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praying hands of a weeping willow
praying hands of a weeping willow

A Parable about Prayer

This Sunday some of us will hear from Luke’s gospel of Jesus. It is a parable about praying. It starts like this.

Luke 18:9-10: 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.

I have been making that trek most  days of my life . . . up to the temple, or down to the river, or into my own noisy heart to pray.

first I prayed with the words taught to me by others

“God is great. God is good. Let us . . . .”

after a few seasons I graduated to praying with my own words

words I authored and shaped but which still mimicked the cadence of others

“Dear Lord, help me . . . please give me . . . will you?”

then came the long wrestling match over which words to pray and what to ask for and who needed to change

God? or me? or both?

“O God change me, but please hurry and change the situation, too . . .”

in the tussle, God convinced me it was me

I had to, couldn’t avoid it . . . by the very prayers themselves God reshaped me

“Be thou my vision . . . ”

but eventually the words became also thin and tired

I had to give them up and watch them go

only images reached into my heart to work a miracle of God’s changing power

trees, wind, water, stars, earth, hands

then even the images, stories, visions stopped nurturing my soul

they became their own wearisome distractions

until all I could hold onto was the silence, and there is no real holding silence

it holds me

and for more than a decade I have sunk into it like warm bath, a womb of renewal, born again to the silence of communion with God

but it is not a free float in peacefulness

it opens up spaces inside the psyche that were previously hidden and locked away, well defended with psychological armor

I have found myself at times in this space like either the Pharisee or the tax collector in Jesus’ parable:  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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. 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 18:11-13)

too sure and too self-righteous on one hand or too self condemning and too vulnerable on the other

seems to me both of these prayers uncover a form of human brokenness and need of repair in our lives

in the silence, as the lids fly off,  hurts and the needs are exposed, making a sort of vulnerability, a terrible paradox evident

Bible commentators note the trap of this parable: dividing people in the world into us and them, pure and immoral, right and wrong. What a long sojourn in silence clarifies is that it is not just an outward divide between ourselves and others, or among others, that is our problem. It is that we ourselves are divided inwardly, and the anger, hurt and hatred we see in the world and in others around us, is often a self-image we send out on the others to prevent facing it in ourselves.

Here is how the parable concludes: 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)

Honestly? I don’t know who goes home justified. Maybe the article “this” and the object “other” are completely clear to a scholar of Greek or the New Testament.* However, as I read this translation, I find myself asking: Which one? Who is justified? We are so accustomed to the reversals of Luke’s gospel, that I wonder if we miss something really significant if we assume here that we know which one was justified and which one was humbled and which one exalted? What if the teaching of Jesus at this point was more open-ended than we typically assume? And what if the reversal itself, is not an arbitrary reversal,  or even a straightforward one? What if it is a story of the mystery and power of God’s reversals, which don’t give way to our easy reductions? What if the complexity of good and evil is impervious to our attempts to parse it all out?

What if the only way out of these traps in the human condition – thinking too much of ourselves or too little – thinking too much of the other, or too little – is the power of God’s mercy itself?

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*After reading through four commentaries, I was not convinced that the authors were not so conditioned themselves to the standard reading of reversals of power that they missed possible other ways of reading the final declaration of Jesus in this parable.

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