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(Or Just Saying Words?)

Luke 18:9-14
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?”

When our 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 prayer—prayers 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 empty-handed.  

Our 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.  

Jesus tells the story about two people who go to the temple to pray.   Maybe they're going to a service like ours—to 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.  

Now this 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.  

Well, 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.”

Well, 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.

Fact is, 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.   He’s 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.  

Now 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 there?”

“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.