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Thy Kingdom Come: Humble Prayer

Humble Prayer

Luke 18:9-14


In January 1969, two great quarterbacks faced each other from opposite sidelines in Super Bowl III. Both Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath were raised in the steel towns of western Pennsylvania. But they had grown up a decade apart and lived in different moral cultures. Unitas grew up in the old culture of modesty and humility. His father died when he was five and his mother took over the family coal delivery business. Unitas weighed 145 pounds while playing quarterback for his high school team, and he took a beating during every game. He went to church before every game, deferred to the authority of his coaches, and lived a football-obsessed life. After college he had a brief tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers but was cut. Then he got a long-shot call from the Baltimore Colts. He made the team and spent many of his early years with the Colts steadily losing. Unitas was not an overnight sensation in the NFL, but he was steadily ripening, honing his skills, and making his teammates better. He was a deliberately unglamorous figure with his black high-top sneakers, bowed legs, stooped shoulders, and a crew cut above his rough face. He was loyal to his organization and to his teammates. In the huddle he’d rip into his receivers for screwing up plays and running the wrong routes. Then, after the game, he’d lie to the reporter: “My fault, I overthrew him” was his standard line. “He was an honest workman doing an honest job” said someone who worked for NFL Films. Unitas came to embody a particular way of being a sports hero.


In sharp contrast, Joe Namath was the flamboyant star, with white shoes and flowing hair, brashly guaranteeing victory. Broadway Joe made himself the center of attention, a spectacle off the field as much as on it, with $5,000 fur coats, long sideburns, and playboy manners. He openly bragged about what a great athlete he was, how good-looking he was. “Joe! Joe! You’re the most beautiful thing in the world!” he shouted to himself in the bathroom mirror as a reporter watched.

He created an early version of what we would now call the hook-up culture. He told a reporter, “I don’t like to date so much as I just like to kind of, you know, run into something, man.” He embodied the autonomy ethos that was beginning to sweep through the country. “I believe in letting a guy live the way he wants to if he doesn’t hurt anyone. I feel that everything I do is okay for me and doesn’t affect anybody else, including the girls I go out with. Look, man, I live and let live. I like everybody.” Two all-time great quarterbacks. Two very different ways of approaching the game of football, of approaching life.


In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus told a story about two men who couldn’t be more different. Like Unitas and Namath, they took very different approaches to life, to faith, to the world. The surprise came in which one was commended by Jesus as living in a way that was fit for the kingdom of God. Turn in your Bibles to Luke 18:9-14.


On the surface, these two people couldn’t appear to be more different. One was a Pharisee. He was an upstanding citizen, considered by most to be a righteous man. He lived his life the right way. He didn’t cheat. He didn’t lie. He was faithful to his wife. He obeyed the law. Always. He did everything that a citizen of the kingdom of God was supposed to do. The law encouraged those who could to fast once a week. He fasted twice a week. He didn’t sit down and try to figure out what income he should tithe from and what he could get away without giving of. He tithed of everything he received, without fail. He was a generous giver. He went to the temple to pray. Today, this would be the person who attends church regularly; who would lead a prayer if asked, maybe even a Bible study; who gives generously, one of the church’s biggest financial contributors; and who regularly practiced the spiritual disciplines, known as someone who prayed, who fasted, who studied.


The other was a tax collector. Now, as much as we might dislike paying taxes today and hate getting that letter from the IRS saying you’re being audited, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were far worse. The Roman system of collecting taxes from conquered peoples was rife with corruption. They would place a tax collector in each region, and that person would pay the taxes to Rome up front, and then that person would hire several people, in this case Jewish tax collectors, to collect from their own people what he had payed plus his living expenses and salary. And these tax collectors were to collect a certain amount of the tax debt, plus their own living expenses and salary. It was called tax farming, and corruption was rampant, because Rome didn’t specify what appropriate living expenses and salary were. And the people couldn’t refuse to pay what the tax collectors demanded. So not only were they viewed as traitors collaborating with their Roman occupiers, they were known for their extravagant homes and lifestyles. They were living plush lives paid for by the poor people from which they took too much. They were hated. Their testimony wasn’t considered valid in court. They were not to be believed or trusted. Good observant Jews refused to socialize with them. And they had their body guards and tough men to protect them and take care of business when someone needed to be … convinced to pay. Believe me when I tell you that there isn’t one person in this room who, given a free choice, would choose to befriend or even spend time with the tax collector over the Pharisee. You’d go out of your way to chat with a Pharisee. You’d cross the street to avoid crossing paths with a tax collector.


But when God looks at these two men, he sees a subtle but powerful difference, and it is this difference that Jesus highlights in this parable. Listen to the prayer of the Pharisee, and see if a word jumps out at you. Vv. 11-12. Did you hear it? It’s the word “I.” I. I. I. I. He may be talking to God, but he’s focused on himself. His focus isn’t on God’s actions in his life, it’s on his own acts. And they were good acts. He fasted often. He prayed. He was a generous giver. On the surface, he looked the part of a child of God. He did all of the right things, but he was placing his faith, his hope, his trust … in himself.


And when he comes before God, he is looking down the social ladder. He noticed the tax collector way over there praying too, and said, “God, I thank you that I am not like this tax collector.” He’s comparing himself to someone else, and in from that perspective, he knows he looks pretty good. It’s all in who you are comparing yourself to. And this Pharisee, doing all the right actions, but full of himself, was comparing himself to the tax collector, knowing he looked much better than him. We all do it. You know, if I compare myself to some people, I come out looking pretty good, at least to me. We all do that, don’t we? At least I’m not like … and we all have a person or persons whose names we could put there. I’m not perfect, but I’m better than … I’m in church most weeks. I give. I even lead a Bible study now and then. I even bow my head and pray before meals in restaurants. Compared to some people, I look pretty good. But if I compare myself to Becky, I look like an idiot. I just can’t compete with her energy and enthusiasm, her kindness, her love, her smile. Can you tell I’m trying to butter her up? Our 19th anniversary is Tuesday. After service you should give her a hug and congratulate her on her accomplishment … putting up with an idiot like me for 19 years. If I compare myself to some people, I look pretty good. If I compare myself to others though, I don’t. And we’re all in the same boat.


Research psychologists have found there are at least three situations when we are not ourselves. First, the average person puts on airs when he visits the lobby of a fancy hotel. Next, the typical Jane Doe will try to hide her emotions and bamboozle the salesman when she enters the new-car showroom. And finally, as we take our seat in church or synagogue, we try to fake out the Almighty that we’ve really been good all week.[i]


One of the areas in which I’ve had quite a bit of special training and quite a bit of experience in counseling is in working with couples whose marriages are in trouble. That and at-risk youth. Those seem to be my areas of expertise. I’ve worked a lot with couples in trouble. You know, most people think it’s the big things that kill a marriage. Things like faithfulness and addiction to pornography. And those are serious things that need to be dealt with. But the research tells a different story. Truth is, most of the time, it isn’t an affair that kills a marriage, or major personality differences, even lots of arguing. Lots of healthy, married couples argue all the time, and about 75% of the problems couples argue about aren’t solvable anyway. You know what kills marriages? A focus on self. In their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson describe how a fixation on our own righteousness can choke the life out of love. They write: The vast majority of couples who drift apart do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification. Each partner focuses on what the other one is doing wrong, while justifying his or her own preferences, attitudes, and ways of doing things. … From our standpoint, therefore, misunderstandings, conflicts, personality differences, and even angry quarrels are not the assassins of love; self-justification is. Self. I. Me. Compared to … I look good.


But when the tax collector comes to the temple to pray, he stands “far off.” Whereas the Pharisee was right up front, as close as an average Joe good Jewish Pharisee could get to the Holy Place and the altar. The tax collector stood far off. Just inside the court of the Israelites. He was a Jew. He could be there. But he didn’t really belong. And he knew it. He slipped in the back, stayed away from people. He didn’t want to be seen, noticed. The Pharisee was sure he belonged. The tax collector was just as sure that he didn’t. But he was there.  And his prayer was barely a breath. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”


The Pharisee went on and on about how great he was. The tax collector knew how great God is. The Pharisee looked down at others as he prayed, thanking God that he wasn’t like “them.” The tax collector looked up. He knew that ultimately it was God’s standard that he must meet, and that apart from the mercy of God, he couldn’t meet that standard. And there lies the difference. It’s subtle. One is looking down and focused on himself. The other is look up, focused on God. And he knows that before God, he’s a sinner. So is the Pharisee. But his hope was in being good, doing good. The tax collector’s hope was in the mercy of God. He doesn’t just apologize. He confesses his sinfulness. What’s the difference between a confession and an apology? Author Susan Wise Bauer offers this: “An apology is an expression of regret: I am sorry. A confession is an admission of fault: I am sorry because I did wrong. I sinned.” Apology addresses an audience. Confession implies an inner change that will be manifested in outward action.”[ii] And it was the tax collector who went away justified before God. Not because he was a tax collector. He went away justified before God because he knew what he was, he knew who God was, and he cried out for mercy. In less than a chapter, Luke will illustrate the point of this parable with the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, not just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. Other collectors worked for him. And he was rich. But when he met Jesus, something changed. He didn’t keep going the way he had been going. His life took a new direction. “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Lk. 19:8). He didn’t just apologize. He confessed. He repented. His life went in a different direction. And Jesus proclaimed “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:9-10).


The Book of Common Prayer is used by Anglican churches around the world, including the Episcopal Church here in America, to facilitate worship. This prayer is a part of the liturgy for communion, a liturgy I’ve used from time to time. It is intended to be spoken by all of the people, including the pastor, together. “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name. Amen.”


One person wrote a satirical version of the same prayer as, in his mind, it would be written if written today, exposing our shallow view of sin. “Benevolent and easy-going Parent: We have occasionally had some minor errors of judgment, but they’re not really our fault. Due to forces beyond our control, we have sometimes failed to act in accordance with our own best interests. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could. We are glad to say that we’re doing okay, perhaps even slightly above average. Be your own sweet Self with those who know they are not perfect. Grant us that we may continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect. And we ask all these things according to the unlimited tolerances which we have a right to expect from you. Amen.”[iii]


Which of those prayers would you pray? Do you pray? When you come before God, who are you looking at? Are you looking at God, trusting in his mercy and grace, or are you looking at yourself compared to someone else? Those live in the Kingdom of God do so on the basis of God’s mercy and grace and, with hearts filled with gratitude to God, allow themselves to be transformed by the spirit of God into loving, joy-filled disciples of Jesus. But the things a follower of Jesus DOES are not done to earn God’s love, approval, and forgiveness. They’re done BECAUSE of God’s love and mercy. When you pray, and when you worship, who are you looking at … really?



[i] Dr. Perry Buffington, licensed psychologist, author, columnist; “Playing Charades,” Universal Press Syndicate (9-26-99)

[ii] Paul Wilkes, The Art of Confession (Workman Publishing, 2012), pp. 4-5

[iii] Adapted from David Head, He Sent Leanness