’ day as in ours there were those for whom religion comes naturally, and seem to excel in setting aside time and energy to give themselves to prayer. Many of these people would be known as Pharisees, whose ministry was one of teaching and prayer, through which they had gained many insights into the ways of God and had cultivated lives of devotion to which many aspired. And I know that many people here also who have walked with God for a long time have grown habits of devotion which daily equip them to go out into their worlds to glorify God and bless their neighbors.
Praying, like anything else, is something one can learn to be good at.
Anticipating this, Luke places a parable immediately after the one about praying and never giving up, addressed “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt”.
It turns out that even good things can become twisted by our pride.
The Pharisee is the model of devotion. He has ordered his life and has cultivated the kind of discipline which has set him apart and made him a shining light in his community. Not only does he not do those things which should not be done, but he does those good things which ought to be done. He does not act cruelly, he fasts and tithes. This is very good, and frankly not easy. This is the result of years of devotion which have birthed these habits of holiness.
He has prayed and not lost heart. He has done what Jesus asked.
And yet he has utterly failed to understand who God is.
He stands upon these good things which his life, learning, and circumstances have allowed him to grow, and from that vantage point looks down at those who haven’t made it to where he is.
Now, the Tax Collector, unlike the beloved pillars of our community they are today, in the context of the Gospels are a real blight on society. Their role was to scalp money from the people of Judah to send to the despised and cruel Romans. And who might we suppose were most at risk of having their livelihoods threatened by the Tax Collector? The lowest and most vulnerable in the community, those who could be pushed around, those who did not have the resources to fend off Tax Collectors. These were fellow Judeans who were taking from their neighbors to give to their enemies, the oppressors under whose boot heel the whole nation suffers. We meet Zacchaeus, a chief Tax Collector in Luke 19 who has used his power to enrich himself by extortion.
It is, indeed, a very good thing not to be like a Tax Collector in first century Palestine.
Yet this man had enough of a faith that he still went to the Temple to pray. And he even has the clarity of thought to know where he stands. He knows himself to be a sinner with nothing to offer to God. And so what can he do? He beats his breast and says only “God be merciful to me a sinner”. And he is the one who goes down to his house justified.
Now this is a wonderful message for us, because it is the assurance that when we pray the confession later in this service, we will truly be justified before God. But when we consider this parable in dialogue with the previous one, something wonderful is shown to us.
Remember, the previous parable is about justice, and specifically justice for a widow who is being threatened by an adversary. Perhaps we are being invited to imagine that the adversary was indeed someone like the Tax Collector, who has seen this woman on her own as an easy source of money to give to Rome.
It is easy to imagine that justice in this case might mean the destruction of the one committing the injustice. But the future which stretches out before the Widow, the Pharisee, and the Tax Collector begins to fog over as the clouds of our ignorance and malice easily forget the kindness and compassion of God.
For Jesus the future is much more clear. The one who is trampled upon will find relief. The one doing the harm can find forgiveness. And those who think they have gotten it right will soon discover that they are very, very wrong.
Indeed the Pharisee might consider himself to be an ally of the widow, and as a good Torah-observing Rabbi he ought to be. The Old Testament speaks with a frequent and unmistakable clarity about how the widows, orphans, and strangers are to be cared for by the People of God. Yet his pride has dulled his imagination, such that he sees no future for the Tax Collector beyond destruction.
Jesus offers much more than that. Jesus offers a future for all three. Justice for the oppressed. Forgiveness for the oppressor. And a new heart for the Pharisee, if he wants it. Everyone else got what they asked, but the Pharisee needed to ask for nothing. So that is what he received. Nothing at all.
To be devoted to prayer is a good thing, and such devotion will change our lives. As we draw closer to God we may find things which once appealed to us become ugly, and things which once seemed hard will become natural. Prayer is a significant work, indeed it is the most important work we will ever do, and from such work will come kinds of change and progress about which it can be tempting to boast. Yet the Pharisee forgets that whatever has been gained, always comes from God and was the impartation of his grace, and not earned by us. If we believe our spiritual life makes us less needful of God’s grace, we have seriously gone astray and our hearts will no longer be capable of beholding those who seem lost with anything other than contempt.
This danger of the spiritual life is one of the reasons why Christian worship from its earliest days has been governed by setting down prayers, hymns, and songs in written form to be used by all of us together.
St Paul noticed that in the Corinthian church their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper had become so distorted that people were treating it as an occasion to fill their stomachs, and not for what it was given, which is as a gateway into Christ’s passion and resurrection whereby we feed on his flesh and drink his blood to be made whole. And so he prescribes what might be the earliest form of liturgy for the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…”
As the Church has grown and matured, so have our patterns of prayer. Within Monastic communities, those communities of people who had left behind the cares of the world to be devoted to prayer, patterns of prayer emerged which involved reading the Scriptures, singing the Psalms, praying the Lord’s Prayer and all kinds of other devotions to which every member of the community submitted so that they might have a common prayer, and be formed not to become proud and haughty, but rather be brought low by praying words they didn’t choose with people with whom they might not have much in common. The chief example of this pattern is the Rule of St. Benedict, who aimed to curtail all kinds of error and pride by teaching praying communities to pray the same thing at the same time.
Ordered worship which can be held in common by all members of the community is one of the many things Thomas Cranmer embraced about the Christian tradition when he composed his Book of Common Prayer for the people of England in the 1500’s. This notion of Common Prayer is one of the most precious gifts of the Anglican expression of Christian faith, because when we learn to pray together rightly we are trained to behold those who are praying with us with the dignity that Jesus beholds them with, and reflect on ourselves as having the same need for grace and mercy that we might be tempted to place on others who look a bit less holy.
Indeed our Prayer Book has learned a great deal from the Tax Collector who beats his breast and cries “God be merciful to me, a sinner”.
That prayer echoes all throughout our Liturgy for Holy Communion each Sunday:
After we hear the Summary of the Law we sing “Lord have mercy” in response. We confess at the start of our worship that we have not lived as we ought to live, or love as we ought to have loved.
When we pray, we bring the needs of the world before the face of God and we say “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer”. And after we have prayed for the world, we must confront that what is wrong with the world, is US, and so we “acknowledge our many sins and offenses which we have committed by thought, word, and deed” and we cry out “Have mercy on us, have mercy on us most merciful father”
When we come to the Lord’s Table to celebrate Holy Communion, we once again admit to ourselves and each other that we do not come “trusting in our own righteousness but in [God’s] abundant and great mercies” and we sing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world to “have mercy on us”.
In this regard our faithful and holy Priest, Steve, is no different than us for he says the very same thing. He is not worthy to stand and celebrate, and we are not worthy to eat and drink, yet God is kind and merciful and will send us to our homes justified when we call upon him to have mercy on us. And if you and I can go to our homes justified, then who are we to imagine that he will withhold his mercy from anyone else who asks for it?
The life of prayer is a life of effort, this is certain, but for Jesus the prayer that brings us close to God is the one which says “Have mercy on me”. That is always enough for Jesus, and so may it always be enough for us.
And when we invite others into our lives of prayer, as we welcome newcomers into our fellowship, as we teach our children to pray, let us always remember never to look down upon those who aren’t as good at it as we are, because it might well be that their prayer will be answered, and ours will really be asking for nothing at all.