The contemporary author Anne Lamott says that the essential elements of prayer are Help! Thanks! and Wow! The Scripture readings we share today encourage us to think about what it means to live into prayer, into a spiritual Wow! at the many ways God moves in our lives as individuals and in community.
But perhaps we are too busy to read much of Anne Lamott or any other author demanding of our close attention. We need a theological version of that website Book A Minute.
Yep! There really is such a website! On Book A Minute, you can get a brief summary of classics, science fiction, and even children’s picture books. You can at last get a firm grasp on Melville’s Moby Dick. Or that California classic favorite The Grapes of Wrath can be summed up in two sentences: We lost our farm, so let’s go to California. Things get hard and people die.
The Book A Minute two-sentence summary of today’s Gospel is: God is merciful to sinners. You can trust in that grace or you can try to go it yourself.
We Americans are well-acquainted with going-it-ourselves. Thousands of websites, magazine articles, television shows and books tout do-it-yourself projects. The myth of the self-made person resonates in our culture. I remember all too well having to read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance back when I was in eighth grade, and coming to that part of the essay where he said, Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string. And sadly, Emerson is right. Each of us tends to put an iron-clad trust in ourselves…
As an antidote to that all-too-American, all-too-human tendency to self-reliance, let me suggest that we might remember that each of us has a belly button. That little bit of flesh is an ontological marker showing us every day that there is no such thing as a self-made person. All of us, every one, has had to rely on others in order to live. All of us rely on God our Creator for life itself. Every one of us is kin to each other.
Jesus directs the parable in today’s Gospel to those who trust in themselves. All of us who would like to, all the time or some of the time forget that we have belly buttons, need to pay close attention to his words. For Jesus’ parable sets a trap for us. It is not a trap to catch and condemn us as Pharisees. It is not a trap to separate tax collectors and Pharisees. Rather, it is a trap that stops us in our tracks and brings us face to face with the reality of our life and relationship with God.
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector describes God’s grace as grounded in the interrelationship between God and human, and the kinship between human and human. When the Pharisee begins his prayer, God, I thank you that I am not like… he is so full of his self-made goodness that he closes the door to a power more loving than he is himself. He has isolated himself from God, and from all the other folks who were worshiping that day in that community of faith.
To be sure, everything the Pharisee says is true. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law.
So before we judge him too quickly, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe we haven't said, "Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people...", but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, "There but for the grace of God go I"? It isn't that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introductory sentence, he has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being. He is not describing his faith or spiritual practices. He is keeping score of all his right answers and counting up his points, about the way we count up our Safeway points to get the reward of cheaper gasoline.
The problem is that when we think we have everything – answers, piety, reputation, stuff, success – when we think we have the requisite number of points, then we have no need of God. We have no need of grace, renewal, or resurrection. We are dying, and we do not know how near to death we are.
The tax collector, on the other hand, possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; indeed, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back in the shadows and hardly has the words to pray. He knows that he is dying; he cannot continue as he is. So in desperation he throws himself on God’s mercy, knowing that mercy alone can save him. Accepting God’s power and grace is his only help and hope.
This parable is not about the bad Pharisee and the good tax collector. The two seem so very different, but they are not so different as we might think: for on the inside they are both dying. They are lost, broken, in need of God. Their only real difference is that the tax collector knows he is dying, and the Pharisee has blinded himself to that knowledge. The Pharisee marks his accomplishments and rates himself above others, but the tax collector cries in anguish, God be merciful to me, a sinner! I am one who is missing you, I am in need of you, I have nothing apart from you. I cannot do this myself!
To know we are dead is the beginning of resurrection. This parable invites us to acknowledge the dead places in our lives: all our failures and disappointments, all our break ups and breakdowns, where we are empty and suffering – all those places where we no longer dream dreams , have visions, prophesy – where we do not invite relationship, where we choose not to see others as God’s children like us.
And that acknowledgement is what the tax collector did. Like the tax collector, if we are able to see ourselves as sinners in need of justifying grace, we will be able to receive God’s gift of justification, and we will see others as equals, as belly-button folks like us, as people who are loved by God and Jesus, every one of us.
At the end of Jesus’ story, the Pharisee left the Temple and returned to his home righteous. He was righteous when he went up to the Temple, and he was righteous as he came down. He offered God nothing but a recitation of right answers, and he asked God for nothing. God did not withhold anything from the Pharisee. God simply gave him what he asked for: nothing.
The tax collector went home justified, that is, in right relationship with God, not because he was good or better than the Pharisee. He wasn’t. But he offered God his life, broken and messy as it was. Because he opened himself and his life for God to come in, God in lovingkindness opened the door to a new life, a new world, new relationships. We don’t know what happened after the tax collector got home but we know this. A choice now lay before him: the choice to walk into his own resurrection. We do not hear how his story ends. The parable tells us only how his story – and ours – might begin.
In the moment that we can cease noting how different we are from one another, and stand before God and among each other aware of our mutual need for God’s merciful care, then we are brought into right relationship with God and each other. Our story begins fresh and new. From our worship together, we shall return to our homes, justified by the grace of God, made at one with the family of God, and full of gratitude.
And may all our prayers be full of Help! Thanks! and Wow! Amen