Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. These two men go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee does everything right, all the time, and he prays that way to. The tax collector is really down and with his crushed heart yells out: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
Be careful with this story. It’s a trap! It sets us up for failure. It is written in a way that you can only end up on the wrong side of the story. In very plain terms the obvious good guy is the penitent tax collector. Very clearly we are supposed to identify with him. But when you actually follow the logic of the parable and you want to be the tax collector you end up judging the Pharisee. Identifying with the tax collector we basically pride ourselves to not be like that guy – the Pharisee who thinks so highly of himself. But by doing so we think so incredibly highly of ourselves. So all of sudden as you identify with the tax collector you are turned into the Pharisee. By the way Jesus was a Pharisee, so he is criticizing his own here. And the whole thing revolves around the issue of prayer and the attitude with which you do your praying.
So let’s take a look at the two prayer attitudes that are in our story: The Pharisee is well situated: I love my God and I love my life. All is well with my soul! The tax collector is crushed: I hate myself and I hope God does not hate me the way I do! You could say they approach prayer as stereotypes of the optimist and the pessimist: One says the glass half full. For the other one the glass is half empty. But which is true now: Does God want you to feel good about yourself? Or does God want you to feel bad about yourself? The answer is: YES!
Prayer is many things but in its most basic forms it is: mourning one’s own misery and praising God’s glory. Both is true and both needs to be done. An honest wailing like Job’s or the lamentations of Jeremiah is cathartic. A loud and proud Hallelujah like all over the Psalms is uplifting. There are endless modes and attitudes of prayer. With over 3,000 named characters in the Bible you can be sure that they have at least 3,000 very distinct ways to pray.
Let’s analyze these two prayers here: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’
You know who prays that way? – Somebody who was taken advantage of.
He doesn’t want to be like a thief: He probably had something stolen from him.
He doesn’t want to be like a rogue: He probably was one as a teenager and has outgrown that.
He doesn’t want to be like an adulterer: He probably had his dad cheat on his mom and grew up without a father figure.
He doesn’t want to be like a tax collector: He is probably still burdened by student loans and is intimidated by wealth.
Is the Pharisee really the bad guy here?
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
You know who prays that way? – Somebody who wants your sympathy.
He came to the temple to pray. Really? Self-pity and self-loathing he could have done at home as well! He wanted an audience! He’s gesturing wildly, beating his chest drawing attention to himself and his own misery. As if God didn’t not know of the tax collector’s pain. This is certainly a plea for attention directed at the people at the temple. Maybe he doesn’t get the attention his soul requires at home. Or maybe he doesn’t get the appreciation his soul requires at work. Is the tax collector really the good guy here?
What if both were praying in meaningful ways? Everybody prays in their own way, always have, always will. The prophet Joel says of God: “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Now, that’s a radical notion God’s spirit poured out on all flesh includes Pharisees and tax collectors, the hurting and the proud, the pained and the joyful. YES! God wants you to feel good about yourself! YES! God wants you to feel bad about yourself! Your flesh, with all that makes you who you are, is drenched with God’s spirit. Your prayer, whatever it may be, is meaningful and true and good.
Welcome to the postmodern era where everybody sets their own standard. If we have learned anything in the postmodern era then it’s that: Individuals have the truth in themselves. That’s what Joel means when he says the spirit of God is poured out on all flesh. You have the truth! So if and when people go to church in this day and age there is no reason to tell them how to pray the right way. Everybody knows that they can pray however the spirit may give it to them: “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.”
That has huge implications for the way we do church because our outward expressions of prayer are transient in nature. And it changes all the time. Jesus and his disciples were good Jews attending the temple with its ancient Hebrew rituals. A generation later Paul and the other Apostles transition to little house churches that are mostly a handful of people gathering in a home for prayer – in the Greek language. Then the church takes over the Roman Empire and starts building cathedrals for the masses to gather for mass. The people turn silent and the priest reads Latin which nobody understands. Since the reformation church is held in every language of every culture. We still have buildings for Sunday use but a lot happens again in house churches. The way the church does its praying is radically changing right before our eyes. With over 300 million people in the US you can be sure that we have at least 300 million very distinct ways to pray.
That’s where we are: The truth is in my heart. And nobody can talk to any truth beyond themselves. And the church is still here. And faith is still here. As a matter of fact spirituality is stronger than ever and people have more choices now than they have ever had before. Also prayer is more individualized than ever before. So here is the challenge if we want our Sunday hour to remain relevant: How do we shape our shared worship and corporate prayer in a way that connects with the need for individual devotion? What we do is obviously only compatible with the people who are already here. What we do is not working for most people. That’s why they’re not here.
I can see three venues where our congregation offers prayer experiences. First, we have corporate prayer in our worship services. Second, we have a list of prayer requests in our newsletter. And third, we open the meetings of our groups, committees and organizations with a prayer. Did I forget anything? Is that supposed to be spiritually fulfilling or filling? Does that really feed a hungry soul?
I know it does not for me. On top of that I have the following prayer practices: We gather as a family at bedtime and say thank you God for all the things we enjoyed over the course of the day. We say grace over every meal at home. I enjoy the set times. It’s almost like the ancient monastic prayer times. You see: The church does not have a monopoly on prayer.
In every strip mall there is a shop that offers private meditation classes. For decades the Christian book market has exploded with books for spiritual growth and exploring your inner self in prayer. TV preachers present prayers that are actually more geared towards the people in front of their TVs as opposed to God Almighty. The prayer market is totally saturated yet we as a church decide to not even compete in it in a big way.
Where are places where you can learn to pray? Praying does take practice. It needs to be cultivated. Sometimes prayer is all action that does not require words. Prayer doesn’t have to be churchy. But it does require experience. And the most intense prayer experience for me since I have come to Texas are monthly calls that I receive. A Pentecostal part-time preacher who theologically couldn’t be farther removed from me, gives me a call every month. I usually let him go to voicemail because what he does is he prays for me and I want to be able to relisten to that when I need a boost later in the month. With his spirit-driven joy and energy he thanks God for my being, my family, my ministry and the work of this church. Then he asks God to continue to bless me and the people around me. Wow! At first I had a hard time accepting that. Now I have come to rely on it. Thank you, my friend.
Maybe that would be a good prayer exercise that I could suggest to all y’all today. We have this wonderful new church directory. The people listed in there agreed to share their contact information with you. Make use of it. I ask you to pray at least twice:
First, ask God who you should pray for.
Second, pray for that person, over the phone or via letter or per email.
You can pray with your own words or find traditional ones.
If you have a hard time coming up with words that seem meaningful don’t look any further than your own soul.
Remember the Pharisee?
He didn’t want to be like a thief: He probably had something stolen from him.
He din’t want to be like a rogue: He probably was one as a teenager and has outgrown that.
He din’t want to be like an adulterer: He probably had his dad cheat on his mom and grew up without a father figure.
He din’t want to be like a tax collector: He is probably still burdened by student loans and is intimidated by wealth.
The way he talks should give you clues what to pray about.
Remember the tax collector?
Maybe he didn’t get the attention his soul requires at home. Or maybe he didn’t get the appreciation his soul requires at work.
The way he acts should give you clues what to pray about.
You know, prayer takes practice and you can only get better at it by doing more of it.
Let’s practice! Amen!