The message from last Sunday, blogged.
Based on this story from Luke 18:
Jesus told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: 10 “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. 11 The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. 12 I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ 13 “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'” 14 Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
It’s always interesting to me to think about what’s going on in people’s heads. What are we thinking, as we go about our day? What about sitting in church? If I had a thought bubble above my head as I went about my day, how would my day be different? Would people smack me? Would I have a better day if I thought charitable thoughts and everyone knew about it? There have been several movies and TV shows and books about being able to read minds as a special power, going back to the Vulcans on the original Star Trek, and even back to My Favorite Martian.
It’s sort of a fascinating ability, but it’s one that I’m not sure I would want. In the new series True Blood, the telepathic waitress has had a rough life because of her ability to read minds. She’s learned to hide it from pretty much everyone, because she’s found that it hurts her more than it helps when people know she knows what’s going on in their minds. Because most of the time, we don’t want anyone to know.
There’s a point at which the things we think and the things we say become different. I can tell you when it is….it’s right around five years old. I can tell you that because I have a five year old in my house, and I can see sometimes….not all the time….but sometimes he does not say exactly what he is thinking. I have said to him pretty often, “Hey, that’s one of those things we think in our heads but we try not to say it out loud.” because it’s usually an observation about someone he’s seen that might potentially be really embarassing. Now I’ve also occasionally had to say this to the 37 year old who lives in my house….that’s something we THINK but don’t SAY….and occasionally I say it out loud to myself….did I say that, or just think it?
Now imagine that all the things you think in your head were out there for people to see. Imagine that in church, here, now, the things that we all think even as we are praying to God are out there!
I imagine, because I am a person, that it might be a little like this:
“Hello God….guess I should talk to you because I’m in church, right? I’m going to bow my head, but not too low, so that I can look at all these people around me. My shoes are awesome. My shoes are WAY awesomer than hers. How could she even come to church with those shoes on! My shoes are even justice-y and I know you like that! Anyway, God, here I am, I’m at church. I get points for that, right? I’m here, and I have to say, I look pretty good. My shoes are SUPER awesome! Anyway God, I think I’m doing okay these days, right? Thanks that I’m not one of those people that I hear about on the news. Thank you so much that I’m not one of those people who stole stuff in that smash and grab with the jeans…how crazy is that…..they’re so wrong! so bad! I don’t do that! Hmmm…..Jeans…..I need some new jeans…….anyway God, I’m so glad that I’m not like that crazy woman from the kids’ school, she’s obviously messing up her children in all kinds of ways, that would stink but thanks for not making me HER. Can you imagine? And wow, look at that guy. I know he works for the government. Bloodsuckers. I mean, why do they need all that tax money anyway? What are they doing with it? I’m SO SO glad I’m not like him! Those jerks! Thanks God. You are the best. Did i mention that I’m giving money to the church? They need it. And I’m going to fast. I heard that was a great idea, so I’m going to fast twice instead of just once. Anyway God, this has been nice and all but just remember that I’m really grateful that I’m not any of these people around me and that I do a lot good stuff for you. Catch ya later, I’m off to communion!
Now that, of course, is not what we usually SAY. We usually, if we’re Southern, say something like “Bless their hearts,” if we’re being kind, which my husband says is just like saying, Wow, they’re idiots. But it’s often what we THINK.
So often when I’ve heard this story of the Pharisee and the Taxman, I’ve thought how funny it is that the Pharisee spouts off about himself! I mean, does he have no shame? “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like all these other people!” It’s so ridiculous. It’s almost too ridiculous. But then I noticed something in this story. When the Pharisee is praying, he does walk right up and stand near the temple, yes. He’s a religious guy. He’s a church guy, we would say. He’s got every right to be there, as much right as a pastor or church attender to walk right up into the church and pray.
But what it says is that he prays TO HIMSELF. He prays by himself, and to himself, meaning he either whispers the prayer to God or prays it inside his head. He’s learned, when he was five years old or so, that some things just stay in your head and they don’t need to come out of your mouth! So he prays quietly, to himself, in Jesus’ story, by himself, and we hear what’s going on in his head as he prays, this religious, upstanding citizen. And what’s going on in his head is what goes on in a lot of our heads as we pray! Thanks God, that I’m not like THAT. At least I give money, and even more money than I’m legally obligated to! And I’m here, praying to you. Big points, God, big points. In his head. He’s not a villain, he’s not a crazy person, he’s just one of us, praying how we pray, a lot of times.
And just like in almost every story in Luke’s gospel, there’s someone else who Jesus is comparing the Pharisee to. It’s that tax guy, who the Pharisee was so glad he wasn’t him. I was going to try to think of a modern day comparison, but I kind of don’t have to. Even if you morally agree with paying taxes, it’s still not fun to write that check, or to see it taken out of your paycheck. And that’s if you’re okay with giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, so to speak! The taxman is pretty much universally hated, then, and now. Now it’s more a computer or faceless thing that we give it to, but then it was a person. Can you imagine? A PERSON to take out all your frustrations about taxes on? And someone who might even raise their salary by charging more taxes than you really need to pay so that they can have a little money, too. UGH! So of course you are grateful that you aren’t that person, because they are doing WRONG in your eyes. Wrong. The other people are so wrong!
So it’s no less scandalous now, and maybe even a little MORE, for someone who collects the taxes to be the EXAMPLE of how to pray. It’s very nearly ripped from the headlines. The tax collector, the one who takes our taxes, the one who we curse and maybe even work against, is the very example of how to pray to God, of how to have a relationship with God. Imagine, a pastor or religious leader praying versus an anonymous guy who works for the system, the MAN? It’s a no brainer what we’re supposed to think at first, and it’s shocking when it gets twisted around.
Jesus says the tax guy has it right. Jesus doesn’t say the tax collector is right or wrong, but he sure says that the way the tax collector is approaching God is right. We also get tempted to see the Pharisee as a bad guy, but he wasn’t. He was just a regular person, like you and like me. Because I’m pretty sure that most of us at one time or another have expressed gratitude that we’re not like someone else. I’m pretty sure that most of us, when we’re praying, have read God our resume, like a laundry list. We don’t do it out loud, but we do. And so the Pharisee was not a villain…he was just a regular guy, trying to claw his way up to being a good person, glad that he wasn’t like those other people, as we all are sometimes.
And Jesus says no to this. You can’t claw your way up to being a good person. You can’t convince God that you’ve done enough to be okay. We’re all miserable sinners, that’s a little Luther quote early for Reformation day next week, we’re ALL miserable sinners even though we have good days and bad days and sometimes do good things. It’s where we all end up, helpless before God. Some of us are in the church, and we’re helpless. We got nothin. Then, there sure are a lot of us outside these walls, like the taxman, struggling to pray and not knowing what even to say in the presence of the God of the universe. And so maybe we end up with his prayer, when we’re being really honest. “Lord, have mercy on me. I am a sinner, and I have nothing. None of my accomplishments or helpfulness or righteousness or groups I belong to or comparisons is going to help me. Help me.
God, help me. I’ve got nothin’. And only at that moment can you be filled, absolutely filled, with the presence of God, lifted up, you might say, to truly be yourself. When you’ve got nothin to offer, and know that you don’t, that’s when God can fill you, can come to you and do great things in your life, can lift you up from where you are and help you to know that God’s mercy and love are big enough for all of us, the Pharisee, the taxman, the other people, me, and you. Amen.