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Praying alone: a sermon on Luke 18:9-14

October 30th, 2007 by isaac · 7 Comments

Title: Praying alone
Date: October 27, 2007
Texts: Luke 18:9-14; Psalm 138

I haven’t been a Mennonite for very long. But one thing that I’ve noticed is that Mennonites love to eat together. It doesn’t matter what the event may be, there’s always got to be food there. Bible study; discussion group; prayer meeting—it’s always better if there’s food involved. Nothing substitutes for a shared meal.

And at these meals, I’ve noticed a couple ways of eating the food from your plate. After you’ve got through the pot-luck line, after you’ve served yourself a bit of the casserole, some of the green beans, the macaroni and cheese, or whatever else, you get to your seat, look at the plate, and figure out the best place to start.

Very few people eat like I do. When I can, when the food and company permits, I like to mix it all together, so I get some of everything in every bite. It’s always about getting the perfect diversity in every bite. I rarely find others who do that. Most people have a sense propriety, a sense of order.

The usual method, at least that I’ve noticed, isn’t as messy as mine—but there is still a sense of disorderliness about it. You take a bite of the green beans, then move on to the macaroni and cheese, maybe go back for a second bite of green beans, then eat some of the casserole. It’s pure anarchy.

Now there’s another group. With some folks, it almost looks like they first take inventory of their food, then make a list, and begin to move systematically from one food to another: first the green beans (eat veggies first), then the casserole, then the macaroni and cheese. There’s a sense of order to the process of eating—one kind of food logically follows and precedes another. There’s a logic, a rationality, to the plate of food.

I think a lot of the time we think about the Pharisees as falling into this last group of eaters. They are obsessed with order, with proper and improper ways of eating. They may even have rules for their plates where one food can’t touch the other—the green beans have their rightful place, separate from the mac and cheese, and God forbid if a stray green bean makes its way into the casserole.

When we read about Pharisees in the stories of Jesus, we usually think they are obsessive and legalistic. We have a tendency to think about them as the kind of people who like to make sure their plate of food is well-ordered, so that not one touches the other. Overly focused on rules and regulations. Too concerned about works to think about grace.

But this morning, I want us to see how this Pharisee isn’t such a bad guy. He’s no worse than you or I. Maybe he’s the sort of person we can only hope to be. He’s concerned to live a holy life, a pure life, a godly life, a faithful life, like all of us should be. He never misses a bible study, or a Sunday school, or a worship service. He reads his bible and prays every day—so he’ll grow, grow, grow. And he’ll grow, grow, grow. Yes, he’ll grow, grow, grow. Read your bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.

But none of this, none of his goodness, none of his holiness, none of his faithfulness, absolutely nothing of the way he is following God’s will draws him into God’s presence.

In his prayer, he’s praying something all of could pray, or have prayed. “God, thank you that I am not a thief, or a rogue, or an adulterer.” There’s nothing wrong with thanking God for his grace to keep us from evil, to keep us from sin, to keep us on the right path. I mean, that’s exactly the sort of thing we pray when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

There’s nothing wrong with thanking God to keep us from being a thief, from stealing, from swindling people. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with thanking God that we are not adulterers—I hope I can get an Amen on that one from all you married people out there.

There’s nothing wrong with what this guy thanks God for. There’s nothing wrong with his words—he’s got some good prayers, prayers maybe we should pray for ourselves. And, it’s hard to say why he’s wrong to thank God that he’s not like that tax collector. Nobody wants to be that guy. Not even this tax collector wants to be a tax collector.

It’s one of the worst jobs you could have. The Roman Empire keeps Israel under its dominion for one reason and one reason alone: taxes. And these aren’t the kinds of taxes that some central government collects so it can build more schools, or hire more public servants, or provide more social services. These taxes have nothing to do with any of that. These taxes are about funding Rome as it extends its Empire into new territories.

And here’s this tax collector, an ordinary guy who can’t get a job so he does the only thing available for him to do: he goes to work for the man. He’s a Jew, part of God’s people, who is now the face of the Roman occupation among his enslaved people. And he has to make sure that his people pay him the taxes the Romans demand of him, or else he gets no food, no place to live, no way to provide for his family, no way to pay rent. He’s desperate.

And everyday his friends pass him by, and shake their heads in disbelief and disapproval. How could one of their own turn his back on his people, and work for the enemy, God’s enemy? This man is unclean. He works for Rome; he embodies, he displays, he makes present Rome’s power and authority. He has put his life in service to God’s enemy. It’s the most disgusting, dishonorable, unfaithful, thing anyone could do.

And so he goes to the temple, but waits at the margins, where he belongs, among the unclean. He doesn’t dare encroach upon the holy ground, up close to the temple, where God’s glory, God’s holiness, God’s presence, dwells in fullness. He’s too faithful to God, he cares too much for God’s holiness, to desecrate God’s holy place with his unclean presence.

The text says that he doesn’t even look up to the heavens. Instead, he bows low to the ground; he keeps his eyes on his own feet; completely humbled, humiliated. And he beats his chest. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” That’s all he can do, and that’s all he can say. He speaks the truth when he calls himself a sinner. He is… even if it’s due to social circumstances.

Of course when the Pharisee sees this tax collector, he thanks God for saving him from being such a lowlife. You and I would too. Maybe we do.

When we give food or clothing to the needy, like we should, don’t we also secretly thank God that we have not been reduced to such a lowly position?—that we aren’t like them? And when we pass by the unclean beggar who asks for a dollar—with alcohol on his breath—to buy a hamburger, and we give him a few quarters instead, we may even say a quick prayer for him under our breath, but don’t we also secretly thank God that we aren’t them? And when I hear about that high-profile Colorado pastor who committed adultery, didn’t I thank God that I’m not him?

We in fact pray like the Pharisee does, but there’s nothing really too wrong with that.

This passage asks us a different kind of question. It asks us a simple question that makes everything about our lives complicated. It asks, Where are you standing? Where do you stand when you pray?

It comes from Jesus’ description in verse 11: “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying.” Standing by himself. He prays the right words. But the right words, the right kind of prayers, don’t get him any closer to God. Why? Because it’s not about what you pray; it’s about who you pray with; it’s about where you stand when you pray.

God is not with the Pharisee. God is with the tax collector, the unclean, the victim of messed up world, the lowly. As Psalm 138:6 puts it, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from afar.” If we want to draw close to God, we have to ask about where we stand. It’s a question about our bodies, our flesh and bone, and in whose company we put ourselves.

Most of the time when we talk about pride and humility, I think we often make the mistake of thinking that the difference between humility and pride is something that happens in our heads. We turn humility into an attitude.

But if Jesus is at all our model for humility, then we have to say that in the end humility is something that happens to his body, it gets crucified—that’s much more than an attitude. Humility has everything to do with bodies, with our flesh and bone. And when he is being humbled, humiliated, on that instrument of torture called the cross, he throws his lot in with the unclean, the sinners.

Jesus doesn’t get up on the cross and offer his life as a sacrifice by himself, standing alone, in holy and pious isolation. He takes his place next to the unclean, the sinners, two thieves, two lowlifes. Jesus takes his place among the people the Pharisee in our story rightfully despises.

And from that place, right smack in the middle of all things unclean, he prays, for everyone else: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Then he offers one of the lowlifes on the cross eternal companionship, eternal fellowship, eternal communion, in paradise: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (v43). You will be with me. The humbled and humiliated Jesus wants to fellowship with this thief forever.


Where do we go when we pray? Do we stand alone, separate from the world, holy, undisturbed by people beating their chests and desperately crying out for mercy?

What if we joined the prayer groups at homeless shelters? What if we wandered away from the personal spaces we secure with our money, our lifestyles, our social power, our geography, and learned to pray with people who need God’s merciful hand to rescue them from a lowly and humiliated life?

And what if we made those prayers our own? What if our lives became so tied up with those we pray for, that we can’t imagine how we could go on without life changing for them, and for us because of their blessed presence? It’s Jesus who wants to fellowship forever with his companion on the cross—“you will be with me in paradise.”

At the end of the story about the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” And the road to humility leads straight to the unclean, the lowly, the thieves and adulterers, all those people we have learned to despise—it leads straight to the cross, that’s where we learn what humility looks like.

Humility isn’t something we can do in our heads. Humility isn’t something we can decide to do, as we stand alone, with the Pharisee, saying all the right words. No. Humility is something we learn from the humble, from the humiliated, from the lowly, from people like that ashamed tax collector who has to face the disapproving eyes of every passerby, as he stands there, completely compromised, collecting money for the enemies of God.

Humility is something we learn at the feet of the cross. And when we look up, when we try to catch a glimpse of this humbled and humiliated Jesus, we come to find out that he looks just like the other two people up there on the cross—they all look like villains, despicable people, people we would see and quickly walk in the other direction, dangerous people. Jesus looks like one of those dangerous people.

These are the people that look like Jesus, that Jesus stands with at the end—one cross among two others—, and those are the people that Jesus invites into paradise.

Our hope is a strange one. It’s that we may be lucky enough, blessed enough, to find ourselves among those humble and humiliated people to whom Jesus grants mercy, and whom Jesus invites into paradise.

Luke 18:11, “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…” Where do you stand, or sit, or kneel, when you pray?

Tags: sermons

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 ann // Nov 10, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    Beautiful sermon. Thanks for your wisdom that goes deeper than the usual interpretation.

  • 2 Charles // Dec 26, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    Thanks that was a great sermon. we are studying the book of Luke in our Sunday school class,Thanks again this will help me in my class.


  • 3 isaac // Jan 10, 2008 at 8:42 am

    Charles, thanks for checking out the blog, and for reading my sermon. I hope your Sunday school class can take whatever I said and turn it into some good fruit.


  • 4 Francis // Oct 21, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Isaac, I have read Luke’s story a zillion times and never has it occurred to me that the tax collector might have been in a job he was OBLIGED to take because he couldn’t find anything else—something, it seems to me, like a woman who sells her body as a prostitute because that’s the only way she can get by. Thanks for the beautiful insight!

  • 5 isaac // Oct 22, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Hello Francis,

    Thanks for reading my sermon, and for the comment. I’m grateful that you found an insight in it. I hadn’t thought about the connection to people who have to sell their bodies for sex. But that makes a lot of sense to me now that you mention it.


  • 6 marcel // Mar 16, 2012 at 8:28 am

    it’s very nice. plz send me daily reflection.

  • 7 Diane // Aug 17, 2012 at 5:00 am

    Thank you for a different and refreshing perspective on this scripture