by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 18:9-14
Today’s parable about prayer is, like all parables, intended to stimulate reflection more than to prescribe practices. Parables invite us to find ourselves in the story. Like a first century Myers-Briggs personality test, this parable divides people into types. Are you the “Smug Pharisee” type or the “Sinning Tax Collector” type? A“Boastful Pray-er” trying to impress God or a “Remorseful Pray-er” humbling yourself before God?
Before we look at the Jesus-endorsed humble prayer, let me first suggest that I don’t envisage God with a big ego needing petitioners who fall abject before God. Humility isn’t about God’s need but about ours. Humility is good for us.
But let’s not confuse humility with humiliation. Jesus identified with and lifted up the lowly. Humility is a choice we can make to put others first, but humiliation is what is done to us without our consent. Too often the patriarchal Church has kept the already marginalized in their place by dispensing humiliation rather than demonstrating humility.
This past week a video trending on social media exposed evangelical leader John MacArthur ridiculing evangelical author/speaker Beth Moore for advocating that a modest measure of authority be granted to women in the Church. MacArthur showed no trace of personal humility and instead took delight in humiliating a woman who’d made a pretty modest claim for women’s inclusion in church leadership. For too long the Church has misshapen the virtue of humility into humiliation to keep women and others in their place.
(Note to readers: to further contrast the virtue of humility with the harm of humiliation, I shared one personal experience of demeaning paternalism while officiating a funeral a few years ago. I’m omitting that story here–and I changed details when I preached this sermon–to protect the feelings of those who were connected to but not responsible for the disrespect I received.)
You, Open Table, have accepted me in this pastoral role with trust and respect as you self-selected into a feminist church. But outside these walls it’s sometimes a challenge for women pastors to lead with humility when others intend humiliation. I have received obscene phone calls from men who want to demean or frighten a female pastor in that way, and I have been insulted by local preachers at another denomination’s large assembly. I’ve also been criticized by some comments in the local newspaper. And I, like other female clergy, struggle with where to draw the line between putting others’ needs first while resisting patriarchy. As we consider the humble tax collector in today’s Gospel lection, let’s remember that this parable in Luke 18 honors those who approach prayer with humility but does not condone humiliation and degradation.
One way to engage in prayer with humility is to admit from time to time that how we pray says more about us than about the Unknowable One we posit into the role of our conversation partner in the typical prayer. And one way the two characters in this parable affect us, the hearers of this story, is by implicitly drawing us into the evaluation of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Then we inevitably must ask ourselves where we are in the story in order to evaluate our own prayer life. After all, that’s what you’re expecting from Jesus and from this sermon: an answer to the question “what’s in this story for me?”
Many of us over time struggle with how a progressive theology affects our prayer lives. Prayer is a major theme with Jesus, especially in Luke’s gospel. So prayer seems to be an expectation of Jesus followers. But progressive Christians may need to adjust how they pray. If praying has become for you more complicated than asking God to fulfill a wish list, consider adjusting your prayer practice to something that feels more authentic. If you have become a more questioning and progressive Christian, consider using questions as a part of your prayer life, and silence, and stretching your heart to include people who are hard to love, and simply examining yourself with honesty but also compassion for yourself. If you have become a little dissatisfied with your experience of prayer, consider that almost everything can become prayer if you dedicate that time to God and bring a gentle spirit into those moments. Many believe prayer is not about changing God’s heart but about changing our own.
The late John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop, prolific writer, and a contributor to the Living the Questions DVD series, once replied to a man’s question about prayer this way:
“Your question on petitionary prayer is almost always the first question that comes up wherever I go to lecture. People can talk about their understanding of God until the cows come home, but nothing really changes until they translate their understanding of God into their prayers. More than anything else, our prayers define our understanding of God. So to talk about prayer, we have to define who the God is to whom we pray. To say it differently, ‘Who do we think is listening?’
“Most people, quite unconsciously, approach the subject of prayer with a very traditional concept of God quite operative in their minds. This God is a personal being, endowed with supernatural power, who lives somewhere outside this world, usually conceptualized as ‘above the sky.’ While that definition has had a long history among human beings, it is a definition of God that has been rendered meaningless by the advance of human knowledge. This means that for most of us the activity of prayer does not take seriously the fact that we live in a vast universe, and that we have not yet come to grips with the fact that there is no supernatural, parental deity above the sky, keeping the divine record books on human behavior up to date and ready at any moment to intervene in human history to answer prayers. When we do embrace this fact then prayer, as normally understood, becomes an increasingly impossible idea and inevitably a declining practice. To get people to embrace this point clearly, I have suggested that the popular prayers of most people is little more than adult letters written to a Santa Claus God.
“There are then two choices. One says that the God in whom I always believed is no more, so I will become an atheist. People make this decision daily. It is an easy way out.
“The other says that the way I have always thought of God has become inoperative, so there must be something wrong with my definition. This stance serves to plunge us deeply into a new way of thinking about God, and that is when prayer itself begins to be redefined. Can God, for example, be conceived of not as supernatural person, but as a force present in me and flowing through me? Then perhaps prayer can be transformed into meditation and petitionary prayer becomes a call to action. The spiritual life is then transformed from the activity of a child seeking the approval of a supernatural being to being a simultaneous journey into self-discovery and into the mystery of God. It also feeds my sense of growing into oneness with the source of all life and love and with what my mentor, Paul Tillich, called the Ground of All Being. . . . .These are the things that today feed my ever deepening discovery of the meaning of prayer.” (http://mysticalseeker.blogspot.com/2009/06/spong-on-prayer.html).
Spong and other faith leaders don’t pray by forming words and sentences and requests to God. Instead they read, reflect, take walks, listen to music, ponder, hold the cares of the world in their compassionate hearts. I suspect many pastors don’t form words in a kind of expository prayer to request or petition God or to seek forgiveness. Many practice prayer in their private lives by giving attention to things they feel nudged to pay attention to, empathizing with another’s hurt, or smiling upon those who need a smile.
To “pray without ceasing,” as Paul recommended, can’t possibly mean literally calling out words to God in a never-ending gush of reverence and need. Yes, I still pray every day with words directed to God. “Please help him with this” or “Spare her that,” or “What a stunning sunset, O God!” I might pray. That is what my heart is saying, and I in no way self-censor or critique that old and worthy way of prayer. But prayer is also more than that to me.
I think we need to carve out time for what I still call “prayer.” And that includes time for public prayer as part of corporate worship. We need to pray TOGETHER with others because prayer can be formational for the church (shaping our faith life), aspirational (giving us glimpses of what lies ahead for our faith community) and relational (connecting the people of God to one another and to the world that God inhabits. We need to pray TOGETHER for these reasons.
Prayer is instinctive for most of us, and many will be best served by remaining in a practice of prayer that has served them well for their whole lives. But other lovers of God and followers of Jesus and experiencers of the Sacred Spirit treat prayer less as a conversation with God and more as a practice of paying attention, and listening deeply, and moving into the world in love. However we pray, genuine prayer will be done with the kind of humility we see in the response of a remorseful tax collector.