Prayer and Justification, Revisited

Scriptures: Joel 2:23-28; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Luke 18:9-14

Bulletin-TL 10-27-2019 YC P25

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.

As you know I have been wrestling with writing my doctoral dissertation for the past several months. For the past several years while I was taking classes to get to this point, I had been using the time on the road between Portland and Trout Lake as my Sabbath of Silence. I would watch the changing scenery go by and marvel in the wonders of God’s Creation; indeed change seems to be a constant as the seasons go by. Sometimes, a message would come to me in the silence as I would make my way through the Columbia River Gorge.

Friday, a message came to me in a very different context. On my way to a favorite writing spot in Portland I hadn’t visited in a few months due to it’s slightly longer distance from my house and my need to walk for exercise, I turned on a Christian radio station for the first time in years. Songs I didn’t know came forth from the speakers in my car, so I kept switching between All Classical, The Fish, and back again, kind of like a fish darting to and fro through the water. At one point, I froze on the Christian radio station as one song I’d never heard before touched me deeply.

The artist poured out his deep questions of faith and life for current times, and I realized there was a message for me in his questions. Yes times have changed, the culture of the people has changed, secularization seems to have become more prominent across the board. Ethical standards at high levels in our once civilized and contemporary society seem to have fallen drastically; moreover cultural framework based in the Christianity of some of our founders seems to be waning. But, and here is the truth of the matter: People are still spiritual beings; the questions being asked in the song pointed to the seeking, yearning, and longing for a deeper spiritual connection to be felt and to be experienced.

The message to me was that the spiritual life is far from gone. It just seems to be getting buried under more and more layers of life. But it is still there! Deep in our inner beings God lives within us still and calls to our souls. In our spiritual center we still long to be whole, to belong, to be connected to something of meaning much deeper than what life has to offer us on the surface. The same can be said for the church as a whole. Jesus knew this; he knew about longing for God. Looking at the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector, can we find a deeper lesson Jesus was teaching?

“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]

Tongue in cheek; let’s consider the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector from a contemporary context. The first prayer might go something like this:

““O Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people: my next-door neighbor who is enjoying a round of golf right now instead of attending worship; my friend in the other political party who does not understand your will for our nation;”[2] or even those folks sitting at home listening to a worship service online, instead of coming here to engage in the worshiping community together with other pious, righteous people.”

The prayer of the tax collector today might begin with something like this:

“O God!”

“Dear Jesus!”

“Holy …”

“What the…”

And that’s just the beginning of the prayer. One commentator writes,

“For some of us, it is only when we mess up in a big way that we gain the humility of the tax collector. Those in recovery programs call it “hitting rock bottom.” Major mistakes are sometimes required to help us see our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. Only then do we echo the tax collector’s words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13).”[3]

Personally, I think one of the lessons Jesus illustrates with this parable is that all of us have a need for God; it’s just that some people are able to reach through the surface into deeper layers to find it more easily. In the example of the Pharisee, more personal work needs to be done to uncover the layers burying his need for God and community.

For the tax collector, in his current life style, he knows exactly what he has to dig through, layer by layer. If he’s Jewish, as could be implied by the text, he has sold out on his own people by working for the Romans. If he has a family, the only means he has discovered to support it in the current foreign occupation’s imposed culture is by working as a medium of exchange, exhorting money from his own people to keep his family fed and in good standing with the authorities. He knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he stands in need of forgiveness for the choices he has made in his life. Which of the two goes away justified? Jesus answers, the tax collector. Justified? What does that word mean, anyway – why didn’t Jesus use the word “forgiven” Instead?

The last time this parable came around in the lectionary, I conducted a word study on a couple of the key terms used here in Greek to help our English understanding of the multi-layered nature of this lesson. Let’s note for a moment the Greek word justified, or, in Greek, dedikaiomena. The tax collector was justified, and the Pharisee was not. Four different meanings of the word 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 countenance and/or behavior.

Return for a moment to my earlier reflection on spirit and contemporary life. For those of us in the church, this speaks to relevancy. What are we doing to assist our community in making deeper spiritual connections? To becoming changed persons? Are we connecting faith and life? Are we in the community doing everything in our power to present by our very beings that the life of faith is transforming and accessible to every person, regardless of age, stage, or station in life, or any other demographic?

Perhaps there was a reason for pairing the prophet Joel with today’s text in Luke, after all. In Joel, the Lord speaks:

Then 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.” (Joel 2:28)

To that, I would include women, children, pets, livestock, indeed all of Creation, for the Lord teaches us – and reaches to us – through them all.

Friends, change is upon us in the form of life through the seasons, structures of society, leadership being called into question, the shifting of generational make up of decision makers throughout our culture, and even in Christianity as we know it. But God is faithful; as long we can approach with humility our Lord who sits on the throne of grace, and humble ourselves before a merciful God…[we can be] confident in the Lord’s promises.”[4]

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.

Questions for Reflection: What is prayer? There are all kinds of prayer (see today’s Gospel! Luke 18:9-14). What is prayer to you? Do you know what prayer is or was for your parents? Grandparents? Share this with someone in a younger generation than yourself, as a means of passing on stories of your faith and/or the faith of those who have come before you. Try praying these prayers together, writing them down as you go:

 

Morning Prayer Prompts: Living God, you have made this day bright with the promise of:

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

Thank you…:

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

Evening Prayer Prompt: God of endings and beginnings…

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________________________________

Take us now into your arms, that we may sleep and be renewed. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

[1] E. Elizabeth Johnson, “Exegetical Perspective, Luke 18:9-14” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

 

[2] Laura S. Sugg, “Pastoral Perspective, Luke 18:9-14” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[3] Ibid.

[4] Laura S. Sugg, “Pastoral Perspective, Luke 18:9-14” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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