TWO PEOPLE AT PRAYER – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 25, Year C; Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C (RC)

October 23, 2022

Revised Common Lectionary
Joel 2:23-32 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm 65 or Psalm 84:1-7
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Sirach 33:12-14, 16-18
Psalm 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23 (7a)
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, we meet two people who went up to the Temple to pray. Those of us who have heard this story all our lives may think of the Pharisee as the “bad guy”—arrogant and condescending—and the tax collector as the “good guy”—humble and self-effacing.

It’s worth considering, however, how Jesus’ hearers might have been thinking about each of these two visitors to the Temple and how their images of these two characters affected the way that they heard this story. It’s very likely that the Pharisee’s neighbors would have thought of him positively—a leader in his community, generous, a teacher who helped others find a practical way to live by God’s word. On the other hand, the tax collector would have been regarded with contempt—a colluder who cheated and even extorted others to line his own pockets while channeling required tax payments to the Roman occupiers.

The scene portrayed in this story is actually a pretty unlikely one. Pharisees centered their practice of religion not in the Temple, but in the home. If you were a tax collector, you surely knew that you were a persona non grata and so also unlikely to appear in the precincts of the Temple. Yet here they are, praying at the same time in the same place.

Every aspect of this parable seems designed to shock listeners and to make them question their assumptions. Sure, the Pharisee carried out religious practices in a way that far exceeded what was required, but the character we meet today mistakenly assumed that his own actions would assure his righteousness. The tax collector had no such illusions, realizing that he was totally dependent for his justification on God and God’s mercy. The Pharisee fell into a trap in which good, religious people can often become ensnared—thinking that their good works make them righteous, when in fact it is dependence on God that is required first and foremost.

Jesus is in no way slamming the value of good deeds, which will naturally follow from an authentic faith in God’s mercy and goodness. Yet he lifts up the tax collector, who had no good deeds to show, because he acknowledged his need for mercy and so approached God with humility of heart.

In an interesting coincidence, today’s reading from 2 Timothy presents something of a farewell soliloquy from Paul. Although it’s unlikely that Paul is the author, this letter was written in his name and reflects his teaching. In the passage we hear today, he sounds somewhat boastful: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Unlike the Pharisee in today’s Gospel, however, Paul is speaking to encourage a younger colleague in ministry as he faces the hardships of his calling. Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, he makes clear his total reliance on God’s grace, and even in today’s passage acknowledges that “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength” (2 Tim 4:17).

In our praying, we are called to stand humbly before God like the tax collector—deeply aware of our own sin and completely dependent on God’s grace. At the same time, we are to stand boldly before others like Paul—always willing to witness to the great things that God has done in our lives.

A Hymn for Today: “Two People Came to Church to Pray”

Mennonite hymn writer and Hymn Society member Adam M. L. Tice has written a text based on today’s Gospel reading that focuses on humility of heart. The directness and simplicity of Tice’s poetry underscore the message of the text.

Interestingly, this text has been paired with two contrasting tunes: the cheerful FOREST GREEN and the more reflective MAPLE AVENUE.

Two people came to church to pray,
Assured that God would hear.
The first had many words to say,
And spoke them loud and clear:
“I thank you, God, and give you praise
That I am blessed to be
A model of your holy ways
For all who care to see.”

Two people came to church to pray,
Assured that God would hear.
The second prayed a diff’rent way,
Both humble and sincere:
“O God, be merciful to me!
Forgive your sinful child.”
By uttering this simple plea,
A soul was reconciled.

Two people came to church to pray,
And God knew ev’ry thought;
But one was justified that day,
The other one was not.
When what we pray becomes a boast,
We win no great reward;
For what our God desire the most
Is humble hearts outpoured.

Text: Adam M. L. Tice, b. 1979, © 2008, GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.

Image Credit: Pharisee and the Publican, James Tissot, 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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