Among Jesus’ teachings on prayer we find this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector—perhaps a favorite because we all know that we are not Pharisees! Clearly, this Pharisee has several spiritual “growth areas.” And yet, it’s all too possible that we recognize these growth areas in his prayer because they appear in our own.
At the outset, Jesus identifies in the Pharisee spiritual issues of self-righteousness and contempt for “others.” The Pharisee happily steps on the head of the tax collector, so that in contrast, he will appear taller, more praiseworthy, more justified before God. His recital of his own goodness stands out as a poor attempt to hide his fear of personal unworthiness, his death grip on a worldview that has no grace.
This parable gets sticky for us when we recall our tendency to put “others” in groups that are “less than” in our eyes. When we reflect honestly, we thank God that we are not members of certain groups (immigrants, specific political adherents, competing companies or fellow-employees, family members, welfare recipients, annoying neighbors, certain nationalities, ethnicities, even whole occupational sets). Much of our culture lauds our contempt, our standing on the heads of “others.”
Could this “less-than” posture be a gratitude issue? The Pharisee addresses God and yet sings a hymn of praise not to God but to himself. He asks God for nothing, offers no praise, and defends himself against God’s desire for intimacy. His gratitude is blasphemous, suggesting that God has elevated him above all the undesirables around him. How different and humble his prayer and life would be if he were to rediscover the depth of gratitude we were created to give to God alone.
Begin your prayer time by making five statements of gratitude about who God is.
The Hebrew scripture readings declare the salvation of humankind and insist that the initiative for that sal- vation comes from God alone. The prophet Joel looks forward to the day when all Israel’s sons and daughters will become as prophets in the land. Psalm 65 is a psalm of thanksgiving for the “God of our salvation.” The writer of Second Timothy elevates his own achievements by means of athletic imagery, but the reading concludes with an acknowledgment that strength and deliverance have come and will come from God. The story of the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke suggests the perils of ignoring the fundamental truth of Joel 2 and Psalm 65. The Pharisee presumes that his achievements are his alone; the tax collector knows that prayer begins and ends with a cry to God for mercy.
• Read Joel 2:23-32. In the face of tragedy, how can we encourage one another to see with Joel’s eyes?
• Read Psalm 65. What in the created world brings words of praise of the Creator to your lips? What ridges and furrows in your life need God’s softening?
• Read 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18. What would it look like in your life to run the race God has set before you without striving to outrun others?
• Read Luke 18:9-14. Where might God be inviting your grati- tude? How can your gratitude to God lead to tangible love of a neighbor you might have otherwise disregarded?
Respond by posting a prayer.
I join many of those who will pray for you as you seek to discern what you are called to be at this moment. May God grant you the courage to fulfill that calling. May we all open our eyes and see the misery, open our ears and hear the cries of God’s people, and, like God through the Lord Jesus Christ, be incarnate amongst them.”
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