This is the second of four short meditations on prayer based on Luke 18:9-14:
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14 NRSV)
A second thing we might learn from this parable is by considering how the pharisee and the tax collector are worlds apart socially. The distance between these to characters is like saying the Wall-Street Exec. and a person living on welfare went into a church together to pray.
While pharisees often get the bad rap, for people in Jesus’ day they were the ones people wanted to be like. They were successful and powerful. They were considered righteous, and religiously faithful. These are the people we, as good religious folks, are to identify with first.
Tax Collectors? No so much. They were at the bottom of the barrel. They were people whose job was not one others wanted. In the Gospels, they are presented alongside sinners, as in:
“And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”” (Matthew 9:10–11 NRSV)
These were people for whom the people of God were encouraged to not be like, to not spend time with, and to not trust.
And then Jesus goes and tells this little story and totally messes everything up!
At the heart of this parable it says, don’t trust the labels. You will not know who God’s people are if you are stuck viewing the world through them.
Often for us, we use labels to dismiss others just like this pharisee. “Thank God, I have been more enlightened than that person. We heap more and more judgement on others so that we can feel safe, self-righteous or dismissive of others.
But the heart of prayer is to strip these things away:
God is not attainted by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction. -Meister Eckhart
Prayer is about seeing beyond what we see. It is the process by which we strip away all that encumbers our faith, that includes the labels we attach to others and the labels we personally identify with. Prayer is meant to help us move towards the process of subtraction so that we might be able to see that even those we have written off or expect to be much further from God than ourselves are full of the mercy of God.
In this parable Jesus tells us “don’t trust the labels.” God exceeds them regularly.