A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, CA
on Sunday, October 27, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 18:9-14
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Most of you know who Gregory Peck was.  For those who don’t, Gregory Peck he was a famous Hollywood actor in the 1950s and 60s, though his career spanned several decades.  I will probably always think of him in his roll of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Now, I find it funny that I need to tell some of you who Gregory Peck was because of this little story[1] I want to tell about him.

Once upon a time, the famous actor Gregory Peck was standing in line with a friend, waiting for a table in a crowded Los Angeles restaurant.  They had been waiting for some time, the diners seeming to take their time as they enjoyed their meal.  New tables weren’t opening up very fast and it seemed as if the line wasn’t moving.  Still quite far back in the line, Peck’s friend became impatient, and said to Peck, “Why don’t you tell the maître d’ who you are?”

Gregory Peck responded with great wisdom.  “No,” he said, “if you have to tell them who you are, then you aren’t.”

I had a nasty case of writer’s block this week when it came to this sermon.  I wondered what the heck was going on and, finally, it came to me:  I’ve been afraid that I will come across all Pharisaic.  I mean, here’s a guy who’s got is spiritual life together.  He fasts twice a week.  He tithes.  He goes to the Temple to pray.  And he’s really good at passing judgment on other people.  I would be talking about this passage and this passage lends itself to “good example, bad example” so easily.  In my desire to be not like the Pharisee (I thank you God that I am not like that Pharisee), I become just like him!  So, would you pray with and for me?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

Out of context, we might fail to realize that this parable is about prayer (among other things).  The big difference between an allegory and a parable is that an allegory makes a point and a parable is a story that is multi-layered and has much to reveal.  So, when I say that this parable is about prayer, that’s only one of the things that this parable is about.

Luke sets another parable just before this one.  The first one is about being about the persistent widow who keeps bugging a judge for justice (Luke 18:1-8).  Here we have a Pharisee and a tax collector going to the Temple to pray.  Jesus uses the least likely examples as teaching aids.

First he uses a widow – someone from the bottom of society, someone without power or voice – as an example.  In this passage, we get a Pharisee – someone looked upon with reverence by Jewish society – and a tax collector – one of the most despicable people in Jewish society.  It seems as if God is living right inside the Pharisee.  “His prayer is more of a Shakespearean soliloquy, praising himself and his works and his own goodness.  He has it all figured out, and things add up rather nicely for him.  Perhaps he comes out looking better than even God does!  It helps to have the tax-collector nearby for stark contrast, because the Pharisee far outshines him in his virtuous works.  To this religious leader, God is benevolent and has surely noticed how good the Pharisee is.  Actually, there isn’t much need for God to do anything in the life of this Pharisee except to agree with him.”[2]

But Jesus doesn’t use the paragon of religious fervor as our example.  He turns to the tax collector who “pours out his heart and buries himself so deeply into the voicing of his deepest anguish, his most profound awareness of his own weakness, failures, and sins, that he apparently never notices the Pharisee, let alone compares himself to him.  [The tax collector] flings himself on the mercies of God and depends on God to do something remarkable in his life.  There are so many reversals in the Gospel of Luke that perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this hated collaborator goes home justified while the observant religious type doesn’t.”[3]

“In our contemporary society there is a strong temptation to ‘use’ the spiritual life as a way to the experience of inner harmony and peace.  Often it seems that self-fulfillment, self-realization, and self-attainment are the ultimate goals of the spiritual journey.”[4]  And they may be for some spiritual traditions.  But I don’t think they are for Christians.  For the Christian, praying takes courage, courage to go all in on the lifelong struggle to unmask illusions.

I am, too often, tempted to pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like that fundamentalist, judgmental pastor over there at that other church.”  But that’s an illusion.  I am just like that fundamentalist, judgmental pastor, and real prayer will unmask that illusion.  Henri Nouwen says, “The greatest illusion of all is … that a lifelong asceticism, filled with prayer, contemplation, fasting, and charity, can give us a claim on inner peace, comforting light, and a secure sense of God’s presence.  It is this illusion that can lead us to spiritual pride and destroy all that we set out to gain.”[5]

This is one of those spiritual paradoxes that seem to come up again and again in Christian life.  We can be like the Pharisee and fall into a limited prayer, a prayer that seeks to maintain the status quo, hoping that by being disciplined in that practice we will find inner peace.  But all that level of prayer does is leave us in a state of illusion.  Only when we pray like the tax collector do we realize how disturbing the love of God can be.

“If we come before God in humble openness and fervent trust in God’s goodness we make room for God to work in our lives.  That is much closer to righteousness than all the good works we can manage.  Charles Cousar writes, ‘Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity about others.’  Honesty flows from openness:  an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation.  For Luke’s audience, learning to be Christian years after Jesus died, ‘Prayer was not a last resort when all the plans and programs and power plays had failed; prayer was, rather, the first and primary task of Christians.’ Prayer helps us to discover who we are, and who God is:  merciful and loving and just.”[6]

One of the oldest non-Biblical prayers in Christianity is known as “the Jesus prayer.”  Not to be confused with the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus prayer dates from the early 7th century and probably as early as the 5th century.[7]  The prayer has four phrases:
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner.
Traditionally, it is repeated, mantra-like, with the first two phrases spoken (silently) on the inhalation and the second two phrases on the exhalation.  Sometimes it is shortened, even down to just two words:  Jesus, mercy.

When I hear the tax collector’s prayer, this ancient prayer that probably came from the desert fathers comes to mind.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” the tax collector prayed.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer can help create the openness that is needed for real transformation.  As I tried to think of a contemporary version, my favorite bumper sticker prayer came to mind:  “God help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.”

I know there is resistance among some of us to the use of the word “sin.”  If it was been used against us to whip us into shape by our parents and/or our childhood church, it’s a word that carries so much judgment and induces so much shame.  To the other extreme, because of how the word has been co-opted by society at large, the word has lost its meaning, becoming a “contemporary brand name for ice cream.  And high-end chocolate truffles.  And lingerie in which the color red predominates.”[8]  “Sin” ends up referring to the pleasurable consumption of something, including sex.

But neither of those is sin.  Sin is not a threat to keep us in line and to induce shame.  Nor is sin a pleasurable naughtiness.  Sin is simply the human propensity of screw thing up by what we do or what we fail to do.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, someone with the propensity to screw things up.

One of my other favorite prayers goes something like this:
Thank you God for this day.  And thank you that, so far, I have managed to get through it without saying a bad word or having a mean thought about anyone.  But I’m about to get out of bed …
I love that this prayer acknowledges our propensity to screw things up.

This parable begins with a journey.  The Pharisee and the tax collector go up to the Temple.  While the Temple was a real place, it is also a symbol.  It represents the dwelling place of God.  The spiritual journey is a journey deeper into the dwelling place of God.

The problem is that the Pharisee thinks he knows exactly where and how and who God is.  So he offers a prayer, a prayer to keep things the same.  He is not seeking transformation.  He certainly isn’t expecting any.  And so his prayer piously, reassuringly reviews the status quo.  The nasty tax collector in the corner even has his place as a foil, to add to spiritual contentment by furnishing a contrasting example of what it is to be in the wrong.  The Pharisee has met all spiritual requirements and things are fine just the way they are.

The tax collector, on the other hand, has no spiritual assets, but comes to the Temple needing transformation.  God can change his state through the power and grace of mercy.  And that yearning for transformation is the faith that God recognizes, and so the tax collector is changed by forgiveness.

The Pharisee, wedded to the status quo of his own success, has unknowingly divorced himself from God

“The life of faith is lived in a state of awakened desire.  In this state of arousal, prayer and worship bring a deep sense of homecoming and belonging.  Our actual apartments and houses can go a long way to satisfying this need for home, but never the whole way.  Faith recognizes a homesickness for God.  Only pilgrimage can lead us to that ultimate home in God.  In this awakened state there is no need for strategies of denial and avoidance.  Life is fraught with inevitable sufferings and losses.  These can be integrated into the life of faith when we experience it as a pilgrimage”[9] to our true home.



[1] Based on a story shared in an email from sermons.com dated 22 October 2013.

[2] Kate Huey, “Just Worship/No Distance Too Great,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/just-worshipno-distance-too.html (26 October 2013).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Henri J.M. Nouwen, “The Hell of Mercy,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/hell-mercy?parent=41244 (15 October 2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Huey, op. cit.

[7] “Jesus Prayer,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_prayer (26 October 2013).

[8] Francis Spufford, “What Sin REALLY Is (The Human Propensity to F**k Things Up),” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/francis-spufford/what-sin-really-is-the-hu_b_4164852.html (posted 25 October 2013; downloaded 26 October 2013).

[9] Martin L. Smith, “Pilgrimage to Our True Home,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pilgrimage-our-true-home?parent=41244 (15 October 2013).