(Or Just Saying Words?)
by Rev. Thomas Hall
In a recent Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, Calvin, a little kid who loves snow,
thinks about the changes he would make if he had God's job.
Why, if I was in charge, we'd never see grass between October and May. Getting bolder and a bit more religious, Calvin
decides to pray for snow. On
three, ready? One . . . Two . . .
Three! Snow! When nothing happens, he tries some psychology on
God. OK, then, don't snow! See what I care! I like this weather! Let's have October forever! When still nothing happens, Calvin starts to
plead. Pleeeese snow! Please? Just
a foot. Eight inches? Okay, okay, six inches, just six inches? But when no snow comes, Calvin stomps off
red-faced and yells over his shoulder, Whaddya trying ta do? Make me become an atheist or something?
prayers go unanswered despite our best efforts, our first reaction may be to pull a Calvin
and throw up our hands in frustration. Maybe
some of us here this morning have stopped really praying a long time ago. I mean we do say the prayers at church and
all, but as far as deeply meaningful, consistent praying--well maybe we've just grown away
from that. All of us have faced the
problem of unanswered prayerprayers that seem to ricochet off the wall and die. Prayers that drop stillborn from our lips. Prayers that go unanswered. Not that we've been living wretched lives
and therefore God has turned a deaf ear to us.
Not that we've failed to keep our end of the bargain. Quite the opposite. We have been faithful in our churches; we
have taught our children; and we have given generously.
Despite our best efforts it seems that too many times we've returned from church
gospel lesson does not promise quick fixes for broken prayers. Nor will I.
But our passage does focus on a fundamental truth about prayer--how we approach
God. And it has a lot to do with our
being here this morning.
tells the story about two people who go to the temple to pray. Maybe they're going to a service like
oursto worship God. The first guy
is a Pharisee. He's the kind of fellow
who has his act together. A religious
person--he fasts twice a week and even tithes.
He's an outstanding person in the community, too.
You'll never see him stepping into the peep shows on South Street or using a fuzz
buster, or having an affair on the side.
second guy in Jesus' story is unsavory. Jesus
calls him a tax collector. Any
self-respecting Jew would bristle at just the title, tax collector. Tax collectors hustled their money. They worked the neighborhoods--unofficial
IRS people collecting Roman taxes and keeping the change.
They always added a steep handling charge to line their pockets. Tax collectors were political traitors and
generally considered jerks.
Jesus says that both men prayed. The
Pharisee offered praise and thanksgiving to God for having chosen the higher road, for
having dreamed the higher dream. He had
not chosen to live an unproductive, base life.
The tax collector on the other hand has a blank sheet on the churchly side of his
life. Can't remember when was the last
time he had skipped a meal for the United Way. And
you know when that lady came to his door and he told her Oh, I gave at the
office? He lied. Never gave a red cent. And he hasn't been to Mass in years. So Jesus concludes his little story with a
mild twist. Guess who pulled
God's ear? Yep, the tax collector. That hustler, that deadbeat. He prays and God answers him but the other
guy just talks to himself.
what do you make of the story? Do you like
it? Almost makes me want to ask what's
wrong with this picture? To be quite
honest with you, I am troubled, deeply troubled by this story. What does this story say to those of us who take
our faith seriously? Is Jesus telling us that
it really doesn't matter how sloppy we live our lives because God will hear the addict's
prayer more than ours? This story seems to be
a heavy-handed morality play. Wouldn't
last a week on Broadway because the story portrays life in a black and white world.
most of don't live in that kind of world. We
live life in the thousands of subtle shades of color between black and white. We can tell who the bad guy is and who the
good guy is by just looking at their hats, right? The
guy in the white hat is supposed to be a seminary student, the other guy who hustles for a
living wears the black hat. But Jesus
has pulled a reversal on us. Turn the tables,
thrown us a curve.
Stories like this put us in the jury box and demand us to give a verdict; to
determine who is guilty here and who is innocent.
But we both know that we don't need to deliberate very much --it's unanimous; the
tax man is really the good guy and the good guy Pharisee is the bad guy. But I have this sneaking suspicion that if
you had been around when Jesus told this story, I'll wager that you would have ended up
with a hung jury. You honestly wouldn't
have been able to distinguish between the good guy and bad guy. Allow me to try to reconstruct how shocking this
story might have sounded to those who first heard it.
Give the man credit. The
Pharisee was a good man. Not a crook,
not a hacker on the information highway, didn't chase women, chew, smoke, inject, snort,
or spit. He takes nothing he hasn't
honestly earned, he gives everyone a fair shake and he is faithful to wife; he listens to
Christian radio, enjoys Rush, is patient with his children, and is trustworthy to his
friends. And the Pharisee is not only
good, he is religious. Not a hypocrite
either. His right action is matched by
right inward discipline--he honestly, truly fasts twice a week and gives the money he
saves to help support his church's missionaries.
He puts his money where his mouth is too.
Ten percent goes to God. What a
brilliant Baptist, model Methodist, charming Church of the Brethren, exemplary
Episcopalian, unusual United Church of Christ member!
He is not at all like this tax guy. The
tax man is the sinner here. You fill in the
blank as to what a sinner is. Hes
the big operator, the mafia-connected con-man; he works a franchise that lets him collect
all the money he can bleed out of people. Been
living for years on the cream he has bilked from people.
He is a scam man; drives a limo, drinks nothing but Barcardi, spends weekends in
Atlantic City , and shows up at parties flanked by two $500 a night escorts.
you're the jury, whose prayers do you honestly think should be answered? Is there even a question? Yet Jesus' answer sends ears and mouths to buzzing
when he picks the spiritual deadbeat and rejects the seminary student. But why?
How can this be?
It has something to do with the reason we're here this morning. Could it be that Jesus was trying to remind
us that when it comes to the God that we're worshiping this morning, there is nothing that
makes us worthy except what God has done for us in Christ.
All of the power of our piety and spiritual qualities isn't enough to push one
prayer past the doorway of God's great banquet hall.
Take Brian, for instance. I
met Brian not too long ago at a fast food drive-in.
We got to talking and I discovered that this kid had gone to a Christian school. Great Brad, did you enjoy your time
No, I didn't. Got so
much religion in my face that I couldn't wait to get out.
I see. Well, do you go
to church anywhere?
Used to. Not anymore. I know I need to get back with God. Please preacher, stick me somewhere in that
prayer list of yours.
When a guy like Brian prays, he knows that he stands undone before God. That he can't reach down into some spiritual
trove and come up with good Calvin and Hobbes reasons why God should answer his prayer. His former church youth group on the other
hand has their spiritual lives together. If
pressed in prayer, they can always fall back on a good many reasons why God might consider
answering their prayers pronto.
Jesus came to raise the dead. Not reform the reformable or improve the
improvable. As long as we are
struggling like the Pharisee to be alive and worthy in our eyes we will stumble over grace
every time. We end up praying like
Calvin and receiving as much. But only
when we are able to come like the tax man--with empty hands and hearts--can we discover
grace. Jesus once said, Blessed
are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who
are spiritually bankrupt and know it. This
morning, let us be bold and unashamed to name our spiritual poverty and humbly offer God
our lives in repentance so that we can we be assured that we are praying and not just
saying words. Amen.