The Courage to Ask
October 17, 2010
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I grew up in what is sometimes referred to as a “high” Baptist church—its architecture owed more to the Gothic tradition of England’s great cathedrals than to the austere white steeples of New England village greens. My childhood church boasted a sanctuary that seated two thousand, magnificent stained-glass windows, intricate woodwork, and an organ whose lowest notes vibrated in your marrow and shook your sternum as much as the high notes threatened to sing that lovely stained glass right out of its leaded moorings. It is the only place from my childhood that, at a visit years later, actually seemed larger, more astounding, and more beautiful than it had in my memories.
But, for all its grandeur, this sanctuary was still heir to the Puritan ascetic spirit. You could tell because the wooden pews had no cushions. “The people,” as a matriarch of the church once said, “bring their own built-in cushions.”
And despite its high-church style, in this church people sat in the pews to pray. There were no builtin fold-out kneelers, no cushions upholstered or embroidered by the women of the church. When one prayed in this sanctuary, one prayed with head bowed, hands folded quietly in the lap, sitting bolt upright in those beautiful, unyielding, bare wooden pews. Along with those bare pews, sitting with head bowed to pray was a product of our Anabaptist and Puritan roots, a reaction against what were by some considered to be the vain complexities of the Latin Mass and the Anglican Holy Supper. We sat to pray largely because it was considered simpler, and therefore more holy, than kneeling.
The point of this reflection on my well-beloved Baptist heritage is not to privilege one posture of prayer over another—especially since I am now used to kneeling in church on occasion! There are at least five postures that people have traditionally used to pray in the Christian church over the last thousand years, and each one of them has its own unique meaning and purpose, its own particular beauty. In whatever posture a person chooses to pray, deep desire is being expressed, the desire to come before and connect with God. A person’s choice of prayer posture may say something about their vision of the divine nature and their sense of relationship with the Lord—but present in every one of these postures is the sense that the person using it comes, seeking intimate communion, before the great mystery of God.
In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus puts before us two individuals whose approach to prayer is about as different as their respective stations in life.
There is, first of all, the Pharisee. He is the one whom, on first glance, we might term “the uppity one.” This particular Pharisee is the annoying character whose prayer consists in extolling his own virtues and asserting his superiority over—and his separation from—many of the people with whom he shares the temple. His prayer is an accounting of his virtues—not a prayer, even, so much as a progress report to God. This parable is meant to address its hearers’ failings in three areas: spiritual pride, idolatry (trusting in oneself rather than God for righteousness), and contempt for fellow humans. The Pharisee seems to be a champion example of all three.
Then, of course, there is the tax collector. He is the one who apparently gets it right. He displays the appropriate humility before God; he asks for God’s help in re-forming his soul and does not depend on himself for his own righteousness. And he prays only in relation to himself—he prays from the perspective of his own brokenness and not at the expense of others.
All right: so the Pharisee, like all Pharisees, is an arrogant jerk and the tax collector is the one who knows how to pray as he ought, right? And meanwhile, we should all be humble like the tax collector, that great princely soul. And so we have the neat and tidy interpretation of this parable—that we ought not to be so sure of our own righteousness before God, and we most certainly shouldn’t waste our prayer time extolling our own virtues at the expense of others. End of story.
First of all, the hero and the villain of this parable are not quite as clear-cut as it would seem. Let’s put to rest right now any stereotypes about who exactly the Pharisees were. The Pharisees were not awful people, not superficial neighbor-hating hyper-pious legalistic zealots who typified everything wrong with Judaism in Jesus’ time. To the contrary, the Pharisees were actually in many ways the enlightened liberals of their day. They did not read scripture literally; they believed in critical engagement with and modernization of ancient religious laws; they were deeply involved in justice issues. The Pharisees, as Sarah Dylan points out, “longed for what Christians long for: God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.” Put in Swedenborgian terms, the Pharisees were profoundly interested in the creation of “a heaven from the human race.” Pharisees were neither perfect nor always tolerant, but then of course, I’m sure you’ll agree that very few people today are perfect or always tolerant, either.
The tax collector, meanwhile, would have been the pariah of his community. Tax collectors were usually Israelites who worked for the Roman government. They worked on commission, which basically meant that they were required to collect a certain amount of tax income from their fellow Israelites—and any profit they wanted to make had to be added onto these taxes as cream to be skimmed off the top before handing over the money to the government. Tax collectors were considered the worst kind of traitors because they made their livelihood at the expense of their own oppressed people.
So, the plot thickens. The Pharisee is not the stock villain—in fact, he far more aptly represents a well-liked, upstanding citizen—and the tax collector is no angel. What else is at stake here, if not simply the virtue of humility before God?
If the way someone stands, sits, lies, or kneels in prayer says something about how they think of God, then the words with which a person chooses to pray say a lot about what they think of God. Nowhere is this more starkly put than in this parable.
You might have noticed that this particular upstanding citizen, this Pharisee, is both a taker of pot shots and a fast talker. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector,” he says. But beneath his arrogance, behind the list of virtues and the supercilious snobbery, is defensiveness; he is building a stone wall out of righteous works and social superiority. And beneath his defensiveness, I think, is fear. The downside to “trusting in oneself” to be righteous is that, while it allows a person to claim credit for his or her own goodness, it also carries an awfully heavy load of responsibility for one’s sin. And so the Pharisee’s prayer is not only a laundry list of virtues, but a bulwark—a fortress that protects him from the very God to whom he prays, a God who, from the Pharisee’s view, is more scorekeeper than lover. If his prayer is any indication, there is no mercy or love to be had from this man’s God—and so he does not even ask.
Frederick Buechner has this to say about the paradox of God’s fierce love:
“Romantic love is blind to everything except what is loveable and lovely, but God’s love, Christ’s love, sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole. Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy... The justice and mercy of [God] are ultimately one.”
The tax collector, considered neither lovable nor lovely in his society, is brave enough, or maybe just broken enough, to bank on this possibility. Being at the bottom rung of the social and religious ladder, he does not have the option of pride, as the Pharisee does. The tax collector has only his hope that God will indeed “see him with terrible clarity,” “see him whole,” and respond with love. He asks for mercy, a mercy totally beyond his or anyone else’s understanding or accounting, and through the very act of asking he is able to receive it. He asks for mercy, and he goes home “justified”—which means, at its heart, that he goes home at peace with God, with the depths of his soul opened to the Lord, with what Swedenborg terms “a revelation as to hope, consolation, or a certain inward joy.” Brendan Byrne puts it thus bluntly: “Two people came up to God’s house to pray. Only one really found the hospitality that was there all along.”
We can pray any which way—we can sit, stand, kneel, lie face-down on the floor or belly-up to watch the stars spin through the sky at night, we can pray as we brush our teeth or wash the dishes—but however and whenever we choose to lift ourselves up to the Lord, let us have the trust in him to ask for mercy, that he might make us anew. Let us have courage born of God’s love for us, the love so evident in the very fact of our existence, to ask God for his gifts and his aid, to find the hospitality that he waits so eagerly, always eagerly, to offer to us.
Lord, we know you love us, we know your hospitality is always waiting—but please keep reminding us. Make us yours, Lord. Give us the courage to ask, and the patience to listen. Amen.
Leah G. Goodwin