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Praying Where We Are

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 23rd of Tenth Month, 2022

Speaker: Brian Young

Scripture: Luke 18:9–14

Good morning, Friends!

Luke 18:9–14, NRSVUE: 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 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.”

St. Gregory Palamas Publican; a tax collector sinner repents while a publican Pharisee judges himself as better than the tax collector. Jesus blesses the tax collector, not the Pharisee
St. Gregory Palamas Publican

Have you ever had someone take your words and distort them, either because of honest misunderstanding, or willful intent? If you have, and you’re like me, you will work really hard in trying to set the record straight. “No, wait, that’s not what I meant—here is what you need to understand about the meaning behind those words. Here is my thought process, and how I ended up with what I said...” It often goes beyond “I need you to understand my words” and becomes, “I need you to understand me.” At least for someone who uses words as much as I do, words are important; they are more than just words, because they are in some way about me: about my identity, about my self.

These days, I find this kind of misunderstanding happens to me more often on social media than in face-to-face interactions. This is probably not too surprising; if you use social media, you know how easy it is for people to misunderstand things, and because the interactions aren’t face-to-face, the technology seems to amplify the negative interactions more than the positive ones. Now, if you don’t use social media, please bear with me for a few minutes; I’ll try not to use too many buzzwords in what I say next. I hope you’ll get the point regardless.

I don’t post a lot of things on social media. Usually I just check in to see what other people have authored, and comment on what they’ve put out there—and most of the time, it’s the cute pictures of pets and kids that I respond to. But recently I came up with a joke that I thought was clever—I had seen a bit of advertising for Zoom, everyone’s favorite piece of software, and the slogan they were using seemed a bit ridiculous to me. So I took a screen shot of the ad, put in my little bit of satire, and posted it to my Facebook feed. (The joke itself wasn’t that great, and it’s not really worth the time to tell it here.)

Things went as I expected; a few of my friends pressed the “like” button, and some posted brief comments. Very gratifying; this is what I wanted, for others to appreciate this clever joke and maybe even come up with their own humorous remarks in response.

But then an old friend of mine—someone that I haven’t seen face-to-face in about eight years—took issue with my post. It’s not worth going into why, in part because I still don’t really understand his objections. For whatever reason, he didn’t think it was funny. Now, in all honesty, it wasn’t that great of a joke. But I was taken aback. I wanted to say, “No, wait, here is what I meant—this is what you need to understand about the meaning behind those words...” In that moment, I wanted to justify myself. I wanted to show that, in fact, it was a funny joke, and that I am, in fact, a clever person, and that everyone should acknowledge that.

That, of course, isn’t what I managed to do—and in fact, it got worse as only things on social media can, because while I was disconnected attending to other things, this friend got into an argument with some other folks who had also responded to the post. I still haven’t managed to get back in touch with him and ask if we can work things out, by some medium other than Facebook.

But to go back to that moment when I realized someone thought my joke wasn’t funny: that feeling of dismay that soon gave way to anger, that surge of adrenaline, that impulse to marshal more words to explain myself—all of these came because I wanted to justify myself, to show that I was in the right. That is the simplest way to understand this term, in how it shows up in today’s passage: Jesus says that the tax collector “went down to his home justified rather than the other” (v14). The tax collector was in the right, rather than the Pharisee.

Both in the Biblical languages and in English, “justified” is related to the word “justice,” and they both have a legal dimension: to be justified is to have been found to be in the right by a judge. It’s important to recognize, then, that the justification that Luke mentions here, and that much of the rest of the New Testament is concerned with, is not and cannot be self-justification. Rather, it is God who justifies; justification, finding someone to be in the right, is God’s work, and not something we can accomplish for ourselves.

You can’t read very much of the Bible without realizing that just about any time justice or justification pops up, righteousness is not far behind. A few of us have begun working through the book of Romans on Wednesday nights, ably facilitated by Lucy Price, and this past week we ran across both these concepts in chapters three and four. There, the Apostle Paul says that justification comes by faith, and not by any other means; and righteousness is something that God grants to people, not something people acquire by their own efforts. Paul writes of Abraham, who “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3, cf. Genesis 15:6). Abraham’s faith, his trust in God, is the one ingredient required of him; God supplied all the rest.

I daresay some of us distrust that word, righteousness. For many of us, it may conjure up an image of someone holier-than-thou, someone who has it all together spiritually and isn’t afraid to tell you where you’re falling short. If you’ve encountered someone like that, it probably didn’t do a lot to increase your faith in God. Most of the time, what you were experiencing there was probably self-righteousness, rather than righteousness conferred by God. Self-righteousness and self-justification go hand-in-hand. When I attempt to justify myself, I am on the road to self-righteousness, to a holiness based on my own efforts; and this road almost always leads to legalism and a constricted view of God’s goodness to the world.

It’s important to say, however, that just because there is so much self-righteousness around us, does not mean that there is no righteousness. Even as you’ve encountered the holier-than-thou, each of you likely also has known those whose trust in God is manifest in their lives: those who readily show the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23, NIV). Faithful people who demonstrate these fruits are righteous not because they have made themselves so, but because their faith in God draws them closer and closer to God, day by day.

Back to self-righteousness—in the parable, Jesus tells us up front that that’s the condition of the Pharisee: that he “trusted in [himself] that [he was] righteous” (14:9). Now, the Pharisee is meant to be a caricature, I think. This is another place in the Gospels where we see the humor of Jesus—biting sarcasm, to be sure, not a gentle poking-of-fun—but come on, who would pray this way? “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like other men...” Seriously? Yeah, Jesus, no one prays this way.

Or do we? There have been times when my prayers of thanksgiving have come perilously close to the Pharisee’s. I know enough not to compare myself to others, or to badmouth people, when I pray. But when I give thanks for all that I have—my wealth, my health, my station in life—sometimes I have a sense of relief that I am not one of the poor, or sick, or marginalized. Somewhere in that sense of relief is the prayer of the Pharisee.

What about the tax collector? It’s fair to ask whether this figure is also a caricature, and I think the answer is yes, at least partially. He’s maybe a bit over-dramatic in his presentation—is it really necessary to beat your breast when you pray? As far as I know, Jesus doesn’t recommend that as a prayer technique anywhere else in the Gospels. But I think it is the tax collector’s honest assessment of his own spiritual condition that Jesus is pointing towards—this honesty, this clarity, makes for a true spirit of prayer.

It’s interesting to me that the Pharisee doesn’t ask God for anything, while the tax collector cries out to receive the mercy of God. That honest statement of his need shows he knows where he is, and knows that’s not where he needs to be. In that spirit, I think we see faith that avails to justification.

When we pray, we begin not where we ought to be, but where we are. If I am in a place of self-justification, I will try to talk myself into righteousness as I talk to God. In that case, I haven’t been honest with myself or with God about my condition. If that’s true, then I’m still closer to the Pharisee than I am to the tax collector.

If, on the other hand, I begin to pray where I am, recognizing my own limitations, soberly considering the wrongs that I am responsible for, lamenting all of the things that keep me from God’s presence, then I have begun a journey towards the cry of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Friends, that journey towards true righteousness begins with faith: trust in God. This is our only doorway in. On the journey, we become righteous not by making ourselves so, but because we trust in God to draw us closer and closer, day by day. And we know we are moving ahead on the journey as we see the fruits around us—in our lives individually and the life of our community— love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—and more.

New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.

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