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Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Painful Work of Prayer

The Painful Work of Prayer
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
The 23rd Sunday of Pentecost

There is a class at Mississippi College that students in the Christian Studies department regard with fear and respect: the Teachings of Jesus. It is rumored that this class is so difficult that not even Jesus could make an A. What becomes so tough for the students is the formal, in-depth examination of the parables found in the Gospels. How do we interpret them? What type of literature are they? How literally do we take the settings, characters, and events in Jesus’ parables?

Already this Fall we have encountered such troublesome parables as that of the Unjust Steward and the Unjust Judge, both of which are cumbersome yet compelling, and awfully difficult to preach from. The faithful preacher, like those thousands and thousands who have done so before, preaches a message of Kingdom hope in Jesus Christ and hopes no one in the congregation notices how tough the exposition really was. These parables and those like them press our Baptist belief in “Soul Competency” about as far as it can go.

The nature of parables is that they often defy the neat, well-organized logic of the gospel narratives and leave themselves open to many interpretations. We sometimes characterize parables as simple stories that point to a complex truth, but even this category does not capture the totality of what Jesus accomplishes in his parables about the Kingdom.

There are at least four major categories into which the passages of Scripture identified as parables can be located.[1] The first group are maxims: short, wisdom-style sayings that resemble properly-spelled Tweets. “Doctor, cure yourself!” or “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment” are biblical examples of such parables. They have no characters or plot; they simply exist as proverbs.

The second type of parable is the similitude. These sayings are slightly longer than maxim parables, and they include language that compares two things. For example, “the Kingdom of God is like…” often introduces these parables.

The third category of parables in the Gospels is allegory. These are longer parables in which Jesus likens elements, characters, or actions in a generic situation to a different reality. A great example is the Parable of the Sower: Jesus tells us a parable is coming, tells the parable, and then gives an explicit interpretation of each element of the parable.

Finally, most of the parables in Luke are the fourth type, that is, the short story. In these long parables we have narrative explanation of a hypothetical situation, some character development and plot, and open-ended interpretation. It is this final category that drives us crazy in Luke’s Gospel: what is the Good Samaritan about? What is the point of the Parable of the Two Sons? These longer narrative parables are so thick and rich that they could be interpreted many ways, all of which may be faithful and accurate.

Our temptation as modern readers is to find the point and to make connections between the elements of these longer parables and some aspect of our lives. We usually, though, insert ourselves into the most favorable, heroic character in the parables as we interpret them. For instance, when we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we bravely imagine ourselves as the holy outsider bathing the wounds of a stranger in oil and God’s love after others have passed him by. We are challenged to remember the weak and the wounded and to give of our time, talent, and treasure to help those in need. I wonder, though, how many sermons on that parable encourage good Americans to see themselves as the one bloodied in the ditch, or, worse yet, the ones who pass by the dying in the name of ritual purity?

It is certainly the case that Luke’s long parables communicate a theme of reversals, which is a theme of Luke’s entire literary Gospel project. God comes to the poor Mary to bear Jesus; poor shepherds are the first to hear of Christ’s birth; those who are rich are frustrated by Jesus’ teachings; the poor are welcomed into the in-breaking Kingdom; the insiders become the outsiders; and death turns out not to have the last word.

Yet here is a troubling parable about a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. We are told up front that this parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Great: we know that this is a parable and that it is, somehow, about self-righteousness. Before Jesus even has an opportunity to speak in Luke’s narrative we already know what side we’re on - the side of whoever in this parable is not self-righteous. We already know the winning team; all Jesus has to do is name the victor and the fool and we’ll be done with this thing.

Sure enough, Jesus paints a pretty poor picture of a Pharisee by putting the most arrogant, self-righteous prayer imaginable on his lips. Shortly thereafter we meet the humble, convicted, humble tax collector beating his breast in shame over his sins. We cheer. “That’s us!” we say. Jesus declares that the tax collector is the winner by saying he is justified by God, and the narrative briskly moves on toward another topic.

In the words of that great theologian Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!”

Luke’s parables are hardly as simple as winners versus losers. In many of this Gospel’s longer parables we are presented with extreme people or extreme situations. We hear about the first and the last, the prideful and the humble, the poor and the rich, the outsider and the insider, the one near by and the one far away, the one lost and the one found. We are presented in this parable by hyperbole, that is, with extreme characterizations of people and opinions.[2]

This parable presents two such extremes: the impossibly prideful Pharisee and the super-humble and contrite tax collector. Neither is to be understood as normal, everyday people. They are caricatures of two ways in which people respond to God. Their prayers represent two positions, both spiritual and physical locations that relate people to God and God’s Kingdom. I contend that neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector represent the true way to live in God’s Kingdom. To demonstrate this notion, let us examine the two characters a little more closely.

First, the Pharisee. The words of this religious expert are insulting to our ears. He is self-centered, listing the things that he does that he is sure will earn him favor in God’s eyes: “I fast…I give…I…” The Pharisee is arrogant, prideful, and boasting. He is certainly not exemplifying the type of life that Luke’s Jesus calls for. He is not practicing the virtues of “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” He is not living under the role-reversal of God’s coming kingdom where the rich are sent away empty and the poor are elevated and satisfied. He is very much the clanging gong and crashing symbol that Paul criticizes in his Corinthian correspondence.

The Pharisee is certainly a caricature of what the real Pharisees were like: over-confident in their interpretations of Torah, over-zealous in their application of periphery rules that excluded outsiders in the name of religious purity. We boo the Pharisees because they are the antagonists at almost every turn in the Gospels. This man must be the bad example of prayer and Kingdom life in this parable!

Let us make one final observation about the Pharisee in this parable. Jesus introduces this scene to us by saying that “two men went up to the temple to pray.” Let us not be too hasty in imagining them entering a gothic cathedral on their own to offer prayers on their lunch breaks in an empty sanctuary. From what we know of ancient Temple worship practices, the opportune time for individuals to pray aloud in or near the Temple was the afternoon Tamid service.[3] This was a regular, popular, and well-attended service of prayers frequented by all types of Jewish men. While an organized Temple service is not exclusively mandatory to understand this parable, it is helpful to break through our own post-Reformation assumptions about the scene Jesus is painting for us.

Consider the Pharisee standing apart from a congregation of people meeting for regular prayers. He offers this arrogant, self-righteous prayer not alone but intentionally separated from people he considers less righteous than he. He is there, looking judgmentally at the assembly, pointing to himself as an example of righteousness. This image of the Pharisee certainly makes his prayer even more deplorable to our souls. I liked this “bad guy” more when I could imagine him complete alone praying arrogantly before God. Now I see him belting out his non-prayer in front of God, and everybody.

In this same scene we meet the tax collector. By that title we already understand him to be hated in his community as a sellout to the Roman occupation. He takes his own peoples’ monies and “renders them to Caesar.” He is an outcast by his occupation much as Matthew would have been when Jesus called him from behind his booth.

Now we see this outcast as standing far away. Far away from what? If we can accept as plausible the Tamid service described above, then this tax collector was standing away from the congregation by himself. He was apart, outside, on the edge, and certainly not in the middle of the congregation as he prayed. Even the arrogant Pharisee calls him out as an outsider, as undesirable, as lost.

Both men are standing apart from the congregation, one in judgmental self-righteousness, the other in crippling humility and spiritual segregation. Both stand apart, both represent extremes. The holier-than-all Pharisee, is about to be brought low by the judgment of God!

Oh, what a sweet reversal! The tax collector, the despised outsider, beats his chest and refuses to look toward heaven because of his guilt for sin. He has committed wrong and has been convicted by God of that sin. He stands apart from everyone because he has to and because he cannot bear to stand “boldly before the throne of grace” in his despair. Jesus declares him to be justified over and against the sinfully arrogant Pharisee! Whoo-Hoo! Victory!

Declared justified? Yes. Example to follow? Not Exactly. Both men are caricatures of two approaches to righteousness, neither of which are ultimately appropriate for God’s people.

It is easy to pick on the Pharisee because of his arrogance. It is easy to preach about Christians who are “holier-than-thou” and think that they have a corner on righteousness. These folks have usually selected some social evil that they have sworn off of or picketed against and have thus found for themselves some sort of moral high ground above and apart from the less righteous churches and people. The caricature of the hyper-arrogant Pharisee sounds like a lot of Baptists I know, and certainly a lot of religious folks. The sermon about the evils of arrogance and prideful prayer almost writes itself.

It is similarly easy to lift up the humble, repentant tax collector as a paradigm of Christian prayer and piety. Here is a man too broken to look to heaven as he prays. He, like the Pharisee, stands apart, not wanting to be near the congregation in shame and conviction. He begs God for forgiveness and mercy, terrified that he has sinned more than God can forgive. He is the perfect foil to the arrogant Pharisee - he is as humble and contrite as the Pharisee is arrogant and boastful.

I say be neither. The Pharisee is obviously not what we want in our Christian discipleship. He represents all of the arrogant, wall-building tee-totaling ignorance of Christians who find their justification in their deeds or non-deeds rather than in God’s righteousness. Certainly we should look to the example of the tax collector for our inspiration to repent. Yes, he is certainly a better example righteousness before God and a perfect image of the unforgivable outcast receiving justification.

But both men are standing apart from the community of God. Both men are extremes in their positions; both are outsiders with no intention of moving into the writing, messy middle of Christian congregation. The Pharisee remains apart in the name of Purity; he has earned his righteousness by his deeds of segregation and self-elevation. The tax collector stands apart in all-consuming guilt and brokenness. He beats his chest and begs forgiveness, but never moves into the community of people who have received it.

Both men need to move. They are both in places where they feel safe: the one in his piety and the other in his pain. Both need to grow through participation in the community through which God’s Spirit speaks to each of them. The Pharisee needs to hear the community live out Christ’s call to humbly walk with God though the way of the Cross rather than in judgments that only serve to condemn and exclude. The tax collector needs to hear the testimonies of those who have been broken by their guilt for sin and who have been restored to wholeness through the Spirit of God. He needs to hear the words of those who go “boldly before the throne of Grace.” These men are caricatures in Luke’s parable because they need each other to be real - they cannot possibly stand in the real world as they are.

The parable is about our places of comfort before God, the spiritual nests we have constructed and from which we pray. It is a call to leave those places of comfort and move into the messy middle of Christian discipleship. Our self-righteousness can become a wall against inclusion or participation in the broader work of the Kingdom of God. We can win battles of theology or culture and lose sight of the real nature of the Gospel in the process. Similarly, we can carry our good-old Baptist guild so far that we never move beyond the call to conviction and repentance toward the more difficult work of conforming to the image of Christ.

To those who are far off in their habits or holiness: come to the congregation of people who haven’t yet figured it all out. Teach us. Mentor us. Help the congregation of those praying to God live lives of godly practice in things like tithing and spiritual practices like fasting. Move from the comfortable place of condemnation to the painful place of praying for the forgiveness of sins and the humility that comes with it.

To all those who are buried under guilt for their sins: come in to the congregation of people who have been pricked by God’s holiness too. Come in to the fellowship of the sinful and the not-yet-perfected. Come and rest in the seats of those who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good and that the Lord is more than guilt and conviction. Move from the comfortable cycle of sin-conviction-guilt-repentance toward a discipleship that makes real transformation possible as we learn to conform to the image of Christ together.

These are the people in our congregation and in every congregation. They may not be standing on the edges of the community in self-righteous condemnation or constant guild for sin, but they are away from the hard, beautiful, painful work of prayer that comes with knowing that our hope for righteousness comes from God alone, but thanks be to God so does our forgiveness and newness of life.

This is the community where the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh. It is the community that finds life in the places that were barren. It is the place where all can feast at the table of God’s mercy whether they found temporary comfort in their self-righteous rule-making or their constant need for confession. The day that Joel envisioned is the day when the community can bring in the outsiders that are already inside the community and draw then into the real, warm, filling feast that is the Kingdom of God. Amen.

[1] See West, Audrey, “Preparing to Preach the Parables in Luke,” Currents in Theology and Mission 36 no 6, 405-13.
[2] See Holmgren, Fredrick C., “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” Interpretation 48 no 3, 252-261.
[3] See Hamm, Dennis, “The Tamid Service in Luke-Acts: The Cultic Background Behind Luke’s Theology of Worship,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 25 no 3, 223-224.

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