In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus “told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” (Lk. 18:1) In the parable, a woman petitioned relentlessly for vindication against her enemy. (Lk. 18:3) In order that no one would misunderstand the nature of the constant prayer advocated by Jesus, or the enemy over which one should seek vindication, Jesus asked a rhetorical question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8)
Last Sunday, I pointed out that it is a truism that all people do, in fact, pray constantly. It is a further truism that all people’s prayers are urgent requests for vindication over a foe. Unfortunately, it is neither the case that all prayers are directed to the One, True God, nor that all people recognize their true foe when praying. It is the unfortunate truth about our human nature that we tend to pray idolatrously to all sorts of gods and goddesses; this is true because we demonize what we dislike and divinize the opposite of what we designate as demons.
All people pray constantly, but many pray to created things as sources of strength and solace. For that reason, Jesus defined very narrowly the nature of authentic prayer. Authentic, faithful prayer is directed to God who promises vindication over our tendencies toward idolatry. Jesus continued his instruction about faithful prayer by telling the parable in this Sunday’s Gospel reading.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is similar to the parable of the good Samaritan; both parables feature a “good guy” and a “bad guy” and both parables hinge on a surprising reversal of putative roles. The Pharisee in today’s parable, and the priest and Levite in the good Samaritan parable, would have appeared to Jesus’ audience as being very worthy of respect and admiration. The tax collector and the Samaritan would have been immediately despised by Jesus’ hearers. At the end of the two stories, the despised characters are revealed as extraordinarily virtuous and the respectable characters are revealed as being morally deficient. These parables do not, however, intend to entertain us with role reversal antics similar to those of the characters in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
The Pharisee in today’s parable went far beyond the requirements for holiness set down in the Law of Moses. His personal ethics, his fasting, and his tithing reached well into the realm of the extraordinary; his religious practice should probably be described as heroic. The tax collector, on the other hand, fell short in every way imaginable. Why, then, did Jesus praise the sinner and excoriate the saint?
It is important to understand the situational context of the parable. Based on the descriptions of the prayers uttered by the two characters, they were not at the Temple for private prayer. Rather, they were attending the liturgical atonement service held each afternoon. They would have been part of a large congregation gathered for the atonement sacrifice.
During the liturgy of the atonement sacrifice, the Pharisee prayed to himself. (Lk. 18:11) Some Scripture translators suggest that this line should be rendered that he prayed “by himself.” Either way, he intended to distance himself from other people. The tax collector, too, distanced himself from the congregation. (Lk. 18:13) The crucial difference between the two was that the Pharisee considered himself superior to his fellow worshipers while the tax collector considered himself to be unfit to stand in God’s presence.
One of the two worshipers thought God should look upon him with admiration; the other thought himself unworthy of God’s gaze. One worshiper was far superior to the congregation; the other knew himself to be the least honorable member of the congregation. One was convinced of his personal value and the other was convinced of his sinfulness. One had great self-esteem, but the other relied solely on God’s trustworthiness. Both men needed something from God: the Pharisee needed personal validation, but the tax collector needed fulfillment of God’s promise of mercy. At this juncture, it should be easy to understand why the Pharisee went home estranged from God while the tax collector went home reconciled with God.
There are many ways to make religion into a self-serving endeavor; there is only one practice of religion that serves God. Authentic worship is both the experience of, and the cause of, an encounter between God’s faithfulness and one’s need for forgiveness.
The above definition of authentic prayer is valid for both private prayer and liturgical prayer. As Jesus chose to place the characters in the parable in the context of liturgical prayer, however, we might ask ourselves about our individual participation in Sunday Liturgy.
What is your reason for attending Liturgy today? What do you hope to receive from your participation in this Liturgy?
It is possible to view Sunday Liturgy as an insurance policy against eternal punishment. It is possible to view participation in Liturgy as a petition for favors from God or validation of one’s personal righteousness. Liturgy intends, however, to convince us that God’s faithfulness and our unworthiness are inextricable linked and mutually revelatory. To the extent that you experience your time here as an encounter with the God who promises vindication over your lack of faith, you can be assured of going home justified, that is, reconciled to God.