The right way to pray

Pentecost 21

Luke 18:1-17

Marian Free

In the name of God who is attentive to our prayer. Amen.

What do a widow, a tax collector and a child have in common? I don’t know. If I was a comedian, perhaps I could come up with a clever line – you know: a widow, a tax collector and a child walked into a bar, or a widow, a tax collector and a child were in a boat. However, I’m not a comedian and don’t know where I’d go from there.

Today’s rather long gospel contains three distinct stories, the widow and the judge, the Pharisee and the tax collector and Jesus’ welcome and commendation of the children. At first glance, it is impossible to find anything in common between the three accounts; however a closer look reveals that in each story, it is the outsider who is shunned by someone in authority, who becomes the centre of Jesus’ teaching. The widow who is ignored, the tax collector who is despised and the child who is pushed away, all become the model for what it is that Jesus is trying to teach.

To Jesus’ listeners, it is no surprise at all that the judge ignores the widow, the Pharisee compares himself favourably with the tax collector and the children are shooed away from Jesus. In first century Palestine, this is exactly what might have been expected – widows had little to no social status, tax collectors had aligned themselves with the occupying forces and children were simply the property of their father (of little consequence at all). However Jesus takes his listeners by surprise. He turns each of the stories around so that those who are excluded become the models for those are confident of their place in the kingdom.

All three stories are used to illustrate the overarching theme of the section which is introduced in the opening sentence of chapter 18: “Then Jesus* told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” The link between the three disparate stories is how to pray – how to pray in the time between now and the end, how to pray in the face of persecution, how to pray in such a way that is in accord with the kingdom of heaven and how to pray if you think that you already know how to pray.

Three aspects of prayer are emphasised in these stories – patience, humility and receptivity. In the case of the widow, God is not being compared to the unjust judge who only reacts when violence is threatened (the greek word is “give me a black eye). On the contrary, the focus in the parable is the woman’s patient, constant prayer – even in the face of obstruction. The Pharisee illustrates all that good prayer is not. Prayer is a way of opening oneself to the presence of God, of listening and responding to what God might have to say. It requires humility and openness rather than arrogance and overconfidence.

The Pharisee is not necessarily a bad person. In fact, he fasts and he gives a tenth of his income, both of which are commendable practices. However, he is too sure of himself and to busy telling God how good he is to worry about how good he is not. Prayer for him consists of a litany of the failures of others and of self-commendation. He doesn’t need God to justify him, so convinced is he of his own value and righteousness.

In contrast the Pharisee is the tax-collector who is not necessarily a morally bad man, but someone whose occupation is considered a sin. His circumstances in life, may dictate that he needs this kind of work to provide for his family. The tax collector comes before God only too aware of his shortcomings and of his need for God’s mercy. His focus is not on himself but on God.

The simplicity and trust of the tax collector’s prayer are further illustrated by the account of the children who are brought to Jesus. We are to understand that young children are wide-eyed and expectant. Unless they have been unlucky, they have not yet learned to be cynical and distrustful of the world in general. Their openness, trust and receptivity provide a model of the attitude that everyone should have towards God: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” The attitude of the children is in stark contrast to the disciples whose rigid application of the law has led them to play God.

Jesus uses the unexpected and those who are not respected, to get the attention of his audience and to make his point loud and clear. Prayer is not simply a matter of repeating set formula, it does not require a curriculum vitae of one’s virtues and good deeds, it does not need to be sophisticated and above all, it does not belong solely to the righteous, the reputable, to those of good standing, wisdom or experience, but to all who with patience, openness, self awareness and expectancy turn to God in good times and in bad.

So even though her situation is desperate, the widow remains confident in her cause and so does not give up. The tax-collector is aware that he is a sinner but trusts God enough to pray anyway.  Children simply believe that they will be welcomed and heard and bring to prayer innocence and a confidence in God’s love for them. In contrast, the judge simply doesn’t care, the Pharisee’s overconfidence means that he doesn’t allow God to communicate with him, but uses prayer to tell God how things are, and the overzealous disciples believe that access to God belongs only to those of a certain standing or social status.

Jesus commends constancy, humility and receptivity and by using outsiders as his models he is reminding his listeners of the divine reversal that the coming kingdom will bring when those who are now on the margins will find themselves at the centre, when the poor will be blessed and the first will be last. Prayer then is a way of aligning ourselves with God’s way of doing things of preparing ourselves for the time when things will be turned upside down when those on the outside will have privileged access to the kingdom.

May our prayer be that of the persistent widow, the humble tax collector and the expectant child and may we never be so confident in ourselves and in our own righteousness that we fail to understand that God can choose whomever God wills to be part of the kingdom, that the wideness of God’s love and mercy embraces all people and that those of us who are privileged here, must expect that those who are not will be privileged in the kingdom. Amen.

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