“God be merciful to me, a sinner…”
What would it take for me – or for you, for that matter – to find, deep inside, the kind of humility expressed by the tax collector in today’s gospel story?
Is some kind of major upset required? Sometimes, if I’ve made a big mistake, I find myself somehow seeing more clearly how much I need God’s grace and forgiveness. Sometimes surviving a trauma, or even a grave disappointment of some kind, can draw us into a state of such vulnerability we cannot help but feel a need, deep in our souls, for mercy from God…or, in the event a personal encounter-based relationship with a Supreme Being eludes us, needing mercy and grace from…somewhere…
With thoughts, then, of how we might or might not know God – always the place from which we begin our various journeys – we come today upon this parable of the Pharisee and the publican – not Republican, but publican, an ancient Roman term for one who collects taxes, tolls, tributes or the like. It may be helpful to allow, among our approaching thoughts, for the notion that all parables are multi-dimensional. For example, they are not only subject to our interpretations, we are subject to being interpreted by them as well.
Bearing this in mind, we come to this parable, as we come to any story, with a “world” intact. We bring to the parables a notion of the way things are, and where we fit into that world. We bear certain convictions about things like our own worth, as well as all the considerations upon which understanding of our worth is based. Fitted into this intact world are our ethics, our estimations of what makes an upright life, sometimes our religious practices are included, as are our responsibilities to family and community – all the basic postures which help shape us as individuals and as members of a community, a society.
We come to the parables with our world conveniently in place. And if we intentionally seek anything from parables, it’s likely just an added aura of inspiration, or maybe a little information with which we can affirm the position we already maintain. This unwittingly imposes something of a burden on the parables. But, as we’ve noted already, the inconvenient truth is that what comes of our intent might be only half of what is available to us in the parables. We are interpreted by them as well. The parables have the power to open us up to a world which, by conventional observation, we will not see. That is their gift. But it is a gift that only comes with a cost factor. Can we accept the reversal of some of our ways of thinking? Or do we cling to our intact world, perhaps afraid that what we’ve come to rely upon as supports might become lost to us as we move into what Jesus calls The Kingdom of Heaven, and the rest of the world thinks of as the New Age?
Jesus’ first listeners to this parable would have borne their own impressions of their intact world. They’d have imagined two contrasting types of persons both having come to the temple to pray. The Pharisee, who in the minds of the assembly would have been pegged as the righteous one, beings by listing the sins he has not committed. He quickly moves on to the extra works of righteousness he regularly fulfills – fasting and tithing the most noticeable and, perhaps, the most prideful observances. This man was zealous not only to uphold the law but to exceed it.
The tax collector, on the other hand, standing in the shadows, bent and speaking softly rather than like a bold rhetorician, recognized that by all means of reckoning, he could not be justified before God – that by any standard available to him he would certainly be considered a sinner (unsalaried, collecting money for the Romans, and sometimes, even, inflating the amount due in order to make a living). His prayer was stark in its simplicity, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The integral piece is that the determining standard in how God’s Reign unfolds – how The New Age is meant to expand us – has nothing to do with how the Pharisee met and exceeded the code of law. The law may be essential, but it is only essential in the extent to which the thread of spirit running through the law becomes that thing that animates us. It’s a softer, more discerning position to be maintained – or, rather, to be shaped and reshaped as our lives unfold. The standard of the Reign of God has, instead, everything to do with the love of God, upon which all sinners might cast ourselves without reservation.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is multi-valent. To read it only as a warning against pride, self-sufficiency, or a relationship with God rooted in one’s own works, is to miss other layers of meaning. Draw back, even a little, and you very quickly see how closely related are the Pharisee’s posture before God, and his contempt for the tax collector. Interesting how easily we can see that, and yet, it still happens today. Most especially unsettling is the behavior of some calling themselves Christian who would, rather than quietly and confidently uttering a prayer asking for God’s mercy for their own sins, instead assume the posture of damning others, based on a use of scripture taken out of context, and used as a weapon to prove that God hates all the same people they do. Christianity still has a lot to apologize for.
When we miss the connection between the Pharisee’s place before God, and how that place is informed by contempt, we risk emulating the Pharisee’s blindness. To miss that connection is to miss the truth so clearly revealed in the parable, the truth that the nature of grace is paradoxical: it can only be received by those who have learned empathy for others. Grace, then, resides in the very nature of mercy and forgiveness. Only the merciful can receive mercy – and only the forgiving will be forgiven. The Pharisee had enough grace to seem virtuous, but not enough to actually be humble about it. As a result, his religion drove him away from the tax collector rather than toward him.
Jesus, as usual, leaves us to consider for ourselves the contrast, and how we will address it in our intact world.
This story is meant to convey something of the liberation we might know by leaving behind our reliance upon achievements – in work or in faith. Such achievements have their place, to be sure, but I think Jesus would have us consider that that place is not at the very center of our relationship with God – or, how did we reflect last time I was here? Not at the center of our relationship with love…with gratitude. And today, we might even add things like mercy and kindness.
Our parable today is an example of the potential that exists in a construct such as Christian faith. It offers a manner of imagining that can inspire a way of life shaped deeply by things like stories, rituals and traditions we enact and preserve together.
The challenge, yours and mine, is to explore how an imagination shaped by life and grace might meet and heal an imaginative world that has become disordered by achievement, differentiation-making and fear or hatred.
It’s a tall order. But it’s not something we have to start from scratch. All the stories in scripture – today’s parable being just one example – have spoken of this imaginative life for century upon century, with varying degrees of success. These stories and all the elements of faith community – even doctrine and liturgy – become a new kind of language. A language that can reach directly into the heart of imagination. The fracturing of our intact personal worlds, can leave us feeling we are without speech, stories, memory, community, even that we are without a future or a healthy sense of self. One of our tasks is to re-narrate what we have yet to imagine. And if grace has the power to reshape the imagination, then talk of God may be the language that both describes that power and brings it to life in the lives of everyone. We tell grace-filled stories of new imaginings.
But just as the fractures of our lives are so painfully particular to each person who suffers them, so too is the healing power of grace specific to each and every imagination it soothes and heals.
What would it take for each of us to find that grace? Is it like finding the humility expressed by the tax collector in our parable? How so?
Well, for starters, the tax collector is doing what? He’s praying. And what is praying? Is it an activity of the mind? Is it only speaking at God? A one-sided affair? It can seem, increasingly, that my dialogue with God is, in fact, a monologue – and that I’m actually just speaking to myself.
The absence of answers to our prayers might make us wonder if we’ve said the wrong words. It’s understandable that we should experience speaking with real people – people who offer a word of response – as much more meaningful than speaking with a God who seems to be an expert at hide-and-seek. This is how prayer can be when we restrict the meaning of prayer to thinking about God – it can begin to require hard mental work. It can become fatiguing, especially if reflective thinking is not one of my strengths. We already have lots of practical things pressing on our minds, so thinking about God can become one more demanding burden, making God into a subject that needs to be analyzed.
But that’s only when we allow prayer to be limited by a world culture that places highest value on mastery through intellect – the dominating idea being that everything can be understood and that what can be understood can be controlled. Then God becomes a problem that has a solution, and by strenuous efforts of the mind, we will find that solution.
What is needed, instead, is prayer of the heart and not the mind. We’re all seeking the same thing – a place where the soul can come to and be at rest. The Great Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse offers this: “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of God, ever-present, all-seeing, within you.” This understanding has been expressed in a variety of ways across oceans of time – prayer is standing at the point of our being where there are no divisions or distinctions, and where we are totally one. Call it what you will, THERE is where God’s spirit dwells. THERE is where the great encounter takes place. There, heart speaks to heart, because there we are seen completely.
And it’s helpful to allow “heart” to mean something other than the poetic thing resulting from the Romantic Era. The word “heart”, for our purposes, relates to the first century understanding, referring to the source of all physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional and moral energies. The heart is the center of perception and understanding – it is the central and unifying organ of our personal life. The prayer of the heart, then, is a prayer that directs itself to God from the center of our being, and thus draws upon and affects the whole of our humanness.
The prayer of the heart does not allow us to limit our relationship with God to sets of terms – to defining words (even if they are very interesting) or even to pious emotions. The Pharisee in our story seems stuck in the prayer of the mind, the tax collector not so much. The prayer of the heart draws us toward hiding nothing and surrendering ourselves completely to mercy. Thus it winds up being the prayer of truth, and when that brand of truth anchors itself in our hearts, we will become less and less distracted by worldly thoughts like score-keeping and comparison making. Temptations and struggles may well continue to be a part of life in this world, but when we practice – even haltingly – this prayer of the heart, we will be restful even in the midst of a restless world.
You can nurture this place by making short, simple, breathtakingly honest prayers. Make them unceasing, expansive and specific. Be open to how the spirit will speak back to you.
Do these things and your journey cannot help but become less fractured and distracting. It will become more integrated, holistic and gratifying.
It may not be easier, but it will become simpler. It may not become sweet and pious, but it will deepen your spirituality.
This election cycle has had significant influence on many of us. We’re uneasy in ways we’ve never been before, and that uneasiness trickles into unexpected corners of our lives. Our journey forward cannot be undermined by fear mongering and hatred. We must cling with determination to a positive, hopeful future that offers flourishing to all of us, not just some of us. Sometimes painful and struggling, the journey that is supported by holistic, heartfelt prayers of simplicity, specificity and honesty about our vulnerabilities will help to ensure more and better restfulness along the way. We will be led to humble, grace-filled lives – and this is way we can lead the world.