Ps 119: 73-88; Jonah 3; Lk 18: 9-14
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and as you might know, we’re looking at prayer over this season of Lent.
This evening’s readings have two stories around prayer, although the stories show how God’s vision can be upside down compared to the expectations of society.
In Luke, the pharisees were thought of as pious and devoted to the Mosaic law, often middle-class businessmen who were influential in the synagogues. They strictly adhered to the law and they regularly challenged Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The prayer of the pharisee is something of a parody, as he’s keen to say he’s pleased he is that he’s not like certain people, including the tax collector in the story. And he also says that he does more than the law requires, he fasts, he tithes and this would have been something to be admired. However, for the readers of Luke by this stage in the gospel, they are going to be viewing the pharisee with suspicion, and the tax collector more positively.
Tax collectors were collaborators with the Romans, taking taxes and then adding their own percentages. They were viewed as unclean because of their contact with the Romans, and their money was seen as been obtained illegally, if a tax collector entered your house all that in it was unclean. Similarly, the presence of a tax collector in the temple as in this parable would have been seen as a defilement.
So, he stands at a distance, maybe he is almost on the edge of the temple, and he lowers his eyes, beating his breast as a sign of repentance. And, for the tax collector, fulfilling his prayer would mean repaying money to those he’d cheated, giving up his job of working with the Romans, thus losing his livelihood, and risking Roman wrath.
The tax collector’s prayer is a simple one, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’. And it is he who is justified by God. The reign of God is not based on power, prestige, even being religious, it’s an inner attitude of relationship with God. A simple honesty.
The parable of Jonah offers us another contrast. The rather bizarre prophet Jonah, who refuses God’s call, who goes off in the other direction in chapter 1, and eventually, reluctantly, agrees to go to the Nineveh to prophesy doom on these people who have tormented Israel. But he never repents of his lack of willingness to deliver God’s message when he was first asked.
When he finally does go, in the chapter we had read, his message is delivered without the customary ‘Thus says the Lord’. It’s ‘Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown’. That’s all the prophesying he does in the whole book.
But, to Jonah’s great dismay, the people of Nineveh react, even the King, who orders complete repentance in sackcloth and fasting for all the people, even the animals.
So, the contrast in the parable is stark, the prophet of God who refuses to repent for rebelling against God, and the nonbelieving inhabitants of Nineveh who fully repent for whatever wrong they are supposed to have committed. And God responds as promptly, and repents of the evil he had planned for them.
Prayer as action, as doing something. The King put on sackcloth and sat down in the ashes, the people and the animals wore sackcloth. Prayer can involve our whole bodies, in action. It may be simply how we sit, or we might lie down to pray. Equally we might pray by walking, so we might walk in our environment, praying for the earth and the issues around climate change, for instance. Or, what would it be like to see our work, or our roles, or our conversations with others as prayer? Prayer in action.
So, what does all this say about prayer? Keep it simple, keep it genuine. Maybe acknowledge our faults, recognise when our lives become more about ourselves than about God. To own up to it. And, it’s good to pray in simple ways like the tax collector. And, the prayer has become one which people still use, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Also, pray actively, pray in motion, using our bodies.
Yet, prayer is also about listening to God. The people of Nineveh responded to what is probably the shortest prophetic utterance in all the books of prophets in the Hebrew bible. But they listened. And, the tax collector seems to have responded to some sense of his inauthentic life, of how he is hurting others, of going wrong. It’s off-stage, but he’s clearly heard something of God speaking to him.
So, how do we also listen?
One way is through the book of Psalms, part of which we had sung earlier. It’s a biblical book which has, to some extent fallen out of fashion. At one point it was thought of as the prayer book of the church, but elements within it, which can be violent, condemnatory, accusatory against others, can make it uncomfortable reading. However, if we read it as words written by poets and songwriters who are expressing their struggle with faith and with their lives we might find it helpful. They struggle as we struggle. These writers don’t hold back, whether it is blaming themselves, or others, or even God. They let it all out, both in terms of complaint and in praise.
Alongside the Lenten prayer app which you might be using, Church House Publishing has another app on its webpages which is called ‘Reflections on the psalms.’ The reflections are written from different traditions within the Church of England, so there’s a range of opinion, but for me, its usefulness is also that it can direct us to a psalm to read each day.
And in the same way that Jesus often does, we can use the Psalms to speak to ourselves. To see which words and phrases catch our attention, and pray with those words, phrases or verses.
So, it’s not inappropriate to read a Psalm slowly through, to savour it, in what’s called the lectio divina style of prayer. To notice which words demand our attention, which words capture us. Then we can gently read those words over and over, almost like sucking a boiled sweet, to allow those words to come deeper into us.
As a result, we can find that we are listening to God, speaking to us freshly.
I’d like to use the Psalm which we had sung earlier as an example. Psalm 119 is a huge Psalm, and is usually divided into small segments. Each verse reflects in some way on the Torah, the instruction, the law found in the Hebrew bible.
I realise that some of you may be familiar with this way of praying, but I’d like to use the passage we had sung as an example of this of style, and some of the verses which touch similar ideas of God’s mercy, love and faithfulness. For the sake of time, I’d like to imagine that I am praying these verses. I would usually read them through once, then I would start to read them very slowly, noticing what catches my attention, or what jumps out at me in some way. And then I’d read that phrase or verse over and over again, until my attention drifts, and then I’d continue reading it through. I’d carry on for as long as I’d planned to pray it, which may be five minutes, or twenty. Or, whatever seems appropriate.
So, I’d like to read some of the verses slowly, and invite you to notice what, if anything, touches you in some way. And, if you can, to stay with the feel of those words. I’ll read them through three times, and if nothing catches you, let the words wash over you. When I stop I’d invite you to sit in silence with them for a moment, and then to respond to God in some way. It might be a ‘thank you’, it might be ‘I want that’, it might be an annoyed or puzzled response, or simply a sense of comfort. And then I’ll say ‘Amen’, and walk back to my seat. David might give us a moment longer in silence, but I’ll leave that up to him.
So, I suggest you sit comfortably, and close your eyes if that feels ok, or else to just lower your eyes. And then to simply follow these words as we pray them to God:
“I know, O Lord, that your judgements are right, and that in faithfulness you have humbled me.
Let your steadfast love become my comfort, according to your promise to your servant.
Let your mercy come to me, that I may live, for your law is my delight….”
(Ps. 119: 75-77)