October 27, 2013

Two Men Went Up to the Temple to Pray

Passage: Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14
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He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.


“That’s not fair,” exclaimed my four-year old granddaughter a few days ago.  It’s not the first time I have heard this complaint on the lips of a grandchild.  It is the hurt I hear in her voice that breaks this grandfather’s heart.  I want somehow to protect her from all that is unfair.  “Life’s not fair”; the words are on the tip of my tongue—words borne of a few more years of life experience than she has seen.  In my mind is this thought that the sooner she gives up on this dream she has that life should be fair the easier it will be for her.  But should I shatter her dream?  Does it help a child to say we ought to give up on expecting to find fairness?   How do I support her dream but help her navigate the unfairness she will face in life?

Why do children have this keenly honed sense of fairness?  Where does it come from?  Are they hardwired that way?  You don’t have to teach a child about fairness and unfairness.  A sense of justice comes with the kit of being human.  And it isn’t just children who have a sense that things ought to be fair.

Vince Gilligan is the creator of the TV show Breaking Bad.  He said, "If there's a larger lesson to Breaking Bad, it's that actions have consequences …. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something."  The implications of Gilligan's vision are evident in the show.  In one scene the character Jesse Pinkman commits murder and then attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in hopes of finding relief.  After Jesse shares a thinly veiled version of his crime, the group leader counsels self-acceptance.  "We're not here to sit in judgment," he says, to which Jesse explodes:

Why not? Why not? … If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what's it all mean? What's the point? … So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I'm a great guy? It's all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just—what, do an inventory, and accept?

This television show reflects the human experience that bubbles to the surface of the front page of most newspapers.  Wrongs have occurred; justice needs to be done.  We may not all agree on the details of what justice looks like but there is this widely held conviction that wrongs ought to be set right.  Where does it come from?  Is there such a thing as justice or is it just a title we give to the preferences of the powerful?

1. N.T Wright posits that it’s as though we can hear the echo of a voice; a voice speaking with calm, healing authority speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all.  The voice continues to echo in our imagination, our subconscious. … luring us to think that there might be such a thing as justice, as the world being put to rights, even though we find it so elusive.” (Simply Christian p. 3-4)

So, if justice is so obvious to us, why can’t we humans fix injustice?  It isn’t for want of trying.  We have courts of law and magistrates and judges and lawyers in plenty.  Think of our Canadian parliament and provincial legislatures; heavyweight organizations designed to make laws and implement them.  Sometimes it works; often it doesn’t.  Everyone knows stories of the guilty being let off and of the rights of the innocent trampled upon. We have a sense that justice itself slips through our fingers.

In the words of N.T. Wright: “How does it happen that, on the one hand , we all share not just a sense that there is such a thing as justice, but a passion for it, a deep longing that things should be put right… and, yet, on the other hand, after millennia of human struggle and searching and love and longing and hatred and hope and fussing and philosophizing we still can’t seem to get much closer to it that people did in the most ancient societies we can discover?” (Simply, p.6)

“He (Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.”  So, what does this have to do with the elusiveness of justice?  Take a moment to consider the prayers of these two people.

The Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  Notice his keen sense of justice; he knows what’s wrong with the world—“thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax-collectors.”  His passion for good is above and beyond; most fasted once a year, he twice a week; most gave a tenth of their produce, he of everything (and such giving was for the relief of the poor).  Notice the line he draws; “I am not like other people”.  The line between justice and injustice, between things being right and things not being right is drawn between “us” and “them.”

The tax collector—a person considered a traitor and a cheat—he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  And Jesus said that it was this man who went home justified (his relationship set right with God), rather than the Pharisee.  What is the difference?  The tax collector’s prayer shows us that he knew that the line between justice and injustice, between things being right and things not being right, runs through the middle of his own heart.  Jesus’ parable shows us that this line is not between me and my neighbor but runs through the heart of each one of us—even the person who appears to have it all together.

If across humanity people of good will all know what we ought to do (give or take a few details) why is it that all of us manage, at least some of the time, not to do it.  In thinking about this issue of justice and injustice the gospel shines its light on the corruption of the human heart.  “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” said our Lord.  It is not easy to admit that the problem is in me.  This is not to say that justice is just a function of inner heart piety; justice has to be done.  It is to say that the gospel orients us to this heart problem as the crucial issue.

2. “Two men went to the temple to pray;” so begins Jesus’s parable.  Please take note that Jesus speaks as if the religious life of a person was a common thing.  In our era of “privatized” religion we presume that Jesus was preaching to the converted—speaking within the “four walls of the church”, so to speak, where talk of prayer was acceptable.  If we presume this we make a mistake; we fail to grasp the way that religious life was considered to be part and parcel of public life.

N.T. Wright identifies “the hidden spring” of spirituality as a second feature of human life that functions as the echo of a voice; as a signpost pointing away from the bleak landscape of modern secularism and toward the possibility that humans were made for more than this.  The skepticism we have been taught over the last two hundred years has flattened how people regard human existence.  Religion has been relegated to a small sub-compartment of ordinary life; the church has been carefully separated off from everything else in the world, whether politics, art, sex, education, economics or whatever.  From this skeptical point of view, spirituality is a private hobby, an up-market version of day dreaming for those who like that sort of thing; such thinkers have tried to organize our world on the assumption that religion and spirituality are merely private matters, and what really matters is economics and politics instead.

In recent decades religion and spirituality have shown themselves resistant to such relegation.  In the September 10 issue of The Atlantic magazine, for example, was an article by journalist Natasha Scripture titled How Much Should It Cost to Find God?  The article chronicled her research and experience in what she calls the spirituality and well-being industry.  “Spirituality has been the fastest growing part of our website,” said Cathie Brunnick, one of the founders of Patheos, the world's largest independent online interfaith site. The self-help industry itself is valued at a whopping $13 billion a year and there is no shortage of retreat centers, online workshops, seminars, CDs and books designed to help people navigate their spiritual paths and educate them on the latest spiritual trends.  Natasha related her experience of attending one such workshop and wrote, “I know I’m buying old ideas that have been cleverly and conveniently re-packaged for a modern audience that is apparently in dire need of some serious soul-searching.” (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/09/how-much-should-it-cost-to-find-god/279345/)

So where does this sense of spiritual life come from; this sense that life is more than the flattened world imagined by rationalism? N.T. Wright proposes we are hearing the echo of a voice.

I was very interested to read how this writer, Natasha Scripture, described her own spiritual life; my suspicion is that there many in our world like her.  She described herself as “vaguely spiritual, but without subscribing to any organized religion. I like to believe there's something out there, some mysterious universal power, but it's not anything I try to define or pretend to understand. In fact, I embrace the enigma of it all … "all we know is that we just don't know." Can't we just embrace the mystery of life, simply be good and hope for the best?

I notice that subscribing to organized religion is problematic for many people.  It is worth noting that in Jesus’s ministry the less religious people were, the better Jesus got along with them.  The more religious people were, the more they hated him.  Why?  Because our Lord maintained that religion is a barrier between people and God.  Faith, on the other hand, binds us to God; faith is our bond with our Lord.  Religion is our attempt at justifying ourselves before a deity we’re not too sure about; religion is our attempt at getting on the right side of, or getting something from, a deity whose nature we regard as rather “iffy”.  Faith, on the other hand, is our admission that we have nothing to plead before the just judge; faith is our admission that we can’t bribe God or placate him or manipulate him or impress him in any way.

This parable of the two men who went to pray, says Jesus, was directed at “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  A Pharisee and a tax-collector go to church together.  The Pharisee is morally circumspect.  He’s squeaky clean, consistent in it all as well.  He’s a genuinely good man.  Tax-collectors, were the most despised group in Israel branded as traitors and cheats.  The Pharisee looked at this one tax-collector in church, looked away and then looked up, nose in air as he said “God, I thank you I am not like other men and then proceeds to remind God of his religious accomplishments.”  The tax-collector, we’re told, made no religious claim at all.  He simply cried, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

The Pharisee was out to impress God, gain God’s recognition for his religious superiority.  This is religion at its worst.  Faith, on the other hand; faith is our humble acknowledgement that we stand before God as sinners who merit only condemnation and therefore can only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.  Faith is our gratitude for God’s free acceptance as we confess that we deserve nothing of the kind.  Faith is our trust in the provision God has made for everyone in the cross, which provision God alone has paid for since only he can, which provision we need as we need nothing else.  Faith is always soaked in humility.

In many respects, “spirituality” today functions in much the same way as “religion” in this parable. The appeal of “spirituality” is that it is individualized—me and my spirituality. The goal is the same; so that we might feel good about ourselves; so that we might navigate our spiritual path to some deeper appreciation of humanity or satisfaction with life.

So, what do we say to our “spiritual-but-not-religious” neighbours about our Christian faith?  Talk about faith not spirituality.  As Christians we are not offering the world a better way of being spiritual so that you can feel fulfilled with your life any more than a better way of being religious to make you acceptable to God.  Speak of faith; of trust in the person Jesus Christ; of God providing all that we need.


Humanity’s widespread passion for justice and hunger for spirituality; we have been considering that these are signposts of something that remains just out of sight, echoes of a voice which is calling, not so loudly as to compel us to listen whether we choose to or not, but not so quietly as to be drowned out altogether by the noise of our world.

The gospel says indeed that someone is calling to us; we don’t have to go looking, he has come and is coming to us; “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20)  As Christians we bear witness to the world that upon opening the door he has indeed come in.