The Prayer of a Humble Heart
By Bishop Chris Giesler
Preaching Text: Luke 18:9-14
When I preach a sermon, it is not unusual for me to look out into the congregation with some disappointment. This is because the people I would most want to hear it are not there. The active members are almost always in their usual pews. The occasional attenders are also in their familiar places, attending to something more important like sleep, house cleaning, visiting with friends, or a weekend away. But with this text, the folks that need to hear this sermon are most likely right where they need to be. One of them is writing this blog post; hopefully, the rest are seated in their usual spots in the pews or tuning in online.
Today’s message from Jesus is directed precisely at those who regularly darken the doors and faithfully give our offerings. Here Jesus is talking to those who do the lion’s share of the work around the church and those who go on mission trips or give generously to the Board of World Mission. In this text, Jesus has a message of challenge and encouragement for all of us.
In Luke 18:1-8 (the verses right before today’s text), Jesus talked about the need to pray without ceasing and never to lose heart. Here Jesus challenges us to consider the content of our prayers. What Jesus knew was that the content of our prayers is often a reflection of the substance of our souls. What we lift to God is usually a reflection of our relationship with God.
To accomplish this task, Jesus tells a parable in which two men go up to the Temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. By all outward appearances, one was right with God, and the other was not. One was at church every time the door was opened, and the other likely came only when forced to or when he could collect the taxes some parishioners owed him.
The Pharisee was, by all outward appearances, the model of religious devotion. Let’s look at his list:
- He tithed of everything he had. Jewish law required tithing only from what you earned from your crops or business, but this man tithed from everything he had.
- He fasted twice a week. Jewish law required only one fast a year, and that was on the day of atonement. But he fasted 104 times a year. That is going above and beyond, don’t you think????
- He was not a thief
- He was not a rouge
- He was not an adulterer
- And most of all, he was not a tax collector
Let’s look at the tax collector’s list:
- He was a tax collector – need we say more?
Tax collectors in those days took the job for one reason only; they loved the money. In those days, the tax collecting system was set up to encourage corruption and greed. Rome required only a certain amount of tax revenue from a given region, and tax collectors could bully, blackmail, and threaten people into paying as much as they could get from them. Anything over what Rome had asked for, the tax collector could keep. So tax collectors were often seen as traitors since they were working for Rome, and the money they collected went first to make Rome an opulent place to live, and the rest went into the tax collector’s back pocket.
In this parable, we have a church leader and a despised tax collector, and Jesus is asking us to ignore our prejudices and look to the heart. He is not saying that tithing and fasting are wrong, and he is not condoning the greed of the tax collector, but for this moment in time, Jesus is looking at the heart. The basic building block of faith in the kingdom of God is our dependence on God’s grace. No matter who we are, what we do, our station in life, the size of our house, car, TV, or bank account, and no matter how many times a week we pray. No matter how often we show up for worship, how many committees we work on, or the chores we do around the church, ALL of that does mean a thing if our hearts are not in the right place.
Again, I am not giving dedicated church workers an excuse to back off unless they think what they are doing makes them any more deserving in God’s eyes than the person who wanders into a church on Christmas and Easter, if at all. The message here is that our hard work and dedication to doing mission should be a reflection of our deep appreciation for God’s grace. Conversely, our desire to help others should not be seen as forced labor to earn our salvation.
Two men came to the Temple one day to pray. One tried to make the case that his exemplary life gave him instant approval. With a humble heart, the other man pleaded for God’s mercy and grace. It is this humble heart that God seeks from each of us.