Standing in the Need of Prayer
Sometimes tragedy wakes people up. Sometimes. The tragedy of 9/11 woke some Americans –slammed to our knees in despair – to notice that so many in the world are always on their knees –subjected to violence, to grief, or constant hunger and immiseration. That tragedy woke some to understanding what truly to value in their lives. I think of the first responder in Lower Manhattan who encountered a businessman who looked aimless and stunned, still holding his briefcase, covered in thick, gray dust, and who asked him if he needed help, if he knew where to go, and the gentleman replied, “I’ve never had more clarity in my life.” Sometimes tragedy wakes people up.
A more recent tragedy has come to light in this country in past weeks - the suicides of young gay people because of the teasing, harassment, or video stalking they’ve received. The relentless cruelty drives them to the ultimate desperation of taking their own lives. And this tragedy has woken some people up - new programs and projects of mentoring and support have sprouted up. Gay and straight adults are reaching out to queer youth and hopefully they will save lives. Underneath it all is the pernicious human propensity to make distinctions; its worst manifestation is the teasing unto persecution by the peers of these queer youth, but it certainly is pervasive. We look for distinctions between people, and then we pass judgment on those we’ve decided are inferior to us, or flawed, or who possess a trait that makes them socially vulnerable. And then some of us attack.
The Pharisee of our parable makes distinctions. He looks at a fellow visitor to the Jerusalem Temple, and on the basis of what he can observe (that the man is a tax collector) he passes judgment on the man’s humanity. He makes a distinction between himself and the tax collector and feels justified not to verbally condemn him to his face but to condemn him to God in his prayers. We humans make distinctions, I think, in order to make ourselves feel better.
The Pharisee was not incorrect in looking at the tax collector and seeing a sinner. Tax collectors were collaborators with the occupying Roman authorities. No occupation is benevolent, then or now, and Rome treated their Jewish subjects with brutality. This tax collector and his colleagues were Jews who worked for Rome; they physically collected the Roman taxes from their fellow Jews. They were notorious for threatening violence in order to get the money, for extorting money, for throwing people out of their homes and taking their assets, and for lining their own pockets collecting more than was required and keeping the surplus. The Pharisee could look at that tax collector standing some ways off from the Temple’s altar and say, “He is indeed standing in the need of prayer.”
The Pharisee is also absolutely correct about his own advantageous state. In his prayers, he gratuitously reminds God (who doesn’t need the reminder), that he fasts twice a week and gives away a tenth of all of his income. He doesn’t just fulfill the religious law of the righteous, he exceeds it. This guy is completely ritually blameless before God. He’s the king of human virtue. Even his words of prayer, “I thank you that I am not [someone else]” are traditional words of Hebrew prayer. He knows his stuff.
But the Pharisee can never know the sincerity of the tax collector’s faith. The Pharisee doesn’t know that he himself is “standing in the need of prayer.” He has come to the Temple to pray because it is part of the life of ritual faith to do so. The content of his prayers admit to no need of God in his life, just a word of thanks that he is not like the true villain he sees some feet away. Perhaps he just assumes, implicitly, that the tax collector is there for the same reason he is - that it is part of formal religious observance for adult Jewish males. The Pharisee seems to me to be there by rote, and unaware of that. He also seems unaware that the tax collector is there to pour out his confession of his sins to God and implore God’s help. The Pharisee seems not to think that he himself needs God’s help, although he is certain that the tax collector does. The tax collector apparently doesn’t notice the Pharisee. He didn’t come to the Temple to be with others, to check them out, and to compare himself to them. He came to the Holy Mount because the altar is there, the Ark of the Covenant is there, and he so wants God’s help in his life that he goes to the place where, he believes, God’s presence is strongest. He is perhaps too shamed by the choices he has made with his life to even look upwards to heaven, so he looks to the ground and he beats his breast.
The Pharisee can never know the sincerity of the tax collector’s faith. He doesn’t know him; he only knows what he sees and he judges him on it. He takes what is visible and makes a distinction, as Dr. King would say, about “the content of his character.” Who do we write off around us? Who makes choices that are not our own, and that are truly harmful to their/our community, and that we feel competent in judging them for? The Pharisee judged correctly that the tax collector was a sinner. He let that fact convince him that the man mustn’t have a very sincere faith, and it blinded the Pharisee to the fact of his own sin - his self-righteous. Whom do we write off around us? Are there other students who make choices very different from our own? Are there neighbors? Colleagues? Do we write off any sincerity of faith in those religious people around us whose beliefs do not respect ours, whether they are fellow Christians or members of other traditions? How do we relate to those who do not respect us or what we believe? I suggest that if we write them off as mere tax collectors we have joined in the behavior we repute.
The Pharisee stands at the altar to pray. The tax collector dares not get so close. He is very aware of his sinfulness. How confident is the Pharisee of his righteousness. Each wanted to come to the Temple, the most sacred place of their faith tradition. Our beautiful Psalm for the day is believed to have been written as an account by a Jewish pilgrim of what it is like to approach Jerusalem, the holy city, and to see the Temple Mount become visible in the distance. Brahms captures this so wonderfully, giving the text a quality of floating, a pilgrim sees the Temple come into view and ascends right where she or he is standing on that uphill road, lifted in spirit, the feeling of walking on air. I approached Jerusalem nine years ago on that uphill road. I was not on foot or donkey but in a tour bus, and we all got out even now, even 2,000 years later, to pause and take in, like pilgrims for millennia right there, the first distant sight of the courts of the Lord, the lovely dwelling place of the Lord of Hosts. If sparrows and swallows may find a home for themselves there, says our Psalm, so can each of us.
And so pilgrims still go, longing to be at home with God, fainting to live with God, body and soul crying out. Our Pharisee and tax collector knew this Psalm well. Perhaps they each recited it to themselves as they approached the Temple that day. I know that the tax collector must have held fast to verse 5: “Happy are those whose strength is in you [God].” The failing, the sin, of the Pharisee was the self-righteousness that prevented him from understanding that. His strength was in his own righteousness.
When our strength is in ourselves, we get knocked down by one cruel, critical blog entry by someone. When our strength is in ourselves, we are knocked down by a social disappointment, we are crushed by rejection. These things hurt badly, but they need not devastate us. When our strength is in God, we lean on God and wait on God’s healing in our suffering. When our strength is in God (and not in ourselves) we do not, like the Pharisee, place our strength in ourselves, and so justify our self-righteousness and our condemnation of those who are clearly not like us. We do not make distinctions of supposed human value. When our strength is in God, we know that our self-worth is not dependent on showing that others are lower than ourselves. When our strength is in God, we know that every human being is a child of God and therefore of equal and limitless esteem, even if the choices we make are not.
We who are Christian have powerful help to share with gay youth at risk of suicide, and indeed with all who suffer. Sadly, some gay youth are receiving condemnation from their church communities along with torment by their peers. “Place your strength in God,” we must tell them. It is God who judges souls and no human being. Do what you can to block out the sneers and insults of the Pharisees, so sure they do all things well, so sure they are entitled to put you down. Place your strength in God, who has a home for you, and in God’s son Jesus Christ, lover of your soul. Place your self-worth not in who you are or what you do but in whose you are and what that Holy One requires of you - simply to do justice, to extend mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.