God, be merciful to me, a sinner

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016. Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14.

Recording here.

Here’s the troubling thing about today’s gospel lesson.

The Pharisee was a good guy. Pharisees get a bad rap in the gospels, but if you met one on the street you’d probably like him. Pharisees played by the rules. They studied the scriptures. They were devout and generous to others. This guy was not exaggerating in his prayer to God. He was glad he was not a thief or a rogue or an adulterer. And he went even better than that. The law required him to fast on the Day of Atonement, but he did it twice a week. The law required him to give a tenth of his produce and animals to God, but he gave a tenth of his whole income. He was a good guy.

And the tax collector was a bad guy. Roman taxes were high. People had trouble paying them. Tax collectors would pay them for a whole Province to get Rome off everyone’s back, and then come after you for what you owed plus interest. Or sometimes they worked for landowners directly to get peasants to pay their share of what the landowner owed. They were notorious for lining their own pockets. They collaborated with Rome against their own people. They made themselves rich at the expense of the poor. They were hated.

Of the two people in the story, we would rather be like the Pharisee.

And the way the Pharisee prayed doesn’t sound so bad either. He gave thanks to God. He marveled at the blessings of his life.  He looked at the tax collector and looked at himself and felt grateful. It was like saying, “There but for the grace of God go I,” or “Lord, have mercy.”

So of course the tax collector prayed for forgiveness. He needed it. He was scum and everyone knew it. This parable of Jesus surprised no one until the final line. “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.”

And that is where this parable disturbs us. For the prayer of the Pharisee is very much with us. The prayer of the Pharisee is a prayer we often pray. Maybe not as openly. Maybe not as a formal prayer. But we carry the Pharisee’s attitude with us.

I felt it yesterday at the soccer fields. Lord, I thank you that I am not like those parents who are coaching from the sidelines, yelling at their team, and making the kids feel bad for missing a goal. I sit here respectfully and cheer as my church’s team puts together an easy 6 to 4 win.

We pray it about our church. Lord, I thank you that I am an Episcopalian. I’m part of a church that loves all people no exceptions, where you don’t have to check your brain at the door, where women can be priests and you don’t have to hide the alcohol. Not like those other churches.

We pray it about our neighbors. Lord, I thank you that my kids know how to behave. Or Lord, I thank you that my yard is neat. Or Lord, I thank you that my neighborhood is safe and my schools are the best.

We pray it about our country. Lord, I thank you that I live in America, and not one of those other places people are trying to leave.

We sometimes pray it when someone gets sick. Lord, I thank you that I’m not a smoker. Lord, I thank you that my weight is in check.

We pray it when we make plans to vote. Lord, I thank you that I am not so misguided like that other party.

We become the Pharisee without even realizing it. We live, think, and act in ways that build ourselves up and hold others in contempt.

And until something brought him to his knees, the tax collector had probably done his share of praying like the Pharisee, too. Maybe he didn’t bring those feelings to God. But he had surely looked on others with contempt. Lord, I thank you that I have found a way to make money off these suckers. Lord, I thank you that I’m smart enough to get away with it. Lord, I thank you that I can use my money to make more money.

But something happened to change his heart. I wonder what.

Maybe he woke up one day and realized he had no friends. Maybe his family left him. Maybe he was in so much debt he couldn’t imagine getting out. Maybe he got sick. Or maybe he simply came to himself, like the prodigal son in Luke 10. We are made for connection and love, not judgment, so maybe over time he finally became the person he was intended to be. So he tiptoed to the temple. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He knew that, but he wanted to be in a holy place. He knew he was unclean, so he stood far off. The normal way to pray was to look up to heaven but he couldn’t even manage that. He kept his head low and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

It sounds a lot like this prayer. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me. It is called the Jesus prayer, or the breath prayer. Some Christian traditions encourage us to pray it like breathing, to let this cry for mercy lie under all we do. God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

And in praying this prayer, not just mouthing the words but truly praying it, the tax collector found the mercy he needed. This prayer becomes its own answer. When we rely on the mercy of God, when we realize we have no hope in ourselves and throw ourselves on mercy, mercy is there for us. And if it is there for us, it is there for everyone, even for the Pharisee and the tax collector, even for those we hold in contempt and those who hold us in contempt. God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

I first learned about this prayer not in church and not from a religion class, but from J. D. Salinger’s book Franny and Zooey. Franny and Zooey Glass were genius children from an eccentric family. Now young adults, Franny had become a jaded college student. She had given up on acting, one of her great loves, because she thought audiences were shallow. She found everyone else inauthentic. She hated what she described as ego in others, even while recognizing it in herself. No one measured up to what she thought human beings should be, especially her professors. She was like the Pharisee, regarding others with contempt.

One professor had given her a little book – the Way of the Pilgrim – which talked about the Jesus Prayer. She started reciting the prayer over and over. But she did this not with the attitude of the tax collector who knew his need for mercy but with the attitude of the Pharisee. She used her longing for mercy as a way to justify herself and hold others in contempt.

Her brother Zooey called her on it. Most of the book is his long, winding, but wise conversation with her over the phone. He said, “What I don’t like is the way you talk about all these people. I mean you don’t just despise what they represent — you despise them. It’s too personal, Franny. I mean it. You get a real little homicidal glint in your eye when you talk about this (Professor) Tupper, for instance. All this business about his going into the men’s room to muss his hair before he comes in to class. All that. He probably does — it goes with everything else you’ve told me about him. I’m not saying it doesn’t. But it’s none of your business, buddy, what he does with his hair. It would be all right, in a way, if you thought his personal affectations were sort of funny. Or if you felt a tiny bit sorry for him for being insecure enough to give himself a little pathetic glamour. But when you tell me about it — and I’m not fooling, now — you tell me about it as though his hair was a personal enemy of yours. That is not right — and you know it.” She was holding him in contempt.

Then Zooey reminded her of a time when they were on the set for a children’s TV quiz show. Their older brother Seymour told him to shine his shoes. Zooey didn’t want to do it. His shoes weren’t going to show on camera. Why did it matter? His brother said, “Do it for the Fat Lady.”

Zooey reflected, “He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again — all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and — I don’t know.”

“But I’ll tell you a terrible secret—Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper. And all his cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me, now—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

We promise in baptism to seek and serve Christ in all persons. That means seeking and serving Christ in the parents yelling at a soccer team from the sidelines, in people who are part of other churches, in the neighbors whose kids don’t know how to behave and who don’t keep their yards neat, in people from other countries, in those who get sick, in people who vote another way. We are all sinners in need of mercy. And fortunately for all of us, mercy abounds.

Say it with me – God, be merciful to me, a sinner. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

© The Rev. Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards, 2016

Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger, Bantam Books, © 1955, 1957, 1961.

Photo: Stained glass window 27 at Sint Janskirk in Gouda, Netherlands. “The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.” By Cornelis Ysbrandsz. Kussens? (Amsterdam), 1597, from the design of Hendrick de Keyser (Amsterdam) – Foto (own work): Joachim Köhler, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5658493