A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 23 October 2022
This week we’re continuing with a section of Luke’s Gospel from last week on the subject of prayer. Luke not only places more emphasis than any of the other gospel writers on Jesus as a person of prayer, but Luke also includes more of Jesus’ teaching about prayer.
Last week we heard Luke begin this section of his gospel by writing: ‘Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.’
Jesus largely assumes that people know how to pray. That’s how things were at the time. And because we live in very different times it can be quite frustrating if we’re looking in the gospels for an A B C of how to pray.
But what you do get from Jesus is something that more than makes up for this lack: and that’s an intimacy and a freedom when it comes to praying that can encourage us in our prayer life.
The intimacy is clear when we overhear Jesus praying and calling God ‘Abba’, ‘Father’. And this intimacy spills over into his teaching about prayer: go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. Don’t heap up empty phrases or use endless numbers of words because your father knows what you need before you ask him.
Jesus had an intimate relationship with God and invites us to a similar place of intimacy with God.
Jesus is also surprisingly free when it comes to prayer. He’s in anguish in the garden of Gethsemane and prays for God to remove the cup from him that he’s being asked to drink. And on the cross he cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’. He says it how it is.
I hear Jesus saying to us: ‘Be straightforward with God, and God will be straightforward with you’. Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. Is there anyone among you who if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?
In the parables that Jesus gives us about prayer, we heard last week that there’s a surprising freedom in his approach. He’s quite happy to use the illustration of a widow badgering a dodgy judge to get justice, to encourage us to keep on praying and not to lose heart. The niceties about whether this implies that God is like a dodgy judge, don’t seem to worry him.
Before looking at today’s parable about prayer, I just want to turn briefly to our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, because it’s a striking example of the intimacy and freedom that Jesus invites us to have with God.
Jeremiah too says it how it is.
At one point elsewhere he says to God: ‘Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.’
Have we ever called God a deceitful brook?
At another point Jeremiah says to God: ‘Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought news to my father saying ‘A child is born to you, a son’.
Then Jeremiah goes on to ask: ‘Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?’
And this morning we heard Jeremiah wonder whether God has lost his way, like a traveller in a foreign land? Or whether God is confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Jeremiah too says it how it is. And I hear him saying to us: ‘Be real with God, and God will be real with you’.
Today though we heard another of Jesus’ parables on the subject of prayer, this time about a Pharisee and a tax-collector going up to the temple to pray. They’re not going there for a service but for a time of personal prayer.
And it’s a story not really about two kinds of people but more about two kinds of attitudes or ways of praying.
Yes, the first attitude begins by thanking God which is always a good place to start. But the Pharisee thanks God that he is not like other people – and goes on to spell out what he has done for God, rather than what God has done for him.
The little phrase ‘The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus’ can also be translated ‘The Pharisee, standing, was praying these things to himself.’ Translated that way it shows how this way of praying is ultimately self-centred with God as an onlooker rather than a participant.
The other way of praying that the parable contrasts this with is more authentic and direct. The tax-collector doesn’t talk about himself by referring to others. He doesn’t even raise his eyes to heaven, let alone his hands in the traditional posture for prayer.
The tax-collector beats his breast in sorrow, not so much because of his own unworthiness, but because of his overwhelming sense of God’s mercy.
It’s an honest way of praying, centred on God.
And it reminds me of the Sermon on the Mount, where, in those lovely Beatitudes which Jesus gives us, he begins:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
This second way of praying embodies just that. It’s a way of praying that’s ‘poor in spirit’ – God, be merciful to me, a sinner – and according to Jesus it’s spot on.
So what our scriptures witness to is an intimacy and a freedom with God, that God longs to share with us.
And when it comes to an A B C of how to pray, the contemporary Nike slogan puts it well: just do it!