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Archive for the ‘prayer’ Category

I think the meaning of Luke 18:10-14 remains unchanged even when the roles are reversed. Here’s what I mean: What if Jesus had told the story this way?

… The tax collector stood and prayed thus with himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not as other men are, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Pharisee.  I fast twice in the week. I give tithes of all that comes into my possession.’

But the Pharisee, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.

I doubt any of my readers would argue that switching the lines spoken by the two men has subtracted anything from the essential teaching of Jesus, but I’d be interested to hear.  The idea occurred to me while reading the following in a chapter on Prayer in the New Testament in a now-obscure 1926 book by W.F. Tillett.

“It is well for us to remember that there is no sin in being a Pharisee, and no saintliness in being a publican.  It is that for which one prays that reveals his real character and the quality of his religion… Thanksgiving is often the best kind of prayer, but such thanksgiving as this man offered was nothing but an offensive expression of self-conceit and complacent pride… The one supreme object of prayer is, first of all, to get rid of sin and to be justified before God.  Prayers that are directed toward this end are effectual and saintly, whether they be offered by Pharisees or publicans.” (Providence Prayer and Power, p. 214).

It is just as easy to detect the gist of the divine message when the Pharisee’s lines are placed on the lips of the wealthy publican. Because it’s not merely about the justification of the ‘outcast’ publican (although that element might have appealed to Luke) but about the inefficacious mindset of the self-congratulatory do-gooder at prayer – whoever he may be.

My role reversal does lose the implied criticism of the Pharisee as a religious type, but I doubt such a negative stereotype can explain everything – especially in view of the high probability that there were decent Pharisees among his own followers.

However, I admit that the New Testament version bears a glint of religious genius to which my role-reversal cannot attain – the added irony of the superior wealth of the ‘justified’ in the Gospel account.  The special shock-value contributed to the story by the wealth of the publican was a factor which I think cannot have escaped the mind of Jesus.  I’ve seen uninspired visual portrayals of the story which fail to deliver this irony because they depict the Pharisee as the far better-dressed man.

Wilbur Fisk Tillett  (1854-1936) was dean of the Theological faculty and professor of Christian doctrine at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.

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I will hear what the Lord God speaks within me

Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis (1441), Book III, Chap 1

Book III of The Imitation of Christ contains teaching so high and unusually bold, it is easy to imagine that the text was purposely ‘hidden’ after Books I and II – two books full of admonitions and warnings – in order that readers might be ‘screened’ for humility, to be sure they are worthy to behold Book III.

The quote above is actually a paraphrase of Psalm 85:8 – but a’ Kempis trims it down to the pure gold of personal inner experience.  The Bible verse is more general; check it out:

“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,

for he will speak peace to his people,

to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

(RSV – Ps 84 in some Bibles)

‘The gift of ears,’ is of course not among the spiritual gifts listed by Paul, but I think the New Testament provides grounds for a  more general recognition of the authenticity of inspired ‘hearing’.  Back to The Imitation:

Blessed is the soul that hears the Lord speaking within her, and receives from his mouth the word of consolation.  Blessed the ears that catch the pulse of the divine whisper, and take no notice of the whisperings of this world.

(Book III, Chap 2, trans. Justin McCann, 1954)

But would-be prophets should understand that a gift like this “divine whisper” is for individual admonition and enlightenment only – not a word by which we may ‘lord it over’ neighbor or church.  Only the individual Christian is justified in risking such a prayer as this, which the author makes for himself:

Let not Moses, nor any of the prophets, speak to me;

Speak Thou, rather, O Lord God, the inspirer and enlightener of all the prophets;

For Thou alone, without them, can perfectly instruct me; but they, without Thee, will avail me nothing…

They give the letter, but Thou dost disclose the spirit.

They announce mysteries, but Thou dost unlock their secret meaning.

They declare the commandments, but Thou dost enable us to fulfil them.

They point out the way, but Thou givest strength to walk in it.

They work outwardly only, but Thou dost instruct and enlighten the heart.

They water without, but Thou givest the increase.

(Book III, Chap 2)

I think the ‘gift of ears’ – rightly used – is perhaps the master-key to all gifts of the Spirit – yielding to each individual the precious boon of judgment, of righteousness, and conviction of sin.

Do Thou speak, O Lord my God, the eternal Truth, lest I die and prove fruitless, if I be admonished outwardly only, and not enkindled within; lest I be condemned at the Judgment because the word was heard and not fulfilled, known and not loved, believed and not observed.

(Book III, Chap 2)

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if Jesus was in fact praying the Psalms on the cross, Mark supplies the origin (Ps 22:1) and Luke the terminus (Ps 31:5) of the Lord’s final conscious string of prayer.

According to Mark, Jesus is heard by bystanders to have spoken from the cross words which are found in Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34).  Most commentators will admit (even if they disagree) that an old interpretation of this text claims that Jesus might well have been ‘praying the Psalms’ to himself in Aramaic during that last forsaken hour.

However, Mark further relates that these bystanders believed Jesus was calling Elijah, and offered Jesus a sop of soldier’s wine, waiting to see if Elijah would come for him.  It is not until after this interlude that physical death comes when, as Mark writes, Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last (Mk 15:37).

According to Luke, the addition at Mk 15:37 doesn’t tell the whole story.  Luke has reason to report that the last loud cry which Mark reports on the lips of Jesus just before he breathed his last was in the form of actual words:  “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!”  Unbelieving Jesus scholars won’t like this, but I think Luke’s report of more speech is easier to accept than the idea of Jesus letting rip with one of those hideous screams that actors use when playing the bad guy falling off the cliff – AAAAUUGH!  Seriously?

Luke has given us a beautiful devotional window opening onto the mind of Jesus at the hour of his death.  Because these words reported by Luke are also from the Psalms (31:5).  This means that if Jesus was in fact praying the Psalms on the cross, Mark supplies the origin (Ps 22:1) and Luke the terminus (Ps 31:5) of the Lord’s final conscious string of prayer.

For Lent, then, it might be worth a shot to try ‘praying the Psalms’ with Jesus from the cross (Ps 22:1 – 31:5).  In faith imagine that you are experiencing a bit of what was actually passing through the mind of the Christ in the last few minutes of his material existence.  Put a little cheap wine on your tongue somewhere in the middle of it all.

PS – My word-count 2,302 is based on an English version I found online and copied to word processing for tabulation (minus choir directions and verse numbers).  I don’t know what it is in Aramaic.

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With help from Kierkegaard I advanced some ideas last month about prayer to an unchanging God, and here I want to start some related thoughts about God’s providence.  A theology with no theory of prayer is a study without a method.  All real theologies describe and account for the function and object of prayer, and this always relates back to their theories of divine providence.

First principles should be simple and biblical, and I think a good theory of material providence can be founded on a saying of Jesus about the manner of God’s care for the birds.

“…look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt 6:26).

Most importantly for any good principle of providence, this one does not rule out hard work.  Because anyone who follows the advice of Jesus and actually takes a ‘look at the birds’ will see that they work their little tails off all day long seeking and finding all their free provisions.

An abundance of seeds and water, of insects and other prey are available to the birds by their habitual conformity to material laws as they find them.  This kind of material providence doesn’t feature a ‘system’ designed by the birds nor a being who is propitiated by the birds.  It is instead a system which supports the very possibility of material good.  In my view, God’s perfect material providence works for us in the same way (I’ll get to the spiritual later, and the problem of evil).

Why does Jesus give no place in his material providence to purposeful (anxious) work such as sowing, reaping, and storage?  Doesn’t God help those who help themselves?  But sowing and reaping are not despised – Jesus built plenty of teaching material around the whole subject of agriculture.  And yet no farmer brings in a good crop if his acts are not in conformity to the same unchanging laws as God has laid out for his feeding of the birds.

In the same verse Jesus asks, “Are you not of more value than they?”

Divine material providence (like competition between species) is one of those delicate situations calling for this kind of rhetorical question which invites us to join the teacher’s thought on the next level (i.e. we don’t take these words as justifying any dissing of the avian races 🙂 ).

For Jesus I think ‘the next level’ is the level of our material anxiety, especially our vain hopes and false fears for tomorrow.  But he’s not giving in to these.

1.  He doesn’t suggest that we have in fact a claim on God’s love to bind him to special provisions of material needs.

2.  He’s not suggesting that any laws are subject to change to suit these needs.

3.  And in no way is he suggesting that special consideration is due to any farmer as reward for ‘good behavior’ that is not related simply to good farming.

This providence gives no place to ancient pagan beliefs – that a farmer or his priest may request dispensations of rain, or sunshine, good germination, absence of pests, tall corn, efficient harvest, and a fine excess.  This providence suggests only gracious prayers of thanksgiving for God’s loving foundation of unchanging material and spiritual laws.

(to be continued)

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“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it”

– Soren Kierkegaard (1847)

We misunderstand Kierkegaard’s meaning here if we think he’s saying prayer doesn’t reach God.  Neither is he calling prayer a one-way street, or a futile method of venting hope and desire, or a technique of problem-solving by self-hypnosis.

We Christians know that ‘God does not change’ (Mal 3:6); ‘shows no partiality’  (Rom 2:11); ‘nor shadow of turning’ (Jas 1:17).  But we have also been invited to pray (Mat 9:38 & etc.).  How’s that going to work then?

The average person might admit the Bible teaching but not recognize the theo-logical importance of a concept of an unchanging God.  The point is that prayer  invoked with the idea that God may be changed or show partiality tends to move our worship in the direction of an imaginary being of our own creation – a man-made god.  A prayer made in expectation that God will fulfill our needs and desires is a wish to make God more like us.  This is opposed to that faith which would make us more like God.

Kierkegaard recognized the religious need to reach God – to be heard – and the theological value of the concept of an unchanging God.  He preached an address in May, 1851, entitled “The Unchangeableness of God” (Jas 1:17-21), in which he developed the religious sense of this paradoxical situation – the human need  for change from a God who must be – by the Bible and the best theological definitions – unchangeable in nature.

From the opening prayer to the 1851 address:

“… Even that which we human beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moves Thee; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh; this moves Thee, O infinite Love!  But nothing changes Thee! O Thou who art unchangeable!  O Thou who in infinite love dost submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move Thee to add Thy blessing, in order that there may be wrought such a change in him who prays as to bring him into conformity with Thy unchangeable will, Thou who are unchangeable!”

I think Kierkegaard’s insight was to recognize that impassibility (freedom from suffering) was not a necessary quality of divine immutability when considered in the context of an unchanging love.

What God gets in this arrangement is a man who seeks in his prayer time the  next move in the continuous change he should be making in the direction of more and more God.

What man gets is a God that hears him, and even suffers affliction with him (if need be) in unchanging love.

Note:  Top quote,  Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (2. “Remorse, Confession, Repentance”) – ET D.V. Steere, 1938; 1851 address, in For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourselves! (Princeton, 1941)

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