we want what you desire for us.
We long to pray in the ways you ask us to pray.
We yearn to be the people you made us to be.
Still our hearts now so that we can be soaked in your love,
closer to you than we’ve ever been before,
acutely aware of your all- encompassing presence.
Fill us, Father God, we pray, with your Holy Spirit,
so that what I say and what we hear and absorb may be your words of power and authority for us at this time in our lives,
In Jesus’ Name,
I wonder if now that, sadly, we’re becoming more of a secular society we’re also becoming more of a competitive society. Perhaps we’ve always been like this, climbing over each other to get ahead. Kiwis love to win. Remember our fervour during February and March last year through the Cricket World Cup, and then last October throughout the Rugby World Cup. Remember how our country virtually came to a standstill when NZ triumphed over Australia 34 – 17 at Twickenham Stadium in London becoming the first team to win the Webb Ellis Cup twice in a row.
Some of us, of course, are more competitive than others, but there’s no doubting the satisfaction that comes from a win – ask my husband about my ridiculous delight on the rare occasions that I beat him at rumi-kub!
In fact so ingrained can a competitive spirit become that, if we’re not careful, we can bring such an attitude with us when we come in to God’s presence, where of course, in a real sense, where we are all the time.
For indeed the great Reformer, Martin Luther believed that the divinity of Christ has a ubiquitous or ‘extra’ presence in the world everywhere, at all times, and David the Psalmist celebrates God’s constant presence with us in Psalm 139:
“If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”
When we think others might be watching, we can’t help ourselves, in outdoing each other in good works, and then telling each other about them!
I once conducted a funeral in a small town, far from here, for a man who’d contributed much to many community groups. It was a funeral so large it needed to be held in the local sports stadium and many speakers, when given an open invitation to contribute to the eulogies, made the most of it, referring, many of them, in passing, also to their own invaluable contributions to community life. It seemed to me like a convocation of self-made men gathering to worship their maker, and it took two hours, twenty minutes to do so!
The Pharisee, in today’s reading from Luke 18, has a similar high opinion of himself.
Most likely this Pharisee does do all he says he does – fasting and tithing. Fasting and tithing are not only great spiritual practices to bring us more deeply into God’s presence but fasting is especially encouraged by the Old Testament prophets, and tithing is required by the law. “Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year”, the law the ‘torah’ instructs in Deuteronomy 14: 22 before going on to define how this set aside gifts should be shared with others.
Now obviously the purpose of this parable is not to discourage religious observance. Instead it aims to get people to think about why they take on good works. Are they trying to make an impression? Do they worry more about what other people think, or is their priority to do what God desires of them?
This Pharisee makes it obvious by his actions that he is in fact trying to justify himself in the world’s eyes, as well as in the eyes of God. Luke clarifies this in his introduction to this short parable – “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.” (Luke 18: 9)
Devout Jews prayed regularly three times a day – at 9am, midday, and at 3pm. Many people went to the temple at these times to pray as it was thought that prayers were more effective from the temple.
So hearers of this parable would have had no trouble picturing these men in the temple, serious, in their own ways about their praying. They would have been able to imagine the Pharisee, filled with pride, exalting himself before God, conscious of being seen and heard, but not really expecting anything to change because of his prayers. He certainly would have been most surprised to discover, as we recognised last week in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, that invariably prayer changes us on the inside as much as prayer changes our circumstances or other people’s situations.
The Pharisee was concerned about one thing only – other people’s opinion of him. He went to parade himself and his deeds before God, but had no understanding of obeying God, or living the whole of his life differently as a child of God. He makes himself look good, by putting down the tax collector. We often do the same, when we feel uneasy about ourselves, looking down on others in a twisted way to exalt ourselves.
The attitude of prayer that Jesus delights in is that of the tax collector, generally despised in society because of their reputation for dishonesty, but this man in particular precious to God because of his honesty and sincerity before God. This tax collector comes hesitantly, not confidently into God’s presence, burdened by his own sinning, but supremely conscious of his need of God. The sense of the Greek grammar is that he is the sinner of all sinners, not just some random sinner, but a heart –broken sinner, totally embarrassed by what he’s done. He shows this also physically, by standing at a distance with his eyes lowered, in a position of humility.
Jesus declares that it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee with whom God is pleased. He is dependent on God’s grace, rather than full of his own achievements.
God calls us, like the tax-collector, to be honest about ourselves, and offer ourselves to be filled by God’s grace, for without Him we are empty. If we are full of pride, we are no use to God. An attitude of humility is the clothing we wear when we come to God in prayer. I wonder if perhaps humility is a quality, a gift from God, that is easier to recognise in others than to describe on its own.
However, Andrew Murray, a pastor and prolific writer of over 240 Christian books, in South Africa in the 19th century, attempted to define humility:
“Humility is perfect quietness of heart. It is to expect nothing, to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feel nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed or despised. It is to have a blessed home in the Lord, where I can go in and shut the door, and kneel to my Father in secret, and am at peace as in a deep sea of calmness, when all around and above is trouble.”
― Andrew Murray, Humility, The Beauty of Holiness
This is the inner life that Jesus praised in the tax collector. Anyone full of pride would find it almost impossible to pray because there is no room left for God. Our faith in Jesus, our belonging to Jesus, means we can lean into Him, rather than leaning on our own understanding or strength.
The third verse of the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ describes beautifully this life style of dependence on the One who gave everything for us, and the blessings that are ours when we cling to Jesus.
“Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Saviour, or I die.”
Finally, as well as looking to Jesus for our identity, our purpose, and our hope, to be truly humble, and to be able to pray with pure motives, we can’t be lifting ourselves up above others. It’s not a competition, Jesus’ word picture of the pious Pharisee shows us. In the kingdom of God, we don’t compare ourselves to others, worrying about who is ‘better’ or who is ‘worse’ but instead we compare ourselves to our Father God, who is perfectly loving, just and holy.
This is the pathway into God’s glorious Kingdom. This is the way we want to go.
With humble, searching hearts then, we pray to be led by Jesus right into God’s presence.
All-loving, all-powerful God,
We want to follow humbly where you lead us
rather than running off in any direction that beckons us.
Help us this week in particular to depend on you for everything.
May we live fully for you each day,
as your dearly loved children, growing as disciples of Jesus whom we follow.
Keep us free from pride, but rooted in your love and promises,
In Christ our Saviour,