Essentials of Prayer

October 24, 2010

(2 Timothy 4, 6-8 &  16-18; Luke 18, 9-14)

Imagine the scene. It is either dawn or mid-afternoon and the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people of Israel is being offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. As the proper time arrives, the great gates are opened and the people stream in to witness the sacrifice and to offer prayers to God.

There is the smell of many people; of the lamb who is sacrificed; of warm blood as it is splashed on the altar, then the smell of smoke and burning meat as the sacrifice is burnt on the altar, and of the incense as it is placed on the coals and rises towards the heavens.

There are the sounds of the animals  and birds used for sacrifice, of cymbals and bells and trumpets that punctuate the ritual, of many voices speaking their prayers aloud as the incense rises.

Into this scene walk two men. They are both well dressed. Both take care to stand apart from all the other worshippers. But their attitudes are very different.

One man is a Pharisee, a leader and teacher of the faithful. He is careful to stand a distance from all the other worshippers. He must be careful to keep himself untainted by any contact with ‘the people of the land’, those who cannot or do not keep themselves ritually clean; even to brush his coat against their clothes would destroy his state of ritual cleanliness.

He stands erect and full of confidence as he addresses his prayer to the Almighty. As he looks around him, he notices the the other man also standing apart, and uses him as an example. He makes his own assessment of his morality, and it is not a kind one; he brands him a rogue and a swindler – and then throws in adulterer for good measure. He is attacking a stereotype, and does not see beyond his own prejudiced image.   His prayer turns into a statement of his own religious superiority to everyone else there. He thanks God briefly, but then goes on to distinguish himself from  the ‘great unwashed’ around him, boasting of doing more than the law demands by fasting and tithing more than is required.

The other man, the tax collector, stands apart from the others, not to keep himself unsullied, but because he feels himself unworthy to be among the faithful of Israel. As he too prays aloud, he doesn’t dare lift his eyes from the ground, even to watch the incense ascending, or the priest blessing. He beats his chest (a gesture which was usually done only by women as they mourned a death) to show his anguish and distress at his own unworthiness to offer any prayer to God. When he finally voices his prayer, it is a simple cry to God: “Lord, have mercy on me” or “Lord, make atonement for me”. He has come to pray at the time of the sacrifice, because he believes only the sacrifice of a perfect creature can atone for his sins.

At the end of the ritual, the two men leave, along with everyone else. Perhaps outwardly there is no difference. But, as Jesus tells their story, he reverses the order in which he describes them. The tax-collector, who showed contrition and humility is spoken of first. His prayer has been answered; he has been forgiven and he is justified and judged righteous. The Pharisee who felt himself so superior, is placed second now; his own self-righteousness has hardened his heart; because he is so confident in his own actions, he is not open to God’s grace. HIs attendance at the sacrifice was a waste of time. He returns in exactly the same state as he went up, unjustified and unforgiven.

As Luke’s introduction to the parable makes plain, it is first of all about our the inner attitude of the disciple. The attitude of superiority to others shown by the Pharisee in this parable was criticised by others in Jesus’ time. The Assumption of Moses contained similar sentiments to the parable and Rabbi Hillel wrote: “Keep not aloof from the congregation and trust not in thyself until the day of thy death, and judge not thy fellow until thou art thyself come to his place.”

According to Luke, this parable was told to the disciples on the way to Jerusalem. Throughout this journey, Jesus is shown as trying to teach his disciples about Kingdom values. Chief among those values is an attitude of humility, of service to others, of acknowledging everyone’s equal reliance on the grace of God. In the parables he uses to highlight these values, he uses some strange chief characters – a Samaritan, an unjust steward, a nagging widow – and now a tax collector. A faithful Jewish male would have considered himself superior to all of these – but Jesus uses each of them as an example of what God regards as worthy.

Perhaps in Luke’s church there were also people who regarded themselves as more righteous, more worthy of God’s ear, more certain of salvation than others in their congregation. We know that the early church was made up of Jews and Gentiles, of men and women, of rich and poor. This parable may have been included by Luke to bring them up short and make them think again about their attitudes.

And what of today’s Church? In churches, as in all human institutions, there is a tendency for people to reject others, and to try to keep themselves separate from those who  (they think!) fail to meet the standards that God requires. We seem to have particular problems with this in the Anglican Church at the moment. We have provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion who refuse to attend meetings with representatives of other provinces where gay people have been elected as bishops by their congregations, or where gay couples have been offered church blessings on their partnerships. In the Church of England itself, we have groups setting up ‘societies’ within the church, to ensure they can worship separately from those who wish to admit women to the role of Bishop, as well as from those who won’t accept women bishops for different theological reasons.

Aren’t these actions the modern equivalent of standing by yourself before the altar of sacrifice and pulling your cloak tightly around you lest you become contaminated by those you have judged to be wrong? Are not these groups in danger of basing their confidence on their own right actions, as the Pharisee did, rather than acknowledging that all our hopes are based on the life and death of Christ and the grace of God? Kierkegaard said  “The self-assured believer is a greater sinner in the eyes of God than the troubled disbeliever”.

But the parable is also about the right way to pray. The rabbinic  documents of the time gave instructions about how a worshipper should pray at the time of the morning or evening sacrifice. He should stand with his hands crossed over his chest and his eyes to the ground, in an attitude of submission to a master or lord. He should first of all articulate praise to God for all his gifts, and then present his own needs.

The Pharisee did neither. He praised God only that he wasn’t like other less worthy people; he didn’t present any petitions to God, since he obviously thought he had everything already. He boasts about his own actions, which go way beyond what is required by the Law. He is the man who has everything – so he really has no need of God. His prayer, though on the surface a thanks to God, is in fact just a request that God confirms his own assessment of himself as righteous.

What’s more, he judges others by their outward appearance, and projects his own prejudices on to them.

In contrast, the tax collector has no illusions about himself. He knows his occupation automatically puts him outside the circle of the faithful. He beats upon his chest, the place where evil thoughts and emotions were thought to come from at the time, and requests nothing based on his own merits. He does not criticise others, not even the Pharisee who is publicly humiliating him in front of a crowd of worshippers. In his prayer he presents just one petition to God and throws himself entirely on the divine mercy; and because God is merciful, his petition is granted.

Luke places a great emphasis on prayer in his gospel. At every significant moment in the story, prayer is offered to God. He also places great emphasis on the outcast and the sinner, alerting us to Jesus’ message that they are often closer to God than those who think themselves ‘religious’.

How does this story relate to our practice of prayer? Do we begin each time of prayer with giving praise and thanks to God for all we have been given – or do we rush immediately into asking for what we want. Do we recognise our own inadequacies and need of mercy, or do our prayers assume that God operates with the same prejudices and stereotypes as we do? It is a particular danger in public prayer; we often pray only for ‘people like us’. In our prayers we sometimes act like the Pharisee, condemning those who are different. This can have a devastating effect on those who hear us: I recently read an article by a non-believer who put aside her own feelings to attend a family christening, only to be confronted by someone leading the prayers who asked God to help ‘fight against the rise of secularism and aggressive atheists’, who wanted to stop him worshipping and destroy Christianity – which was far from what this woman wanted.

But such attitudes also have the effect of taking us further from the presence of God, rather than closer, as prayer should do. Self-righteousness, particularly when it involves projecting the darker side of ourselves onto others, closes our innermost being to the grace of God. The essence of prayer is to stand before God  in a state of spiritual nakedness, to acknowledge what we have been given by God’s grace with heartfelt thanks, to reflect how far we still are  from what God would have us be, and to trust only in the justice and mercy of God, and in the justification that has been won for us through Jesus Christ.

With that attitude, Jesus’ parable tells us, the tax collector went home justified, made right with God. With that attitude, our reading from 2 Timothy tells us, Paul faced his coming trial and death with confidence and equanimity.

With that attitude, we have begun to master the essentials of prayer, and with it, we can go on learning to become closer and closer to God.

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(Amos 8, 4-7  http://tinyurl.com/25r8ntx; Luke 16, 1-13 http://tinyurl.com/2cfp6p9)

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the Bible is an easy book to understand. It isn’t! It was written over thousands of years, by people who lived in cultures with very different social systems, legal values and life-styles from us, and  put together almost two millennia ago. If you are going to hear God speaking through it, you have to work very hard to understand what it is saying.

Look at today’s readings. The passage from the prophet Amos, who lived in the 8th Century BC, is a warning to the people of the Northern Kingdom, Israel. This was a time of great prosperity. One of the major powers in the region, Assyria, was distracted by power struggles at home, so the little countries were able to grow rich on trade. This wealth however, benefited only a proportion of the nation, and was maintained at the expense of others, by dishonest trade practices and a corrupt judicial system, taking people into bonded labour for debt, and ignoring the demands of the needs of widows, orphans and aliens. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

Amos demands a return to God’s standards of economic and social justice, and warns the Israelites of the disaster to come if they carry on in their blind confidence in being the Chosen People, while ignoring those standards which were set out in the Sinai covenant.

But if Amos is setting out God’s standards for financial dealings in the Old Testament reading, how come in the Gospel reading we have Jesus telling a parable about a man whose financial dealings were obviously somewhat sleazy, and telling his disciples to take this man as an example to follow? Then we get several sayings, some of which again seem to be hinting we should use ill-gotten gains for good purposes, and other bits saying that we cannot serve both God and money. We need a lot of help to understand this.

The parable known, as the Unjust Steward or The Shrewd Manager, comes in the section of Luke known as a Jerusalem Document or the Travel Narrative (Chs. 9, 51-19.48). Jesus is travelling up to Jerusalem for the last time with his disciples, accompanied by enthusiastic crowds, and critical Pharisees and scribes. Along to the way, Jesus explains to his disciples in particular, and to the crowd as well, what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, and what they need to do to be part of it. Some of this material appears in other Gospels, but some of it, including this parable, occurs only in Luke.

All modern commentators agree that the parable goes back to Jesus, if only because the ‘hero’ is such an offensive example to be asked to follow; but commentators since the first century have remarked just how difficult it is to understand. There are questions about the parable itself. Where does it end? If it ends at verse 7 then the parable is simply about a cunning man who secure his future by cooking the books; but then ‘the master’ in verse 8 must be Jesus.  Why is Jesus praising him? If it ends at the first half of verse 8, then the master who commends him is his employer – but then did the comment about the children of this age being wiser than the sons of light come from Jesus (which is problematic)  or the early church? And did the sayings about the use of wealth and honesty originally belong with the parable or not?

There are questions also about how we understand the story in the parable. Is the master honest and just man, or a partner in crime with his steward? (Since the master in parables is usually taken to represent God, this is a big question). Was he an absentee landlord who was being defrauded by his agent?  Has the steward forced the debtors to sign bigger bills than justified, and does the rewriting of the bills merely represent him foregoing his ‘cut’? Are the payments in olive oil and wheat merely a fiction to cover up interest payments on money, which were forbidden by Jewish law? Was the ‘steward’ a manager of a large estate, or an agent for a moneylender?

These are all questions that people of succeeding generations have asked; but they would not have been asked by the people who first heard the parable. Jesus’ parables depended on using situations which would be instantly recognised by his hearers. They were pithy and effective because he did not have to waste time filling in background details. Their impact came when one of the characters did something unexpected – something which prompted his hearers to think again and revise their assumptions or their prejudices. We have somehow to cross the cultural divide of centuries and attitudes in order to regain that impact for ourselves.

In his book ‘Poet and Peasant’ (Eerdmans. 1983) Kenneth E Bailey uses both ancient eastern literature and contemporary Middle Eastern peasant customs, together with literary analysis, to try to solve the problems of the cultural divide. This is his interpretation of the parable, which makes sense of it for me.

The master is a large landowner, who rented out arable land and olive groves to tenants. He is not an absentee landlord, but concerned about his land, and his tenants, who come to him with their concerns about the manager’s wasteful administration of the estate.

The manager is a paid official, housed on the property. His job is to negotiate the rents at the beginning of the year (for which he was entitled to a fee), keep the accounts, keep an eye on conditions on the estate and renegotiate rents if it was a bad year, then collect in the rent, which was paid in kind, at harvest time. He might have received extra payments ‘under the table’ but these were regarded as normal and not dishonourable. Neither his fee nor his ‘cut’ would have appeared in the bills, which would have been written by the tenant and countersigned by him. The tenants were men of substance, judging by the size of the rents.

The manager was happy to take his salary and fee, but wasn’t doing the work to ensure the estate produced the maximum crops. The estate owner finally decided to sack him, called him in, gave him his notice and demanded he handed over the accounts for his successor. The master was merciful though: he didn’t sue the manager for his loss, put him in jail, beat him or even harangue him.

Unusually, the manager didn’t argue or make excuses or blame others. (Jesus’ audience would be really surprised at this). He knew he had a just and merciful master,whom argument wouldn’t sway, but getting the sack meant he would lose his job, his home and his reputation. He would be doomed as soon as the news got out, so if he was to salvage anything he had to act quickly. He acted as if he was still employed, called the tenants individually, so there was no chance for gossip, and gave them each a reduction in the rent they owed. The tenants assumed he was at last taking his job seriously and was reducing the rents because of bad conditions, with the master’s agreement.

When they left him, the news would have gone round the village like wildfire, and there would have been great celebrations. Both the steward and his master would have been praised for their fairness and generosity. If the sacking stood, the manager would be in a good position to get a job in another household.

Then comes the twist in the tail. When the owner of the estate got the accounts, he knew what the manager had done. He could have told everyone that the manager had been sacked, no longer acted on his authority, and the rents would stay the same; but then the villagers’ joy would have turned to anger against him. But he was a merciful man, so he decided to let it stand, and commended the manager for acting swiftly and with wisdom to ensure a future for himself. Again, this course of action would have astounded Jesus’ original audience. What sort of master was it who was prepared to take the cost of his employee’s unrighteousness on himself?

The manager faced a crisis, relied on the mercy of the landowner, and won a future for himself. If the unrighteous know their need of mercy, says Jesus at the end of the parable, and act decisively to ensure their position on earth, how much more should the ‘children of light’ know their need to act swiftly and throw themselves on God’s mercy to ensure a place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus’ original audience would have understood all this. But later generations, including Luke’s readers, would not. To them it would have looked as if Jesus was recommending a person who failed to do his duty and cheated his master as an example for Christians to follow. So Luke appended verses 9  to 13, (which Bailey is sure was originally a memorable poem, composed in Aramaic by Jesus, about the use of worldly wealth, and trust and the need to put service to God before any worldly concerns), just to reduce that impression.

But as we have seen, the parable is not about the use of money at all. It is about God, and his mercy, and his willingness to pay the cost of sin. It is about sinners, who more than the righteous, recognise their need for God’s mercy and trust in it, and are justified. It is a warning for the ‘children of light’ (the Pharisees then and the members of the Christian community afterwards) that they too must recognise that the Kingdom of Heaven is here now, and make decisions and take action to manage this crisis in a way that ensures their future within it.

Sometimes, the New Testament is no easier to understand than the Old. Just as God called shady characters to lead his people (men like Jacob, the trickster; Moses, the murderer; and David, the adulterer), so Jesus uses unsavoury characters, like the man who bought a field and pocketed someone else’s treasure, the judge who wouldn’t listen to the poor widow, and the shrewd manager, as the lead characters in his parables to teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven. When we understand the background, that becomes plain. The parable of the Shrewd Manager follows that of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel. In both, someone wastes the resources that are given to him, but throws himself on the mercy of his father/master, and is restored.

That’s what God is like, says Jesus, and that’s what you should be like. That’s how you manage any crisis in the Kingdom. Go, and do likewise.