The Tax Collector’s Prayer

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21st Sunday After Pentecost
October 24, 2010
Luke 18:9-14
Peder Stenslie

Today’s Gospel lesson is a truly remarkable passage. Jesus tells a parable in which he draws two figures that are in complete contrast to one another.

The first man — a pharisee — is full of moral and spiritual power. He is building the tower of his life upon the “traditional values” of his society. He has the authority of the “church” behind him. He can claim a lot of pretty impressive accomplishments in his spiritual life. In fact, he lists them for us. We see that he loves to pray… it makes him feel good to pray. His prayer is 5 times longer than the other man’s prayer. And it is full of good feeling and confidence.

The 2nd man – the tax collector — knows in his heart that he has fallen far short. He has failed completely to be who he should be. He is so full of shame, he cannot even approach the temple. He hides his face from God and beats his breast as he prays. Prayer does not make him feel good. His short prayer is full of pain: God be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Yet Jesus says that “this man went to his home justified rather than the other…” That statement… by Jesus… is truly something for us to ponder.

It is interesting that there is no comment on the actual lives & deeds of these men, just a description of their respective prayers. That is because the point of this particular parable is the attitude of the heart. And it is a broken heart that is affirmed here. It is the confident, “I’m feeling good about me…” heart that is condemned. That is a message that seems quite at odds with contemporary society and wisdom.

What does it mean that the man who is declared justified is the one filled with guilt and shame? I have heard many times that guilt and shame are bad. We should erase them from our daily lives… and from our hearts and minds. Guilt and shame are destructive.

But that hasn’t been my experience as a teacher. On the contrary, in my 16 plus years as a sixth grade teacher, I have come to see guilt and shame as rare and beautiful things. A student, who has done something wrong, who feels genuine sadness and remorse for what (s)he has done is one of the most precious things I ever see as a teacher.

It is painful and uncomfortable, yes. But consider what it reveals about a young person. It reflects a clear awareness of right and wrong… and even more… a desire to do right. It shows ownership of behavior… a realization that they (and no one else) are responsible for what they say and do. It reflects a hope that they can do better; and it marks a vantage point from which learning, change and growth can occur. It creates an opportunity for new life to unfold.

What is truly depressing (and far more common) are students who do not feel guilt or shame when they have done something wrong. Right or wrong mean little to them. They blame others for their behavior and their trouble. They don’t feel any need to do better, so there’s no learning, no change, no growth, no new life.
Guilt and shame are powerful forces… and so they can, of course be abused. They can be destructive. When guilt and shame are used to control or manipulate people. That is wrong. And people should not feel guilt or shame over things they cannot control; but sometimes they do.

Jesus speaks powerfully against guilt and shame when they are used in these ways. But when they function as they should (like in today’s Gospel lesson… or as they did with the disciple Peter, the apostle Paul, the woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears… or the tax-collector Zacchaeus) then it is truly a sign that the Kingdom of God is in our midst.

Guilt and shame empty the heart of false boasts and delusions of grandeur. They leave us feeling broken, weak… empty. And it is precisely that broken heart that is the foundation of Christian life and faith. It is where our relationship with God begins. It is certainly not all there is to our relationship with God, but it is always the beginning of that relationship.

I’ve known in my life many people who have gone through alcohol treatment. Many of them have been young people. Most of these have followed some form of the 12-step program in their recovery. One thing that became clear to me as I observed how these people fared in their recovery was that the primary battle for sobriety was fought on the 1st step: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Usually, right after the consequences of addiction have completely devastated a person’s life; that 1st step is easy to embrace. But after awhile, many people come to resent it. They resent the position of weakness… brokenness… it puts them in. And so they insist they can stay sober and healthy without that first step.

The irony, of course, is that they reject the 1st step because they hate that it makes them feel weak. They want to feel strong… in control. So when they reject it, in their imagination they feel strong and powerful; but in reality, they can’t hold their jobs, they fail their families, they end up incarcerated, they can’t function… their lives just disintegrate… there is no strength there at all. It’s an illusion in their head.

A fundamental truth of the 12-step program is that step 1 is just as critical 20 years down the road of recovery as it is in the first week. It is always the foundation and beginning of spiritual health (and sobriety) for the alcoholic.

This truth applies not just to alcoholics… but to all people. The 12 step program is a prescription for all of us. It reflects a fundamentally Christian view of what it means to be a human being in a healthy and honest relationship with God… what it means to be a human being who is able to build honest and healthy relationships with friends, family, and neighbors.

Step 1 is to admit… that we are powerless… and that our lives are more than we can manage. That is what the tax collector did in today’s Gospel lesson, and that is why he went away from that place justified, while the other did not. It is a confession of utter emptiness.

The tax collector’s anguished prayer testifies to the great pain involved in this 1st step. It is not pretty. It is not easy. It is born of desperation and of despair. But… what is beautiful and powerful about it is that it truly and finally makes room for God in our hearts. It does this by rejecting the desire we harbor within us to be gods, and frees us to finally be simple people of God.

That is always the first step in our relationship with God. This is true… on our first day as a Christian… and on our last.

However… as I said, that isn’t all there is to our relationship with God… confessing our emptiness, our weakness, our sinfulness.

The new life, that comes from God, grows from there. It grows small and quiet. It looks weak. It may even feel weak… because the strength and power of God is not at all like strength and power as we imagine it in our heads. It has nothing to do with wealth, position, popularity, physical strength, control or anything like that.

But when the power of God reveals itself in our lives, it reveals itself as love that can nurture a child… or sustain a friend… or transform a life… or overcome fear or hatred. It reveals itself in hope that cannot be extinguished in the blackest of nights. It reveals itself in faith that sustains those who have nothing else.

Jesus sets forth the tax collector, in today’s Gospel lesson, as an odd sort of model for us. He is a man who has found himself, for who knows what reasons, at the 1st step of a true and powerful relationship with God. And that first step is a painful confession of emptiness and powerlessness. The pharisee is nowhere near that step. He is off in his own personal and pleasant delusion of power and achievement.

The tax collector seems pretty pathetic compared to the pharisee. But Jesus proclaims to us that things are not what they seem. The power of God to forgive… to restore… to create new life… has come u
pon the tax collector… not the pharisee.

The tax collector’s full relationship with God is not expressed in his painful prayer. But the foundation… the beginning… of that relationship is. We’d rather model ourselves on the pharisee. He sounds like he’s feeling mighty good. But Jesus’ promise to us is that there in that painful place is where we find hope for new life… new life that he knows we all desperately need.