Say a little Prayer

The text of the sermon, based on Luke 18.9-14, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2022.


Sometimes, one can be good, too good, so to inspire intense dislike. Conversely, one can be bad and, yes, disliked, yet, perhaps oddly, also useful.

Jesus tells a parable of two who prayed.

One, a Pharisee.

Historically, Pharisees haven’t fared well. “Pharisaical” is a synonym for hypocritical; generally meaning that one outwardly does the right things, but inwardly is less true to the values that the actions are meant to symbolize.

All Pharisees weren’t bad. Their “job” in Judaism was to know and do God’s Law: the Sabbath observances and feast days, dietary rules, tithing; all 613 ritual imperatives. Even more, they were to be embodiments of the heart of the Law: love for God and neighbor. Yes, Jesus often condemned the Pharisees as legalistically obsessed with external observances and far less concerned with the demonstration of God’s mercy.[1] Yet their role in the life of the community was important as outward and visible, indeed, living, breathing examples of God’s Law.

All said, Pharisees were respected, but not particularly well liked. Hard to like someone whose existence reminded everyone else of how far short they had fallen from the goal.

The second actor in Jesus’ two-person drama is a tax collector. A despised collaborator with the hated Roman Empire.

Tax collectors, seeking to repent, came to John the Baptizer, beseeching, “What should we do?” John said, “Collect no more than is owed!”[2] Zacchaeus, a tax collector, overwhelmed with gratitude that Jesus would come to his home, had an instant conversion experience, saying, “If I’ve defrauded anyone, I will repay fourfold!”[3] Tax collecting was a profitable business; its prosperity often the spoiled fruit of the misery of others.

Tax collectors, hardly respected, were useful. Their very existence was a reminder that somebody had fallen even shorter of the goal.

Thus, the Pharisee prayed; truly, a hubristic litany of self-praise. For in his moral universe, he was infinitely superior to the tax collector.

He hadn’t lied. He had done everything he had said. But he hadn’t embraced, much less embodied the Law. He hadn’t loved. Thus, he fulfilled Paul’s sad commentary on a loveless life – blessed with ability and achievement, but lacking compassion for others: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, possess prophetic powers, understand all mysteries, have all knowledge and faith, but have not love, I am nothing.”[4]

The tax collector, given his humble petition, wasn’t right, but he was real. Resisting the temptation of comparison, judging himself only against himself and finding himself lacking, he begged for mercy.

This is a parable. From the Greek, parabole; para, alongside + ballo, to throw. A parable is a story tossed alongside, indirectly at an idea. In this case, righteousness; right relationship with God.

Jesus, an intuitive teacher, taught with parables, for he desires that we think for ourselves. Therefore, I think he ended this parable with the tax collector’s plea: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke, writing a generation after Jesus, leaving nothing to chance, lest we miss the point, added the moral to the story, putting in Jesus’ mouth the words, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

But the ethical lines of Luke’s directive are too sharp. The Pharisee, outwardly righteous, inwardly flawed. The tax collector, outwardly flawed, inwardly righteous. Nothing…no one in this life is that clear!

As Jesus tells the story, he calls us to see and to recognize the Pharisee and the tax collector in each of us.

Like the Pharisee, we sometimes compare ourselves with others. The problem is that our self-perception can rise or fall in relation to how we view others. At the same time, we need to hold onto the ironically pharisaical truth that each of us is created uniquely individually, “not like other people.” Therefore, there always is something that we can give and receive from others.

Like the tax collector, we earn much of our profit – our material substance, even the elements of our personalities – from others. So, we, always in danger of believing that, somehow, we did it ourselves, need to say a little prayer – remembering our necessity that arises from gratitude – for mercy.

© 2022 PRA

Illustration: The Pharisee and the Publican, James Tissot (1836-1902)

[1] See Matthew 23.1-36 and Luke 11.42-44.

[2] Luke 3.12-13

[3] Luke 19.8

[4] 1 Corinthians 13.1, 2; my rendition

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