“Bow your head and close your eyes.” That’s how I learned to pray. It’s a posture many of us assume when we pray or meditate, meant to help us focus, eliminate distractions, turn inward and direct our hearts and minds toward God.
But sometimes, I confess, I like to pray with my head up and my eyes open, especially in church. It’s a practice for me when I begin most sermons — a chance to look out at the congregation and remember just who I’m preaching to and worshipping with, and what a holy responsibility we share. On Wednesday Nights, when taking my turn to lead the church family prayers, I find that sometimes my eyes more naturally open than close. It helps me know who’s here, and who’s not. It reminds me who’s struggling, who’s suffering, who’s waiting, who’s wondering, and how the love and care of God is large enough to hold all of us amidst all of that.
Of course, that’s not always why we open our eyes and look around. Whether at church, or elsewhere in our lives, often it’s an act of comparison, as we measure ourselves against others. We might notice who has what. We might flash a side-eye here and there, judging who has done what. Perhaps we look around and assume who believes what. We can end up like those to whom Jesus tells this parable today, whom Luke describes as “trusting in themselves that they were righteous and regarding others with contempt” — those who look around at others and wonder if the love and care of God actually extend to them.
Jesus’ parables are hard on us at such times. You’ve probably noticed how they challenge our standards and offend our sensibilities. For this reason, the preacher, Fred Craddock, has suggested that many of the parables need to be repaired. “Some of them need fixin’!” he once said in his Tennessee twang.
Take the parable a few chapters back, in Luke 15, about the father and two sons. Once Craddock was a guest preacher at a church in North Georgia, and he preached on this parable about the wayward son who finally comes home to his father’s embrace and the extravagant party, while his dutiful brother watches it all from afar. Craddock preached it straightforwardly, with a sermon reinforcing that message we hear at the close of today’s teaching: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
After the service, Craddock and his wife were taken to lunch. One of their hosts, who was an attorney, said, “Well, I don’t know whether to say I didn’t like your sermon or I didn’t like the scripture text. It’s easier for me to say I didn’t like your sermon, because my wife doesn’t like for me to speak against the Bible!” When Craddock asked about his problem, this man said, “It’s receiving that boy back home and having a party. It’s not right. He should have been arrested. He broke the law, he ruined the family, he was out with the pigs, he should have been arrested, given at least six years.” He was serious.
So Craddock thought to himself, “Hmmm, it seems like we need to fix this story.” It was some time later that he was invited to teach an Adult Sunday School class at a local church. It was a last minute invitation, 9:20 Sunday morning: “Our teacher has the flu and can’t make it. Can you come? It’s a passage you know, the parable of the man and two sons.” So driving to church, Craddock attempted to fix the parable. When he arrived he began to tell the story to the class: “There was a man who had two sons. The older stayed home and did his father’s bidding. The younger son took the money and ran, came into hard times, awoke with the pigs, decided he should come home and confess his wrong. And as he drew near the house… he heard the noise of music and dancing, he smelled the smoke of cooking fires, and he asked a servant, ‘What is all this?’ And the servant told him, ‘Well your older brother, he stayed here and worked hard and did all your father asked, and so your father has thrown a party to reward him.’”
Craddock says he couldn’t even get the words out before a woman in the back yelled out, “That’s the way it shoulda been!” (1)
The parables of Jesus confront us with the full range of God’s mercy — how it challenges our standards and frustrates our firm sense of how things “should” be. Many of the parables give us an implicit mercy test — asking us, that is, whether we believe in God’s mercy at all, and if so, how much.
Like in today’s parable: two men go up to the temple to pray, and if our eyes are open during this prayer, we see that one is a Pharisee and the other a Tax Collector. Jesus, once again, is using stock characters to tell us something about the kingdom of God, and in this case the two figures could not seem more different. They are people we know, or at least think we know. And as they speak, they seem to confirm some of our assumptions about them.
The Pharisee speaks first. We’d expect as much from him as someone who knows how to pray and what to say. He is religiously devout. A leader among the Jews and a guide for those seeking to follow God’s law, he tries to lead a blameless, righteous life. He is careful in his observance, generous with his money, and as we hear him pray we learn he’s not afraid to tell God all about it. His prayer is a soliloquy, outlining his works of goodness. “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted,” Jesus says after the story, and I’m sure if you asked this Pharisee, he could tell you that among his very best traits was his humility.
In contrast is a tax collector. Jesus describes him “standing far off.” We’re not sure why, but it might have something to do with how despised he was by most people. It’s not just that tax collectors were misunderstood. They were on the wrong side religiously, politically, and economically. It was his job to call in what was owed to the empire. He was an instrument of an ultimately oppressive system that gauged the poor and benefited the wealthy, and filled his pockets along the way any time he wanted to collect over and above what was owed.
“Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” he prays. But don’t you wish he would pray, “Lord have mercy on me, as I commit to change my life today”? His cry for mercy sounds empty without a commitment to repent, reconcile and repair. I’d much rather hear from him what we hear from another tax collector in the next chapter of Luke, as Zaccheus encounters the mercy of God and says, “I repent! I will pay back everything I’ve taken! No longer will I go door to door trying to collect my life, but instead will understand that truth of Jesus that life is found by giving it away.” But no such prayer comes from the tax collector. Just a cry for mercy. Is that enough?
It’s not enough for the Pharisee. “Thank God I’m not like that person,” the Pharisee says. “Thank God I’m in the right place in the temple, exalted and justified unlike this other. Thank God I didn’t do that with my life — I certainly could have and I’d be more comfortable today — but thank God I’m not like this tax collector.” See, the parable has presented the Pharisee with a mercy test. Just how wide does he believe God’s mercy to be? Is it wide enough to include the prayer of this tax collector, however incomplete?
Jesus believes it is. Knowing Jesus as we do, we recognize this tax collector as one of those people that Jesus likes to eat with. Especially over against the sanctimonious Pharisee, we probably start to identify with the tax collector beating his breast. After all, who is the Pharisee — who are any of us — to judge another’s prayers, and evaluate the range of God’s mercy? Who are any of us to look around and play God and decide if another’s prayers are worth considering?
As the parable continues, the contrast between these two becomes even more dramatic.
We notice how the saintly Pharisee seems to parade to the temple as though he’s carrying God with him, while the sinful tax collector keeps a physical distance, as if feeling very far from the work of God in the world.
The religiously devout man stands up and puffs out his chest, while the tax collector looks down and beats his breast.
The Pharisee prays loudly about his own virtues, while the tax collector can barely get the words out.
“Have mercy on me, a sinner” the tax collector says, while the Pharisee’s words are, “Thank God I’m not like that person.”
We prefer that prayer of humility, don’t we? Who is this Pharisee to pray such a prayer of thanksgiving? Yes, looking at him, we note how insincere and how smug. We distance ourselves from the Pharisee – his self-righteousness, his self-serving, his puffed up sense of himself, and his assumption that he’s holding the high ground in the temple all on his own. And somewhere as we’re walking away from him, shaking our heads, well, it just slips out, maybe in our prayers or just somewhere in our hearts: “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.” Which is the phrase that makes us exactly like him.
See, this parable gives us our own mercy test, and it becomes a mercy trap. This is the parable where Jesus makes us a Pharisee. “Thank God I’m not like the tax collector,” the Pharisee says, prompting all of us to say, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee.” It happens without us realizing it, but the moment we choose the tax collector’s side or question the motives of the Pharisee, is the moment we become wrapped up in our own virtues, presuming to play God and judge the sincerity of his prayers. It’s the moment we settle again into either/or, winner/loser dualism — eyes open with the sharply divided way of seeing the world that always characterizes the self-righteous. We create the same division and assume the same distance this Pharisee puts between himself and another child of God. We end up standing alone, accompanied only by our own self-assurance.
This parable tests us by asking whether we believe the mercy of God really extends to all people. And this parable traps us by catching us as we fail to believe that mercy extends even to the person praying across the temple.
How often do we look around and hold ourselves apart from others? How divided are we from the realization that we are all in need, all sinners, all belong to God? Can we open our eyes, look around and imagine God hearing the prayers of a Pharisee, along with the prayers of a tax collector, along with our own prayers?
My friend, Rev. Dorisanne Cooper is pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, NC — it’s a great church, led by a pastor I admire, Dorisanne, and in recent years, this good church and wonderful pastor walked together through the shadows of grief and worry, as shortly after going to Watts Street as Pastor, Dorisanne was diagnosed with a form of cancer.
The prognosis was good, and she’s doing well today, but the treatment was immediate. Treatments drained her energy and made her vulnerable to sickness, meaning she had to sequester herself from the congregation at times.
This was hardest for Dorisanne on Sunday mornings — she always loved the experience of greeting people as they were coming to worship. She didn’t want her moment in the pulpit to be the first interaction with the congregation. It was part of her practice to be in the sanctuary leading up to the start of the service to check in with people, jotting down notes about who asked what or who needed what. She loved this moment of connection, but with her treatments she needed to stand at a distance for a season, and she really had to conserve all of her energy for preaching and worship leadership.
So she began another practice. For the 15 minutes or so prior to worship, she would sit up apart from the congregation, at a distance, but where she could still see them, and she’d watch as they entered for worship. She’d see all these people coming up to the sanctuary to pray, and to sing, and to worship. And as she watched, she’d pray — a prayer with her eyes open. She’d look around and she’d remember who was struggling, and who was suffering, and who was worried and who was wondering. She’d look down and see the person whom she knew was awaiting some news on their own health challenges. She’d see the child whom she had heard just had a big game at school. She’d see the teenager that she knew was asking good questions about these whole God and church things. She’d see the saint that had sent her banana bread earlier that week. Over here would be someone who was struggling with addiction, and then not far from them was the person who had recently come to talk about tension in a relationship. She’d look around, and pray for them all. And Dorisanne has said she’d never before felt her preaching and ministry more connected to her congregation, because she was looking around, remembering them all, and believing again that the wideness of God’s mercy held every one. (2)
We all look around from time to time. The question is not whether we’re looking, but what we see. Do we see the mercy of God extending to all? The parable calls us to open our eyes and see it. When worship in the temple is over, the parable says, “The tax collector went down to his home justified rather than the other.” Those we have separated so sharply in the temple are seemingly separated as they leave it. Then again, if we look more closely at the phrase “rather than” we might notice something merciful. “Rather than” comes from a Greek phrase that can be translated “rather than” or “instead of” if we so choose. But in most cases throughout ancient literature, it’s translated “alongside of.” Not “rather than” but “alongside of” — which would mean our story ending with the words, “The tax collector went down to his home justified right alongside of the Pharisee”? (3)
We don’t see it immediately. No, we often hold as divided and separate those whom Jesus can see side by side. But if you can imagine it, then you pass the mercy test. You slip the mercy trap. And you might just be able to envision such mercy on earth as it is in heaven. And it might start with a prayer: “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”
- Fred Craddock, “Looking Around During the Sermon,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, p. 175-176.
- Shared by Rev. Dorisanne Cooper as part of the annual convocation of Baptist Women of Ministry of North Carolina, March 16, 2018.
- Thanks to Dr. Amy-Jill Levine for this insight in a lecture at Vanderbilt University, Spring 2006.