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Sermon for October 23, 2022 – Proper 25

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life Script 4048 | Know Who You’re Talking With
Greg Williams

Have you ever been involved in a mistaken identity? Several years back when I was working for Youth for Christ, I was in Denver, Colorado for ministry training. Some younger staff friends and I went into a specialty shop to pick up a few personal items. The shop owner happened to be minding the cash register.

This shop owner was a tall lean, athletic, gentleman who was a bit older than me. I mentally flipped through my contacts and I came up with the name Alexander English who had played his National Basketball Association career with the Denver Nuggets. I inquired if he was Alex and he politely said no, I am Walter Davis. I begged his forgiveness.

This was a deja vu experience for me because I met Walter when I was high school age. My teammates and I attended a college exhibition game in Asheville, North Carolina when Walter was playing for the University of North Carolina. He did not play that day due to a high ankle sprain. He was sitting up in the bleachers by himself and when we spotted him, we went over and got his autograph and chatted for a while.

I reminded Walter about this occasion, and he remembered that day.

Knowing who you are talking with is important. Have you ever considered how true this is when we are engaging in prayer? Our prayers will be shaped by who we believe we are praying to. Jesus certainly wanted his disciples to know that when they pray, they are praying to his Father, and our Father. Jesus called him Abba Father, which indicates a deep and intimate relationship – an unbreakable bond Jesus shared with his Father. Before he taught them how to pray, he wanted to establish who they were praying to. The Psalms also engage in numerous reminders of who God is as it relates to praying. Listen to this link between prayer and the character and heart of the one they are praying to.

1 Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, 
and to you shall vows be performed.

O you who hear prayer,
to you shall all flesh come.
When iniquities prevail against me,
you atone for our transgressions.
Blessed is the one you choose and bring near,
to dwell in your courts!
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
the holiness of your temple!
By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness,
O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas;
Psalm 65:1-5 (ESV)

The Psalm doesn’t end there. It goes another eight verses extolling who this God is who answers prayer. And there are many other Psalms that do the same. When it comes to prayer, the psalmists obviously see the importance of being reminded of the identity of who they are praying to.

What about you and me? We are told to pray unceasingly. Do we also seek unceasingly to know the Father who has been revealed in Jesus Christ? Do we call out to the one who hears our prayers, atones for our transgressions, and satisfies us with his goodness? Let’s pray that we do! It will make all the difference in prayer when we know who we’re talking with.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 65:1-14 • Joel 2:23-32 • 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 • Luke 18:9-14

This week’s theme is abundant grace. The call to worship Psalm praises God’s sustaining and creative power with rich imagery from nature. The Old Testament reading from Joel reflects the bounty of God’s love and provision that culminates in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all people. The epistolary text comes from 2 Timothy, where the apostle Paul issues a somber farewell, while glorifying the Lord as the faithful one of provision, protection, and deliverance. The Gospel reading from Luke juxtaposes a proud prayer of self-adoration with a humble prayer for mercy.

A Tale of Two Prayers

Luke 18:9-14 (NRSV)

Charles Dicken’s classic story, A Tale of Two Cities, opens with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” setting up a series of contrasts explored throughout the novel. Today’s sermon can begin roughly the same way as we read about “A Tale of Two Prayers.” We will find that comparisons can be both a blessing and a curse, the best of times, or the worst. In Jesus’ teaching, he gives us a parable where a contrast is presented to invite us into the “best of times,” the righteous life that comes by grace. But contained within the parable we are presented with another comparison. This comparison comes to us by way of a Pharisee’s prayer, that ultimately leads to the “worst of times,” a life devoid of righteousness.

This parable follows on the heels of another parable Jesus tells of a persistent widow. Both stories are being used by Jesus to teach about prayer. But more importantly, what is being revealed is the character and heart of the one to whom we pray. And that will be an especially important perspective to hold onto as we go through this second parable that serves as the text for today. Otherwise, we may easily fall into the trap of doing exactly what the Pharisee does, measuring our righteousness by comparing ourselves to others. Jesus is not trying to teach us to copy the tax collector and shun the Pharisee. He wants us to see who his Father is to whom we pray. This will make all the difference in our prayers. And it will also make all the difference in how we understand this Tale of Two Prayers. Let’s dive in.

Parables often present a challenge to figure out what Jesus is trying to tell us. But Luke does us a huge favor by telling us right up front why Jesus told this parable.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. (Luke 18:9 NRSV)

Notice the “also” in this verse. This is a reference to the other parable Jesus tells, of the persistent widow. In that parable, we learn that God is not like the unjust judge in hearing our pleas. Rather, God is a patient and just God who is quick to answer the prayers of those who call out to him. Because of this, we are encouraged to “pray always and not to lose heart.” So, again, in this parable we will want to keep an eye out for what Jesus is telling us about his Father. Knowing who we are praying to will fittingly shape our prayers.

Notice to whom Jesus is directing this parable. It is aimed at those who displayed two general orientations. First, it is addressed to “some who trusted themselves that they were righteous” and second, they “regarded others with contempt.” Following Luke’s lead, we know specifically that this is referring to the religious rulers like the Pharisees. But this does not mean we are exempt from hearing its message. Let’s face it, we are constantly tempted to trust ourselves for our own righteousness, which always leads to holding others in contempt. The two go hand-in-hand. If we think righteousness comes by our own efforts and achievements, then we will always be tempted to verify and confirm that self-assessment by comparing ourselves to others. There is always someone we can find that will make us feel justified in our self-achieved righteousness. If we can find someone to look down on, we can convince ourselves that we are someone worth looking up to.

This is a trap we see all around us, and if we are honest, we see in our own hearts as well. How many dividing lines between people are being drawn in order to claim being in the “right”? We see it displayed in politics, personal choices, affiliations, where we live, what we wear, who we hang out with, where we shop and so on. In our desire to be “righteous,” we can use just about anything to view another with contempt. Seeing righteousness as something to achieve does not lead to “the best of times.” Jesus wants us to see that he is the true source of all righteousness. So, he is going to present his own comparison to do just that.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. (Luke 18:10 NRSV)

We must proceed here with caution. We are told from the beginning that this parable is for those who trust in themselves for their own righteousness and hold others in contempt. Then Jesus gives us a straight-up comparison between a Pharisee and a tax collector. If you have had even a brief exposure to Luke’s Gospel, you will know that the Pharisees are often portrayed as the enemies of Jesus while the tax collectors belong to Jesus’ circle of “friends.” If we are not careful, we can convince ourselves that Jesus is giving us a playbook on who we should hold in contempt and who we should exalt. This would run counter to the very purpose Jesus is telling the parable.

We will do well to stand guard against hearing this comparison with a desire to pat ourselves on the back and pray our own self-congratulatory prayer of not being like that old self-righteous Pharisee. We may try to sabotage the rest of the reading by having us use the tax-collector’s humble posture as another prideful means of self-attained righteousness. So, let’s resist the temptation to form our own prayer that essentially goes, “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like other people: self-righteous, goody-two-shoes, super religious, or even like this Pharisee. I’m devoid of pride; I’m full of humility.” With that caution, let’s continue.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11 NRSV)

Jesus lets us hear the prayer of the Pharisee, which displays a dependence on self and a contempt for others. The first thing we observe is that the Pharisee is “standing by himself” in prayer. Since the phrasing in Greek is confusing, there are a few ways to translate this phrase. It could simply mean that he is quietly praying to himself. Or it could mean he is praying to himself rather than to God. Or lastly, it could be rendered as praying while centered on himself with a peripheral view to the tax collector. Any of those renderings portrays the prayer as self-focused. We do good to remember that our Lord taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven…” This Pharisee does not pray in community as he is “standing by himself.” There is no “our” in his address to God. He sees himself as a lone ranger in prayer. If he has anyone else in mind with his prayer, it is only by way of a contemptuous glance at a distant tax collector. There is no connection to others in his view of prayer.

This exposes a view of God who many believe is also “standing by himself.” Jesus, in his teaching to us on prayer, instructs us to begin by addressing his Father. God is not alone, but rather exists for all eternity as a relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. To lose this understanding of God’s identity is to lose the essence of prayer. Prayer is not some pious activity we do as individuals to give the appearance that we have a close relationship with God. Prayer is a participation in that relationship. We never pray alone. To go further, by the Spirit, our prayers are united to Christ’s prayers. He is our High Priest who prays for us and with us to the Father, all by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no such thing as Christian prayer offered alone while standing in isolation from God and others. Prayer is communal.

The second thing we observe in the Pharisee’s prayer is that his thankfulness flows from “I am nots.” Specifically, he is thankful that he is not like other people. He looks around and sees all the sins and shortcomings of others and uses that as a baseline for his own righteousness. This leads to the contempt he has for others. He does not see his own sinfulness, and in so doing, creates a superiority over others. He is deaf to the teachings of our Lord who taught his disciples to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one.” He has deceived himself with his self-justification that he is above all others and in need of nothing from God but his applause.

Furthermore, “I am not” prayer leads to settling for a righteousness that only rises above the observable sins of others. Jesus offers much more. He offers us his own righteousness. How often do we settle by being thankful that at least we are not as bad as so-and-so? Rather than being thankful for who we are not, we can be thankful for who we are becoming in Christ. Jesus never told us to be better than others. He told us to be perfect like his Father in heaven is perfect. If you are going to compare yourself to another, that’s where you start. Compare yourself with Christ, as he is the One we are growing up to be like.

Paul tells us we are to grow “to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). This comparison not only will keep us from growing contemptuous of others, but it will give us much more to be thankful for. What an amazing gift we are given in Christ. And the key here to grasp is that his righteousness is a gift of grace to receive. The Pharisee’s prayer seems to miss this vital point.

“I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” (Luke 18:12 NRSV)

We need to acknowledge that what the Pharisee states in his prayer is in itself a good thing. Jesus was not denouncing fasting or tithing. It’s not what he is doing that is the problem, it is why he is doing it. This prayer indicates that the Pharisee sees righteousness as something to achieve by good works. It’s on the basis of his fasting and tithing, along with a whole list of good things he could probably list, that he claims his righteousness. The prayer leaves no room for receiving anything from God. His prayer is a boast. Once again, we are reminded that our Lord taught us to pray “hallowed be your name” not “our name.”

Now we come to the tax collector’s prayer.

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13 NRSV)

We immediately see a contrast to the Pharisee’s prayer. The tax collector is “standing far off” rather than “standing by himself.” The tax collector knows he has no standing that even warrants coming close to the Temple. The Temple grounds gave many reminders that there are “outsiders” and “insiders.” This tax collector needed no reminder. He knew his sins made him an “outsider.” And to be clear, Jesus is not inviting us to praise the tax collector for his sins as if he is more enlightened than the Pharisee to be jumping through a bunch of pious hoops. No, the comparison we are to see is this tax collector knows he is a sinner and has nothing to offer in his defense. Unlike the Pharisee, he is not trusting in himself to be righteous nor is he regarding others with contempt. He’s not looking down on others, rather he “would not even look up to heaven.” He is not self-justified by his works, rather he “was beating his breast,” which was a sign of repentance. He is not boasting of what he has achieved, rather he is pleading, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Notice how straightforward his plea for mercy is. He speaks directly to God, asking for mercy while acknowledging he is a sinner. He doesn’t reference the Pharisee or anyone else. This is a prayer fully relying on grace.

It would appear this tax collector knows something about God that the Pharisee does not. God is a God of grace. The Lord is not only just and quick to answer our cries as the persistent widow taught us, but he is full of mercy, longsuffering, and forgiveness. This is the only way the tax collector can pray such a boldly humble prayer. He knows who he is praying to.

Jesus gives us this tale of two prayers so we too can come to know a little more of who his Father is. It is in knowing Jesus and his Father by the Spirit that we are given the “best of times.” We are given a share in God’s righteous relationship where our sins are forgiven and removed as far as east from west. This is what is offered in Jesus Christ. He does not leave us standing far off but moves to bring us into his kingdom. He doesn’t leave our eyes cast down but lifts us up in a face-to-face relationship with him. He answers the beating of our breast by forgiving us and giving us the beating of his heart. This is the gracious God revealed in Jesus Christ. And this Jesus concludes the parable with a direct statement for you and me to hear today.

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14 NRSV)

Jesus is telling us not just what was given to “this man” but what is offered to every man and woman: his righteousness, the best of times for all eternity. And the man who went down to his home justified did not do so because of his prayer but on account of who he was praying to. Jesus is not giving us a new presentation of prayer that favors a humble posture over a pious one. He is inviting us to receive his grace. He freely takes our sins and in return gives us his righteousness. We don’t have to settle for our own exaltation. And that is something we will forever be thankful for.

Justified w/ Walter Kim W4

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October 23 – Proper 25
Luke 18:9-14 “Justified”

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Program Transcript

Justified w/ Walter Kim W4

Anthony: Let’s move on to our next pericope, which is Luke 18:9-14. It’s the Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 25, which is on October the 23rd. Walter, please read it for us.


9Now He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and began praying this in regard to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, crooked, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, but was beating his chest, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other one; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Anthony: What great, Christlike, humility. We know by Jesus’ own words to the brothers on the road to Emmaus that all Scripture points to him, to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

And I’m curious, Walter, what does this particular text confess and teach us about God?

Walter: I am struck by how this text showed up in my life one day in a very literal sense. When I was pastoring at Park Street Church in Boston, we have the sanctuary that I would often go down to and sit in the front row during the work week.

And I would just try to weave in prayer during my day as I was either preparing for Sunday or a particular meeting that evening and one day in preparation for my time of prayer, I actually opened up this passage and read it and realized here I am sitting in the front of the sanctuary praying. And I’m wondering, Lord, are you trying to tell me something here? Am I this Pharisee in my self-righteousness and perception of my place in ministry?

And it was really a profoundly reflective moment for me, as I stopped and asked a question, what confidence do I have? What justification do I bring? What resume do I try to show God to impress him that he should listen to me?

And I think, I hope I was able to say, I don’t think of myself in a fashion that would seek to put other people down, like as their swindler and crooks and adulterers. I didn’t open up my prayer that way when I was sitting in the sanctuary, but I do something similar and that is, I do present a resume to God to try to convince him that I am worth his time, that I actually should get an answer to this prayer or that I really should have this kind of fruit in my ministry. And I think a lot of us do that.

We often try to prove to God he should listen to us. And in that regard, maybe more subtle, maybe more sophisticated, maybe more justifiable at least to us, but in the end, not justifiable to God, we do this. And in the end, it makes light of the fact of the full justification that comes through Christ. That enables us to say, no, it’s not on your merits, that you are able to pray this prayer. It’s on Christ merits that you can pray this prayer.

And so, one thing it reveals to me is it reveals to me how warped my view of God is. That I would think I need to bring my resume to him in order to prove to him, he should answer my prayers and how poor that poorly that means I view God in his generosity, in his quickness to listen in his attentiveness, to my brokenness.

And I think over time, it sometimes gets worse. When you’re a new convert, that your sin would cause you to pray the prayer of the tax collector, God be merciful to me, the sinner, like you just came to Christ. That I found my prayers less like the sinner, the longer I became a Christian and walked with God because I had this sense I should know better. I should be better. I should do better.

And for those reasons, God should listen to my prayer. In some ways, I think we never graduate from the tax collector. We are always in a place of saying, Lord have mercy. If I sin, I proved yet again, my need for Jesus. And in that way, come again as a fresh convert to Christ.

Anthony: I think it was A. W. Tozer that said, and I’m just paraphrasing, that the most important thing about a person is what they believe about God, because it affects everything your marriage, the way that you work vocationally, and of course, the way that we come to God. And if we see God, who is love, it’s the very essence of who he is, and he loves us so dearly that nothing that we could do would change his love for us, then we can be real authentic with him. Be merciful to me, the sinner.

But I grew up in a legalistic environment, and I was really good at self-righteousness. I got to be honest with you. But there seems to be a warning here.

Anything else you want to flesh out about that and how we should take heed?

Walter: Yeah, I think of this passage, and I’m reminded of a quotation from C.S. Lewis. In some letters he had written about prayer, and he makes this comment: The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’

And I think that’s profound and apt to what this passage is trying to get at. And that is even before we enter into the depth of prayer that we should pause and say, may it be the real eye who speaks to you of real sense and awareness of who I am, and may it be the case that I discover the real vow, the real you Lord, who you really are.

And it’s in that way, that prayer becomes not just a discipline of the Christian life but becomes the Christian life itself. It becomes the place in which we be the real us before the real God, so that we could experience transformation.

Anthony: That was a fantastic Lewis quote that I had not heard. We’ll source that and put it in the show notes. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to ponder that for a while.

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