GOSPEL: Luke 18.9-14
A Reversal of Roles: How Do You Pray?
When Albert Einstein was making the rounds of the speaker's circuit, he usually found himself eagerly longing to get back to his laboratory work. One night as they were driving to yet another rubber-chicken dinner, Einstein mentioned to his chauffeur (a man who somewhat resembled Einstein in looks & manner) that he was tired of speechmaking.
"I have an idea, boss," his chauffeur said. "I've heard you give this speech so many times. I'll bet I could give it for you." Einstein laughed loudly and said, "Why not? Let's do it!"
When they arrived at the dinner, Einstein donned the chauffeur's cap and jacket and sat in the back of the room. The chauffeur gave a beautiful rendition of Einstein's speech and even answered a few questions expertly.
Then a supremely pompous professor asked an extremely esoteric question about anti-matter formation, digressing here and there to let everyone in the audience know that he was nobody's fool. Without missing a beat, the chauffeur fixed the professor with a steely stare and said, "Sir, the answer to that question is so simple that I will let my chauffeur, who is sitting in the back, answer it for me."
This week’s Scripture tells the story of a reversal of roles as well. In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were not popular. Imagine if you were responsible for paying your federal taxes to your neighbor, who set the rates and skimmed what he wanted off the top. Would you like him? No, tax collectors were despised.
Pharisees, on the other hand, were adored and respected. They kept the religious law, lived holy lives, and served as an example to their community of righteousness.
Yet, the Pharisee is set up as the villain and the tax collector is the hero of this story. This is a stark reversal of roles.
Today we know that Jesus often picked the most unlikely people to help, right? What were some unlikely people that Jesus helped? Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, etc. Today, we also know that while Jesus had some Pharisee friends, what role do the Pharisees mostly play in the Gospels? They are mostly the villains.
Because we know that today, we get this story the first time we read it. “The Pharisee is a self-righteous hypocrite. The tax collector is a repentant sinner. Check that one off the list…lesson learned…I got it, preacher!” But if it were that simple, I would be done preaching now, and I’m just getting started.
Let me ask you something. Have you ever walked into a trap? I’ve walked into traps. One night Kerry and I were eating some lasagna she had made. Several times, she asked me if I liked it. That should’ve been a sign. “Yes, it’s good!” I said. “Why do keep asking me?”
“Because I added lots of things in very small pieces that say you don’t like—onions, mushrooms, zucchini to name a few—but you do like it!” She set a trap, and I walked right into it.
This parable is a trap for modern readers. In its day, it would have been highly controversial, because it sets up a good guy, the Pharisee, as a bad guy and a bad guy, the tax collector, as a good guy. That would’ve blown people’s minds and shocked them into humility, for they wouldn’t have expected that lesson from Jesus. Today, we expect the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and the tax collector to be a repentant sinner. So if we’re not careful, we read this story and think, “Lord, I’m so glad I understand the Scriptures better than those disciples ever did. And Lord, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee—self-righteous, hypocritical, and proud. I come to church every week, am a good Christian, and say my prayers before I go to bed every night. I’ve learned how to be humble, and I sure do feel sorry for those who haven’t.”
Do you hear me? This story is a trap! In order to avoid the self-congratulatory prayer the parable condemns in the first place, we have to remember how shocking it would have been to people in Jesus’ day. It would be like praising the prayer of the corner drug dealer instead of your minister’s prayer. The parable is supposed to shock you.
One time I was writing a press release for the newspaper about one of our Christmas services, inviting the community to attend. I was trying to find a simple, succinct way to say that it was an informal service, you didn’t have to dress up, you didn’t have to bring anything, and you didn’t have to know anyone. I decided to write, “Come as you are.” I think that’s the shocking point of the parable.
The Pharisee came to worship not as he was but as he was supposed to be. He looked the part. He played the part. He seemed like a faithful man. But the prayer he prayed was selfish; it had nothing to do with God! The tax collector did not look the part. Running around beating your chest made you look like a weak fool. But he came as himself, a child of God in need. The Pharisee came seeking people’s approval. The tax collector came seeking God’s forgiveness. Which would you rather have? Which do you need?
That’s a trap question. We would all say we need God, but something about our human nature makes us act like our pride is the most important thing. It feels good to be exalted, doesn’t it? We like to be noticed, recognized, and praised. So much so that sometimes we begin to think the things we do (like attend church, tithe, make a good salary, serve as upstanding members of society) and the things we don’t do (like rob, cheat, or steal) can justify us before God.
Jesus says only one man goes home justified. (By the way, “justified” means “forgiven” or “right with God.”) Only the tax collector is justified. Even though he’s lived a terrible life up until that point. Even though the Pharisee by all accounts had lived a good life. Only the tax collector is justified. The point here is that we cannot be saved by what we do or refrain from doing. Only God justifies. Only God saves. Only God judges such heavy things.
The good news of the parable, for Pharisee and tax collector alike, is that no matter how harshly we’ve been judged by our world or by the harshest judge of all, ourselves, no matter how good or how bad we think we are, we don’t get to make that decision. Only God does.
That’s a reversal of roles. We’ve come to think that our actions can save us. Our service to the hungry can get us to heaven. Our teaching of the Bible can impart truth others don’t have. Our prayers work while others don’t. That’s the shocking reversal of roles in today’s parable.
Who is justified? The tax collector. Why? Because he shows humility. He prays to exalt God, not himself. He prays to in a way that lets God be God, not to pretend like he in the center of the universe. He prays in search of the truth, not because he thinks he already has it. He prays out of humility, not out of pride. How do you pray?