It’s amazing what you can get used to. An example: last week I was on my way home, walking down Broad Street, lost in my own musings and enjoying the crisp fall weather. As I crossed South Street, I looked up to see a man about halfway down the block, walking in my direction. Immediately the great question that haunts all city-dwellers popped into my mind: do I make eye contact and smile, or do I pretend like I don’t see him at all? I usually opt for the former, even if it makes me seem less cosmopolitan and chic. So as the gentleman and I approach one another, I look up, ready to smile, and suddenly he says, “Right…right. That’s exactly what I said. What in the world is she thinking?” At which point, I realized that he was, in fact, on the phone, and I laughed to myself and continued on my way.
These kinds of surprise outbursts are so common anymore that I barely even notice them. Remember the good old days, when to talk on your cell phone, you had to actually, you know, talk on your cell phone? Remember how strange it was at first to hear these one-sided conversations in public, as you sat in the train station or did your grocery shopping? But by now we’ve been through the era giant blue-blinking earpieces and the speakerphone, where people just kind of yelled in the general direction of their phone and moved on to the era of the headphones with the attached microphone. The man I saw had no visible communication device at all – no earpiece, no headphones, no phone to be seen. For all I could tell he’d had a microphone surgically implanted in his face. Nonetheless, I didn’t think a thing of it. That man who appears to be talking to himself as he walks alone down the street? Why, of course, he must be on the phone. Amazing what we can get used to.
That man who appears to be talking to himself as he stands in the midst of the temple compound? Why, of course, he must be praying. We are, of course, completely used to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We have heard this story so many times that the behavior of the Pharisee hardly strikes us as odd. The fact that he stands alone in the middle of a crowd and talks out loud is no surprise to us, because we have long ago realized that he is really talking to God, trying to pray. He gets it wrong, we know this; we’re used to watching him boast about his piety, his holiness, about how much he tithes and fasts. We’re also used to the actions of his foil, the tax collector, who stands far off and cannot even lift his eyes for shame. And, of course, we’re used to Jesus’ punchline: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other….” These two men, who appear to be talking to themselves in the courts of the temple? Why, of course, they must be praying – one of them well, and one of them not-so-well. We’re used to it.
This is, of course, dangerous. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that we “get” a parable, we should take a breath, take a step back, and sit at Jesus’ feet once more. Because we know that the parables of Jesus were intended to be shocking, to describe a world that was unlike anything his listeners were used to. Those to whom Jesus told this tale would have never seen this punchline coming in a million years. It would have seemed to them entirely outlandish, nonsensical. They would have walked away shaking their heads, wondering what color the sky was in Jesus’ world, this world where a lowlife like a tax collector, a corrupt, abusive, puppet of Rome, is held up as a model over and above a Pharisee, a faithful, righteous, strict keeper of the law.
And why is it so dangerous for us to think that we know better? After all, we have the gift of hindsight; we see the whole story, and we know how it ends. We see the color of the sky in Jesus’ world because we’re trying to live in that world, too. We know a bit better, don’t we? Ah, dangerous thinking. The risk here is two-fold: first, that we might get so used to this story, so comfortable with the caricature of Pharisee as fool and tax collector as diamond in the rough, that we will fall headlong into the parable’s trap by saying something like, “God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee.” Dangerous.
But the second risk here, if we are too quick to get used to this parable, is that we might miss the fact this Pharisee is not, actually, like the man I saw walking down Broad Street. That man looked like he was talking to himself but was actually talking to someone else. The Pharisee in this story looks like he’s talking to God but is actually talking to himself. He doesn’t speak as if God is actually listening; he’s just thinking out loud, talking to himself about what he’s done, and how he feels about it. God doesn’t have much to do with it. Even the text itself is unclear here. The Greek phrase which describes his prayer translates to something like, “he prayed thus to himself.” Does this mean he prayed under his breath so that no one else could year? Or does it literally mean that he was praying to himself? Or, perhaps, does the ambiguity simply lie there, challenging us to think differently, about him and about ourselves?
There are times in all of our lives when we find ourselves praying thus to us? It’s an easy trap to fall into. It’s easy to get so used to our prayers that we are blinded to the fact that they actually do ascend to heaven like incense. We pray without actually praying, start a conversation with the expectation that no one is really listening. An example: we confess our sins often in this place – every Sunday, every day, in fact. We offer a weekly opportunity for private confession. But do we say those words as if God is actually listening? When we say, “Most merciful Father,” do we feel, in the speaking of those words, that we are demanding the attention of Almighty God? When we pray, “we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,” are we just talking to ourselves, going over a list in our own heads and for our own sakes, waiting for the priest to turn around with words of absolution, waiting to get up off our knees? Are we talking to God, or to ourselves?
This parable reminds us that whether we recognize it or not, God is listening. God is always listening. God does hear us talking. This confession that we make week after week, day after day, can never be an empty gesture, because it’s real. It’s efficacious. It matters. We have really sinned, you and I have sinned, the Church has sinned, the country has sinned, our forebears have sinned. And God knows it, knows all of our sins already, even those that we are too afraid to bring to mind. God listens. If we were able to really grasp this, if we were to feel the sharp reality of this conversation, to acknowledge God’s Almighty, Omnipotent presence, our regular confessions would feel far different. We might even find ourselves beating our breasts, kneeling with heads bowed low, foreheads on the ground, unable to speak at all. We might find ourselves echoing the words of God’s people in Jeremiah, praying that God will not completely reject us, hoping that God does not loathe us, longing for peace and healing, hoping against all hope that God will continue to be righteous, that God will continue to forgive.
But this is not meant to scare us. Because the truth is that if we let ourselves become so used to speech of our confession that we are only really giving it lip service, we miss out. We miss out on the opportunity to feel the transformational grace of God’s mercy, the unearned and unmerited gift that God gives us when he says to us again and again, yes, I hear you, yes, you are mine, and yes, I forgive you, I cherish you, I see you and seek you out, and yes, through the merits of my only son, your beloved Savior, Jesus Christ, I even exalt you.
So go ahead. Make your humble confession before Almighty God, devoutly kneeling. Pray as if he is listening, talk not to yourself but to him, and know his infinite mercy and love. Speak, you humble, beautiful sinners, speak you servants, for your God is listening.
Mother Takacs is Associate Rector at Saint Mark's Church and serves as Servant Year's Chaplain.