Prayer and Justification

Scriptures: Luke 18:9-14; Joel 2:23-32

Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts guide our understanding, O Holy One. Nurture us we pray, as we grow into who you would fashion us to be. Amen.

There are a couple of things I’d like to draw out of the Lukan passage for your consideration. First, the two prayers, one from the Pharisee and the other from a repentant tax collector:

“On the one hand, the two prayers highlight God’s preference for humility over arrogance. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (v. 14)

On the other hand, though, the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector also draw a strong connection between piety and ethics…[if you remember last week’s unjust judge, he] and the Pharisee both have their verdicts overturned by God’s justice.…”[1]

The common denominator for God’s justice is faith-filled prayer. I use the phrase “faith-filled” for a reason. Let’s note for a moment the Greek word justified, or, in Greek, dedikaiomenos. The tax collector was justified, and the Pharisee was not. What determines that, and more importantly, how can we fall into the same category as the tax collector? There are four meanings for “justified” in Greek, all of which could be interpreted usefully for today’s context.

  1. To take up a legal cause, show justice, do justice, or take up a cause
  2. To render a favorable verdict, vindicate
  3. To cause someone to be released from personal or institutional claims that are no longer to be considered pertinent or valid, make free/pure
  4. To demonstrate to be morally right, prove to be right

To be effective, a prayer of repentance, or metanoia, another Greek word meaning “turn around,” leads immediately to changed, or to play off the word for ‘justified,’ “right” behavior.

Which leads me to wonder, what does that look like? After all, in today’s text, we don’t know what the Pharisee and tax collector are like once they return home. Is it business as usual or are they changed?

In next week’s Gospel story from Luke, Zacchaeus the tax collector embodies exactly what it looks like in his case:

“Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)

Some supplemental reading I have begun to do on a semi-regular basis has illuminated some further steps toward metanoia which leads to justification. In the weekly devotional thoughts of Father Richard Rohr, he has been describing the Path of Descent for the past week. The path involves letting go of our self-image, titles, public images, all those things that we hold onto because we believe they define who we are.

Like Zacchaeus, today’s unnamed tax collector came to his moment of illumination, reached the saturation point of his work as a tax collector participating in a broken system, and unloaded his grief to God in prayer, beating his breast and crying out, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” What happens next to today’s particular Biblical character, as I mentioned earlier, is not recorded in the Gospel. However, as Zacchaeus exemplifies for us upon meeting Jesus in person, nothing less than a complete change of heart is possible; perhaps even to the point of letting go of his entire well-being – perhaps even rendering him jobless. But that doesn’t matter, because God pronounces him justified; just as Jesus pronounces that salvation has come to Zacchaeus. In other words, his change of heart was complete.

Let me ask you a question. In what part of your life today do you need salvation? Are you content enough with our weekly liturgies of confessional prayer and assurance of pardon, or does something deeper eat into your soul? Something from which you need to be set free? Where else in your life do you need to be justified before God?

I don’t know about you, but I know I am in need of salvation. Not just because life seems incredibly complicated as a bike-taxi Dad and primary caregiver when I’m trying to be a good long-distance pastor, but also looked at the other way, when I’m a long-distance pastor trying to be a good Dad. The Lord knows what I need to work on…in both cases!

Where does that leave us? Today’s good news comes to us from the Hebrew scriptures, from the minor prophet Joel:

23O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

26You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other.

28Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

32Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.”

May all glory be unto the One who lived and died and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.

[1] Johnson, E. Elizabeth. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year C, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

Questions for Reflection

The author of Second Timothy declares, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (4:7). What does that look like in your life? How does your church keep the faith, even in the face of all the world’s challenges?

Household Prayer: Morning

God of light, thank you for another day. With each hour, may I be watchful for signs of your grace, ready to show your love, and eager to tell the good news of Jesus Christ. Make me more faithful than I was yesterday, and lead me in the paths of righteousness; Amen.

Household Prayer: Evening

Thank you for the challenges and blessings of this day, O God. If I kept faith with you, thank you for your Spirit’s help. If I looked away from you, turn me back around. As night falls, I relinquish my pride and my fear and entrust all whom I love to your care, with prayers for a peaceful rest in Jesus’ name; Amen.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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