Page last updated



How Then Should We Pray?

by RevJan

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 — everything

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 the Pharisee.

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.