How Then Should We Pray?
based on Luke 18:9-14
I suppose every one of us knows someone who is "stuck up," someone who makes
us feel less important than they, less human than they. Some of these people might be ones
we admire. They seem to have it all together manicured lawn, neat-as-a-pin house,
designer clothes, beautiful children, fancy cars. They have all the right toys, the cool
T-shirts, the name brand jeans and shoes and jackets. Yet, when you try to make friends
with these people, you get the distinct impression that, well, they can't be bothered.
They don't have the time for you. They would be doing you a favor by being your friend.
And, that makes you feel second-class. Today's scripture lesson is about two people, both
of whom believed in God, both of whom worshiped God. One was a first-class citizen, an
elite member of society. This was a person who, by all measures, we should admire. He
participated in the worship services of his church: Sunday morning, Sunday night,
Wednesday night prayer meetings. If there was a special service, he was there. He often
served as worship leader, or ushered. He attended Sunday School, even taught now and then.
He was on the Church Council, and served on one of the Annual Conference committees. If
something needed to be done around the church, he did it. He gave generously to the
church, 10 percent of everything. Most people in American churches give less than
1% of their income to their church. His minister had suggested giving 5% only of your net
earnings. But this man gave the entire 10% tithe of everything he earned from his
stock options, savings interest, Certificates of Deposit, rentals he owned
Fred Craddock has pointed out that "the Pharisee was a faithful man, the kind that
puts his tithe in the offering plate to support the pastor's salary so that the pastor can
preach a sermon on the Pharisee and the tax collector!" During silent confession, he
prayed to God: "God, I thank you that my parents brought me to church and taught me
the Bible as a child. I thank you, Lord, that my church planted in my heart a love of your
church and a strong commitment to your will. I give 10 percent off the top, volunteer each
month with Habitat for Humanity, and tutor underprivileged children at Kumler." When
he left to go home, he realized he hadn't gotten much of the service this week. Something
was missing. Nothing in the service had touched his heart. Nothing usually did, but maybe
something would next week. He just didn't understand how some people could be so, well,
enthusiastic about church. His wife commented about all those children who had been in
church that morning. Couldn't their parents contain them? Couldn't their parents keep them
quiet? After all, when their children were young, they knew how to behave. Still, they
went to church, supported the pastor, paid their tithe. They were respected in the
community, leaders in their church. They were good people.
Also in church that morning, tucked away in the back pew under the canopy of the
balcony, was a second man. The church member and his wife had seen him around town, but
couldn't figure out why he had come to their church. After all, he wasn't from the same
social or economic circles that the people in their church were. Actually, the second man
had been coming to church for quite a while. He had begun coming when his liquor store
closed, after his marriage dissolved, just before that unfortunate scrape with the law. He
had been coming ever since, just to worship. He knew he wasn't good enough even for that,
never mind serving the church in any way. Yet, he kept coming back. This morning, long
after the benediction, he remained in his pew, crying, overcome with joy or grief, he
didn't know which. He could not explain what happened to him during the service. All he
could say was "God loves me." Two men went up to the temple to pray. Two men
came down from the temple after the worship service. Yet, only one was justified. Why? It
seems rather obvious, doesn't it? One man was a jerk, the other a loser. What would God
want with either of these two? The parable seems to tell us that God preferred the loser
to the jerk. Maybe there was hope for the loser, but not for the jerk.
Many of us confuse this parable in Luke with Jesus' teachings about prayer in Matthew's
gospel. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and
pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.
Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your
room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees
in secret will reward you. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the
Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. The
Pharisee in Luke's parable is praying as a hypocrite. There were three times each day that
the devout went to the Temple to pray 9:00 a.m., noon, and 3:00 p.m.
Pharisees separated themselves from other people, even at worship, so they could
maintain their ritual cleanliness. If even the hem of the Pharisee's clothes brushed
against the hem of the tax collector's clothes, the Pharisee would be unclean. His state
of cleanliness was too important. It could not be compromised for any reason. From his
point of view, keeping himself separate from the tax collector, and the other worshipers,
was a significant statement of his holiness. During the burning of the incense, those at
temple worship offered their personal prayers to God. It was Jewish practice to pray out
loud. Bailey says: The Pharisee is thus preaching to the "less fortunate
unwashed" around him. They have little chance to get a good look at a truly
"righteous" man like himself, and he is "graciously" offering them a
few words of judgment along with some instruction in righteousness . . . the Pharisee . .
. takes advantage of the opportunity to instruct the "unrighteous" around him.
Whether we like to admit it, or not, most of us have felt, at one time or another, like
My friend who runs a church and community center in North Carolina writes: . . . today
God, today I watched as that person came in here. I watched as he spit disgusting brown
tobacco juice on our floor. Who in God's name does he think he is? Yes, I noticed that he
would not look anyone in the eye. Yes, I noticed that his clothes were filthy, that he
probably had not bathed in days, that his teeth were yellow and rotten. I don't want to
touch him God he stinks. Thank you God. I am glad I am not like him. And today God,
today I listened to the anger in that woman's voice "
what the [expletive
deleted] did we think we were doing helping her brother with food when he went and
spent his money on drugs what the [expletive deleted] did we think we were
doing?!!" She was yelling and spittle was dripping down on her blouse, but she didn't
notice, she just kept yelling. Eventually, after she could yell no more, she cried. Tears
upon tears. Anguish and hopelessness. I don't possess enough life to have so much drained
from me. Thank you God. I am glad I am not like her. And today God, that man lied to me.
All we were doing was trying the best we could to help him. All we were doing was putting
a roof on his house, even when no one else would do it. Do you think he was gracious?! Do
you think he would utter even the smallest "thank you?" All he wanted to know
was why couldn't we do more. All he wanted to do was to demand that we do more as
if maybe we might even owe him something. I am not going back there. He is a bitter and
nasty old man. Thank you God. I am glad that I am not like him. And today God, those rich
folk didn't respond again. They listen to your word every single week; yet, in
response they just hug one another and enjoy their ride home, back to their nice homes,
back to their swimming pools, back to their fine china and good food. There is so much
need and they do so little. Certainly God, you must get very tired of their foolish games.
Sometimes, they even hug me. Thank you God. I am glad that I am not like them.
Each of us can name someone like the Pharisee, someone who is so self-righteous, so
"stuck up," so self-important, they think it necessary to instruct the rest of
us in the ways of piety or society or our employability. There's a story about a teacher
who, after reading this passage, said, "Now, children, put your hands together, close
your eyes, and thank God you are not like this wicked Pharisee!" If you can name
someone you know as the Pharisee in this parable, then the parable is most likely about
YOU as the Pharisee . . . For, you see, this parable is not about how we should pray, or
about being stuck up, or being self-righteous. This is a parable about grace, God's grace.
For God was available to both the Pharisee and the tax-collector. God didn't love the
Pharisee more than the tax-collector. Nor, did God love the tax-collector more than the
Pharisee. God doesn't love the church board member more than the owner of the liquor
store, or the liquor store owner more than the church board member. God loves us all the
same. The problem is that we don't love each other all the same. That was the Pharisee's
sin, and it is our sin. It is the Pharisee's lack of connection with the tax collector,
his determination to set himself apart from, and above, the tax-collector that prevents
the Pharisee from opening himself to God's grace.
Alan Culpepper says: People who are aware of their own need for grace and forgiveness
will not be able to despise other people. The Pharisee has enough religion to make him
virtuous, but not enough to make him humble. Two men went up to the temple to pray. One
sought God to tell God how good he was. One sought God to ask for God's love. Two men went
home that day. The first felt justified. The second was forgiven. Of the two, the tax
collector was the one who recognized he needed God's grace, asked for it and received it.
The Pharisee didn't think he needed God's grace, didn't ask for it, and didn't receive it.
Grace was there for both. Yet, only one reached out and received it. How then, should we
pray? Should we make a list for God of all the things we've done right just in case
God isn't watching? Should we pray out loud so that others can hear how good our prayers
are? Should we pray only when the Pastor prays at church? No. How then, should we pray?
Should we pray in secret? Locked in our closets? With contrite and penitent hearts?
Beating our chests, or verbally beating ourselves up? No. How then, should we pray? Pray
in the presence of God's love. Pray knowing that God loves you, that God wants only the
best for you. Pray knowing that God knows your secrets, your heartaches, your joys and
your triumphs. Pray to know and receive God's love for you. Pray believing, pray in faith,
and rejoicing in the glory of God's grace. How then should we pray? With joy and
thanksgiving and in the knowledge of God's love.