Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How do we Pray? Luke 18:9-14

It must have been difficult to be an apostle.  Here you are walking around from village to village and believing you are following a wise and great teacher and then he goes and takes what society deems as normal and acceptable and throws it back in their face and not just the face of the everyday people but the leaders, the lawmakers and the high holy men of the day.
You know I picture moments when the disciples standing across from Jesus as he starts into a parable and as soon as they hear the word Pharisee or lawmaker or land owner they start giving the cut off signal, stop, quiet, someone will hear you please.
Oddly enough today’s story comes in the biblical sequence before the story of Zachaeus.  Was Jesus maybe preparing the disciples for the encounter in Jericho?  This story could have been to help start softening the hearts of those around him.  This is a story of how all should be with God and each other.
Let’s review the role of the tax collector also known as publicans;
“In the eyes of Rome the provinces were to carry the heavy weight of administering the Empire. Judea was in the province of Syria and every man was to pay 1% of his annual income for income tax. But that was not all, there were also import and export taxes, crop taxes (1/10 of grain crop and 1/5 of wine, fruit, and olive oil), sales tax, property tax, emergency tax, and on and on. It was actually a Roman official (censor) who was ultimately responsible to Rome for collecting the revenue of the province, but he sold the rights to extort tax to the highest bidders.”[1]
These highest bidders were people from the region in which the taxes were to be collected.  Thus in Judea it was from the Jewish community from which the collectors were recruited.  This is kind of smart for your hatred of the collector is not turned directly to Rome but right there within your own society.  They were looked upon as traitors and sinners as Bob pointed out last week.
So what were their true expectations as far as the religious community was concerned?

According to Rabbinism there was no hope for a tax collector. They were excluded from all religious fellowship including the Temple and Synagogue. Their money was considered tainted and it defiled anyone who accepted it. They could not serve as a witness in any court in Israel. The Rabbis had no word to describe any sort of help for the tax collector, because they expected him to externally conform to the law in order to be justified before God. [2]
The ancient rabbis even wrote on how one should look upon these men, the bible history on line quotes some of them;
 "As one robber disgraced his whole family, so one publican in a family; promises were not to be kept with murderers, thieves and publicans" -Nedar 3:4

"The synagogue alms box and the temple corban must not receive their alms" -Baba Kama 10:1

"It was not lawful to use riches received from them, as gotten by rapine; nor could they judge or give testimony in court -Sanhedr. 25, sec. 2[3]

So just by these ancient voices one can imagine the shock and dismay when Jesus tells the story of the tax collector in the temple.  Yes one expects a Pharisee to head up to the temple and pray but a tax collector…they probably wouldn’t even had been allowed within the walls.  They were considered to be of the same caste as harlots, murders and thieves.
Jesus in a series of parables really isn’t talking about just the boundaries of society but also how we perceive ourselves, the other and how we pray.  It says he told this parable to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)
I want you to listen to this story from a different translation.  This is from the Message remixed….
The Story of the Tax Man and the Pharisee
He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves, over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: "Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this, 'Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people-robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’
"Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
Jesus commented, "This tax man, not the other went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you're going to end up flat on your face but if you're content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”[4]

I like the Message; Eugene Peterson seems to get the concept of this parable, at least for me he does.  This isn’t about a power play.  There is a role reversal; Christ even refers to the righteous one in both versions, the reading used to day and this one, as “The other”.  Again he takes what is assumed to be the norm and marginalizes it and casts it out, at the same time the one that is truly the other in society goes home justified before God.

But for me today this story brings up a larger question for me …How do you pray?  What are the correct words?  Jesus has several examples of the persistent prayer, praying the same thing over and over again till what you ask for is manifested here on earth. Yet this again was not meant to be literal.  I believe the more literal part of that was being constant in prayer,  keeping those lines of communication with God open whether you believe God hears you or not.  Just as a persistent and annoying child …

Eventually even a preoccupied parent will notice….Doesn’t mean you will get what you ask for but God will hear you.

        Yet this parable is about coming before God humbly.  What is a humble approach?

I think this is a gentle reminder that we are not God…okay we come before God often with requests…we do that here every Sunday we pray for prayers spoken and unspoken but…. But we must remember the most important part…Thy will be done….

“Thy will be done Lord”, wow that’s hard…I know what’s best for me….I know my life will go soo much better if …Just if, you will grant me this one little prayer.  Well isn’t that saying I know better what is good for my future and I know God’s plan for me?  This is the mentality that leads to I didn’t pray hard enough,  I am not good enough to receive the blessing of God…this is basically the theory behind what is called prosperity theology…if I have just enough faith God will bless me with abundance… well that’s not how it works.

Prayer is about entering into a loving, trusting relationship, in which we come before God as a child might enter into the arms of a loving parent, knowing there is safety and comfort there and then we stop, slow down, and listen….Just listen….Take a deep breath….let it out slowly and listen…

Father Basil Pennington reminds us in his book Lectio Divina that “Each of us is a certain listening, a certain openness to being, to reality, to communication.  Everything that has been a part of our lives since the moment of our creation has had a role in shaping the listening that we are.”[5]

We each have a unique way of hearing God’s voice and we are each attuned to hear that voice just for us.  Some of us are not the sit still and quiet and listen for God in a contemplative style but there are other ways.  There are many other ways of stilling the mind and the soul to be receptive to what God wants to bring to your heart. 

When you are looming a scarf, with each loop and each slip off what if you just prayed a simple prayer…come Holy Spirit…still me soul…come Holy Spirit…still my soul.  Just as the practice of the loom becomes routine so does the prayer.  As you work and pray you are inviting God into your life so that you may better understand, hear, and see what God has for you.  You also end up with a project that is blessed, consecrated with prayer.

Once during lent I decided to take up a spiritual practice for the forty days as opposed to giving up something.  I was working in Hospice at the time serving Los Angeles and orange counties.  I decided to seek out god visually.  To be aware of God around me in the city and the suburbs and try to capture that as it spoke to me.  I thought I would end up with 40 Pictures one for each day. I ended up with 194 Pictures.
I found god in Natural beauty and in man made things like the sunset over the mountain,
the reflection in a still lake,
the contrast of a man made fence cutting through a natural range speaking to me of infinity and borders at the same time
…or the amazing beauty in man made architecture
.  Each hit me as something of the magnificence, the silence, the stillness of God.

Christine Valters Painter reminds us that

“The graced eye can glimpse beauty everywhere, seeing the Divine at work in the hidden depths of things. It is so easy to let our senses be dulled and to settle for the ordinary. Often, life seems to be just what it offers on the surface; as Ecclesiastes puts it, "there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9). The technology, speed, and busyness so prized by our Western culture foster a habit of blindness. For all the bustle, a dreary sameness comes to mark the places where we live. We forget that there is a vast depth beneath the apparent surfaces of things.
The eye of aesthetic spirituality sees more than other eyes”.[6]

God can speak to us through many form and practices some people us prayer beads, some use music, some use meditation and others use dance, walking, or the labyrinth.  Some may express their prayer through poetry and others through reading of inspirational lives.  Some find God in Nature and others in the bustle of the city but the key to this…to all of this, the key to prayer and entering into a deeper relationship with God is finding the path for you.

Being intentional, being patient with yourself and know that not all things work for all people you must find your own way.  Some people find having a companion on the path helps.  Now I am not talking about us here every Sunday though it does help.  Sunday is a starting point.  But sometimes it helps to find a spiritual exploration group a Lectio davina group, a taize group as we offer here or a spiritual Director/companion.

A spiritual companion, as I wrote in Queering Christianity; is one who notices “things along the path that a traveler may have missed, overlooked, or did not pay close enough attention too.  We simply ask a spiritual traveler to stop, take a moment, and perhaps, if they choose, notice and explore what God has placed along the path.”[7]  No matter how hard we try we get caught up in our own intentions, in the lives and the life happening around us and we do not always see what god is placing before us.  Even the most intentional, mystical person in the world benefits from spiritual companionship.

So in all this I want to get back to how do we pray???  There is no one answer…Christ says come humbly before God and for each of us that is different. We must find our own way.  There are books; there are spiritual companions, there are practices, some are offered here monthly.  If you take regular time for God… you will discover that God has always had time for you.


[1] Bible History Online, Ancient Tax Collector, http://www.bible-history.com/sketches/ancient/tax-collector.html (accessed October 22, 2013).
[2] Bible History online, Tax collectors over view, http://www.bible-history.com/taxcollectors/TAXCOLLECTORSOverview.htm (accessed October 22, 2013).
[3] Ibid.
[4] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message// Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2003), 1906.
[5] M. Basil Pennington, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures (New York: Crossroad Pub., 1998).
[6] Christine Valters Paintner, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Notre Dame, Ind.: Sorin Books, 2013), 13.
[7] Robert E. Shore-Goss et al., eds., Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians, 383.

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