Luke 18:9-14, Being Before God and Letting Go of Our Past

[October 23, 2016] Here is another familiar parable. Let us look at it again and be careful to not let it say more than it says so that we can hear as much as it says. In other words, it might be easy to confuse the message of this parable with the cheap “grace” of modern Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism dumbed-down can be morally bankrupt, a phenomenon on display now to the whole world.

This parable is about prayer. The “justification” that it speaks about in verse 14 is in regards to prayer. In this sense this parable is coupled with the parable that precedes it about the persistent widow and the unjust judge. Christians pray. We pray for the coming of the kingdom. In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, in 11:2, we do not pray additionally for God’s will to be done, but focus our prayer on the coming of God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God, or kingship of God—the reign of God—in this context is about overcoming, overcoming that which opposes God, all that is unjust and messed up about the world, right down to the deepest levels. Therefore, Jesus has the widow praying to be avenged of her adversary and concludes the parable by asking, “Will not God by all means carry out the avenging of his chosen ones, who cry to him day and night, though he is long-suffering over them? I tell you he will carry out their avenging quickly.” Our adversary, of course, is not human but is the evil manifested in humans. Our adversary is spiritual. Jesus then says, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” We hear the word “faith” and what comes to mind is believing in Jesus, but the word means faithfulness. In other words, Jesus is not asking whether anyone will still believe in Jesus when he comes again but whether we will still be praying for the coming of God’s kingdom, whether there will be any who are still faithful in prayer.

Prayer is more than what we do during the time that we set aside for prayer. Prayer describes the entire Christian life. Our life ought to be a prayer to God: a prayer for the kingdom to come. In prayer, we come before God—stand in God’s presence—and plead on behalf of the world for that which God wants for the world. This ought to describe our entire life. Our love for another ought to be done in the sight of God as a prayer for God to love the other. Our giving to another ought to be done in the sight of God as a plea for God to do more. Our deeds do not fulfill God’s righteousness but are an expression of the more that we want God to do. Jesus’ entire life was a prayer to the Father for the Father’s will to be done. His offering up of his life (his soul) to God was a prayer for our salvation. We also are to offer up our lives each day as a prayer to God. This is something we enact in what we think of as the act of prayer, but it ought to carry through to our whole day and night.

So, the parable in today’s gospel is about prayer. A Pharisee and a tax collector both come before God to pray. Only one of them is “justified” in their prayer, that is, God considers their prayer as righteous, or as we would say, right, like with the offerings of Cain and Abel. One of their prayers is accepted and the other is not. We know that the Pharisee is self-righteous and the tax collector is humble, and we might even go so far as to say that the tax collector depends not on his own righteousness like the Pharisee but depends only on the righteousness of another, on the Messiah. Literally the tax collector says, “Be propitiated to me,” a reference to the sacrifices of the altar, and therefore typologically to Christ. This is where the evangelical will usually go. But let’s “hold our horses” a bit and just pay attention.

What is the difference between these two men? Let us begin by assuming the sincerity of them both. They are both in the Temple of Jerusalem and before them is the giant altar of sacrifice and the laver of bronze in front of the Temple itself. The Pharisee has more-or-less a front row seat in his customary place. He stands as he prays, which is the custom of the Jews, and inwardly and sincerely addresses himself to God as he prays. He offers up a prayer of thanksgiving, attributing to the providence—perhaps the election—of God that he is not like others. He does not do the things that the Halakha forbids—as most other human beings do: they are extortioners, unjust and adulterers (he doesn’t have a great opinion of them)—and he goes above and beyond what the Halakha requires: fasting twice a week and tithing everything that he gets. That is what we are told about him, and we can assume that he is sincere and that what he says about himself is true. What do we see? He comes into the presence of God and is thankful, which seems like a good thing. But how does he come before God? He comes, apparently, comparing himself to others, indeed, measuring his righteousness before God by measuring himself by others—others who cannot offer the same thanks to God because they are not like him. He does not come before God naked but rather heavily clothed with his past achievements and accomplishments—he has become someone who stands out from the crowd. This is that on which his thankfulness to God depends. Jesus does not tell us what he prays for, only how he comes into the presence of God in order to pray.

Then there is this tax collector. He lives a wicked lifestyle and therefore is ashamed of himself and so he positions himself in the back of the great congregation. When he prays, even though he too is standing, he feels so ashamed of himself that he cannot even look up (to heaven) but instead beats his breast. “God be merciful to me, the sinner!” he mutters. What is right about how this man prays? After all, his life up to this point—and we know nothing about afterwards—is a mess. He too addresses God as the Pharisee does but rather than thanking God he pleads for mercy. For he knows he is a sinner and that is not something to be thankful for. God did not make him a sinner. Yet he does not turn away from God, knowing God is displeased, but rather turns to God and asks for mercy, or we might say, puts himself in God’s hands and hopes for mercy. Notice however, that he does not compare himself to others. He does not say that he is worse than anyone else, not even worse than that Pharisee. Nor does he blame anyone else— “I am this way because of my parents,” or whatever. He sees only himself before God, and sees himself for what he is— “the sinner.” Again, we are not told about what he prays for, only about how he comes before God in order to pray.

What is the difference between these two? Obviously they both have a lot of baggage from the past. The Pharisee has a whole bunch of—what he thinks is—valuable baggage. The tax collector has a whole bunch of regrettable baggage. There is a difference of course between their baggage. However, Jesus’ point is not that the tax collector’s baggage is better than the Pharisees. Actually, it is a whole lot worse. The point is rather that when they come before the presence of God the Pharisee holds on to his baggage and the tax collector lets it go. The Pharisee holds on to so much baggage that he can’t really see his position before God; it blinds him. The tax collector, even if only for a moment, lets it go and sees quite clearly. We can only come into the presence of God as sinners, dependent on God’s mercy, pleading without any claims of our own.

In the following three verses Jesus says, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall by no means enter into it.” This continues the theme of humility. Parents were bringing their babies to Jesus that he might touch them. Jesus, calling them “little children,” says, “of such is the kingdom of God.” We think of little children as innocent. The tax collector was not innocent. But what children are is humble. They are completely dependent on adults, and they don’t have a past on which to rely.

The passage after this concerns another attachment of certain Pharisees, namely, their wealth. In today’s parable, however, the form of wealth is the past—the wealth of a clean record and of worthy accomplishments. Or the heavy burden of a bad record and terrible accomplishments.

In chapter 17 (verses 20-37) Jesus talks of the coming of the kingdom. First he tells the people that the kingdom is already here—right (literally) in their midst, indeed, standing in front of them. Then he speaks of its future coming—the coming of the kingdom is the coming of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13-14. The kingdom will come instantaneously—like lightning—when the Son of Man is revealed. But will you be ready? The Son of Man might not be who you expect—for he has been rejected by this generation. You need to be ready (already) for this Son of Man, and not be like the people in Noah’s day who carried on as usual. Or like the people in the days of Lot. They carried on as usual.

Then Jesus says, “In that day”—the day when the Son of Man is revealed— “he who is on the housetop and his goods in the house, let him not come down to take them away; and he who is in the field, likewise, let him not turn back to the things behind. Remember Lot’s wife.” What did Lot’s wife do that turned her into a pillar of salt? She looked back.

Jesus goes on and says, “Whoever seeks to preserve his soul will lose it, and whoever loses it will preserve it alive.” There are many ways to try to preserve your soul. In this context, it means to try to hold on to your soul, that is, to hold on to what is behind, namely to the past.

When we pray, we need to let go of our past and be before God as the sinners that we are—not comparing ourselves to anyone else for good or for ill—just being who and what we are. Then we will be justified and can offer our prayer, our prayer for the coming of God’s overcoming kingdom.

Remember too that our whole life is supposed to be this prayer.

As the congregation in Passaic—to whom I am preaching—prepares to welcome a new pastor, let them remember this lesson. The prophet Joel speaks of the Lord restoring the years that the locusts have eaten and of pouring out the refreshing rain of the Spirit. We do not know what this might look like. The Promised Land is Jesus himself when he is inside us by (as) the Holy Spirit. Outwardly, we do not know what form this will take. This prayer, however, and this promise demand that we not hold on to the past but let it go, and—with the humility that befits our reality before God—be open to the love that God wants to pour out upon us. Then—though whether we have truly done this is not for us to say—we will be “justified” in our prayer, that is, our prayer will be heard and accepted.

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