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Teach me to Pray - June 2, 2019

Luke 18:9-14 Anyone who has heard more than a few gospel stories has probably heard about the Pharisees. And our opinion of them is generally __________ (negative). They’re legalistic, they regularly confront and challenge Jesus, and ultimately they’re part of the prosecuting group that calls for his crucifixion. In other words—most of us see the Pharisees as bad guys.
So when we hear this passage it’s not much of a leap to see the Pharisee as a presumptuous, self-aggrandizing jerk. “Thank you, God that I’m not like those terrible sinful people.” We find it annoying, but not surprising. And then there’s the tax collector, the iconic bad guy in the 1st century who shows himself to be

humble and repentant.
Easy peasy, right? Be humble like the tax collector, not proud and judgmental like the Pharisee. Only as soon as we start classifying people as desirable and undesirable we become just like the Pharisee and haven’t learned anything at all.
That’s the traditional reading. But hopefully, after 6 weeks studying the parables we’ve come to see that the parables are rarely what they seem on the surface. We have to try and pull off our traditional bias to hear it with fresh first century ears and then see what it means to us today.
To try and find the first-century lens, I’ve been using this great book by Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish theologian, and author. She has a way of reframing the scriptures both with Jewish insight, and first-century understanding. For this parable, she is quite clear that in the 1st century, to the Jewish community Jesus addressed, the Pharisees were not the bad guys. They were the keepers of the law, and following the law is what got you close to God. Since a relationship with God and with others is a primary objective of Jewish life, the Pharisees were the helpers. They help people stay in covenant relationship with God.
Levine says this of the Pharisee, “Indeed, his performance of good works is his way of enacting the covenant with God. He does not do good works to earn a place in heaven. He does good works because that is how he understands what God wants him to do.” So the Pharisee, if we can pull off our lens of bias, was a good and righteous man, who was ritually pure, which allowed him to go into the temple to pray.
And then there’s the tax collector—in our perception—among the outcast sinners whom Jesus welcomes and invites to a transformed life. As of 21st century Christians, we tend to like the tax collectors. They represent us as sinners with an open invitation to grace. But again, our assumptions are not 1st-century assumptions. In the 1st century, a tax collector did not represent the redeemed or the forgiveness. They were crooks—liars and thieves, who had aligned with Rome for their own personal gain—they were traitors. So when Jesus picked him for the story there would not have been any good will toward the tax collector in the hearts of Jesus’ audience.
Which is to say, that for most of us, our assumptions about the two men are almost exactly the opposite of what the 1st-century listeners would have heard.
So we have these two men who go to the temple to pray, which at that time wasn’t just a solitary thing—it was synonymous with corporate worship. It was a congregational thing. One author suggests they were likely attending one of the 2 daily services at the temple known as the atonement offerings. In those services, a priest would offer a lamb sacrifice. There would be incense, sounding trumpets, clanging cymbals, and the reading of a psalm. And when the priest took the offering to the holy of holies the people would offer their private prayers to God. That’s where we step into the story. The time of private prayer in the midst of corporate worship during the service of atonement.
But before we go on, we need to be clear on what atonement is and means. Atonement is about repentance and restoration of covenant relationship with God. Someone once shared an easy way to remember atonement: at-one-ment. Atonement is about the at-one-ment with God. It’s about a restored relationship so we can be at-one with God. Atonement produces at-one-ment. Our equivalent of the atonement service might be a service of repentance and forgiveness—much like what we find in communion—it’s the way we are redeemed for the right relationship.
To enter the temple for this worship service, or any service, you had to be ritually pure. That was a starting point, so as not to defile the sanctuary of the Lord. And in Jesus’ story, both men are there, the righteous and pious Pharisee and the traitorous tax collector. And both men pray. Both men are seeking God and right relationship with God and with the community since in Jewish community, you can’t really have one without the other. Our relationship with God is inextricably linked to our relationship with each other.
For those willing to be generous toward the Pharisee, they might see his prayer this way: “The worshipper stands before God and in this holy moment he speaks to God of the kind of person he is. He confesses that he has done what God expects of him; he has been sincere and responsible.”
There was traditional prayer framed in the negative—“Thank you for not making me X or Y or Z.” So even that wasn’t exceptional. And while his tithe and double fasting, sounds pretentious and braggadocious—it’s worth noting he’s going above and beyond what was required for both, it might sound proud—but he’s talking with God not orating. Remember, this is a parable Jesus is telling—it’s a story, not a recollection of a real event. His faithfulness is a sign of his commitment to the covenant with God.
For a modern perspective, how do we judge the person who spends an hour a day in Bible study and prayer? Are they self-righteous? Pretentious? Braggadocious? Or…are we embarrassed that we don’t spend that same hour in study and prayer? Is our judgment more about them or more about us?
So, now that we’ve, hopefully, untangled our assumptions and biases, what do we learn from this parable? If both men can be seen as pious, penitent, and clearly seeking after God then who should we be? Is it really about one or the other? Or could we pray either way…with gratitude for what we can do and be, or with humility for where we’ve failed? I think it could be either one.
And some might be tempted to say Jesus is really seeking after one instead of the other after all verse 14 says: I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other;
But….before we get too high and mighty, there are two things to consider.
#1 the Pharisee was already righteous. He went in righteous and law-abiding and went out righteous and law abiding.
#2 There’s a translation issue. The word “rather” can also be translated “because of”. So verse 14 could also say “I tell you this man went to his home justified BECAUSE of the Pharisee.” Somehow in worship together, praying side by side, sharing in the desire to be atoned and set right with God, the righteousness of one was shared with another. Maybe through witness. Maybe through prayer. Maybe through the grace of God. We don’t exactly know.
That’s a big difference between having one who is redeemed and one who isn’t, and two who are redeemed, one by the faith or faithfulness of the other.

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The First United Methodist Church of Moscow, Idaho takes as our mission to be the body of Jesus Christ, ministering to a community which draws strength from its diversity. Our mission centers on the worship of God, expressed through varied forms of prayer, preaching, music, and ritual.  See more...