Saturday, March 5, 2016
SHOWING UP EMPTY-HANDED
We all know the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in Luke 18:9-14: a holy, self-satisfied Pharisee goes up to the temple to pray, and stands up front, reminding God of all his virtues, while a tax-collector (despised for his profession of working for the hated Romans) stands nearby but can’t even bring himself to raise his eyes, and just keeps beating his breast and praying, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
I just came across an interesting statement in Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary on this parable that prompted the following reflection.
Most religious-minded Christians think something like this: there’s God and there’s me; I try to obey God’s commands and do what I’m supposed to do to be a good Christian, and sometimes, like some really religious people, I even take time to pray as well.
In Luke’s gospel, however, prayer is of central importance. Here’s the quote from Johnson (Sacra Pagina Vol. 3, p 274) : “For Luke, prayer is faith in action. Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety, carried out to demonstrate one’s relationship with God. It is that relationship with God. The way one prays therefore reveals that relationship.”
There are a couple of things that caught my attention in this passage. The first is the idea that prayer is not an optional add-on, or even something that demonstrates my relationship to God, but rather prayer is my relationship to God. Certainly the parable of the Tax-collector and the Pharisee shows that idea: each man’s attitude in prayer is a perfect summary of his relationship with the Lord. One man shows up already full -- full of himself and his virtuous accomplishments. Clearly this defines his relationship with God. The tax-collector shows up empty-handed and asking for the gift of divine mercy. His relationship with the Lord, despite his questionable ethics and his despised profession, is much healthier than the Pharisee's.
A second lesson for me is the reminder to show up for prayer empty-handed. What’s the Lord supposed to do for the Pharisee who shows up all full of himself, and spends his prayer time counting his spiritual possessions? The tax-collector, because he knows that he has no righteousness of his own and has to ask God for that gift, winds up receiving it.
The parable seems to be about prayer, but in fact it turns out to be much broader and deeper: it’s about my relationship with God. It’s certainly a powerful image, a great reminder to me as a professional religious who spends a lot of time in prayer, to watch the way I pray, whether by myself or in the monastic choir.
Prayer is not an optional exercise in piety, carried out to demonstrate one’s relationship with God. It is that relationship with God. The way one prays therefore reveals that relationship.”