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Message Supplement for Sunday 27 October 2019: “Pure Prayer”

Today’s message is from Luke 18:9-14, where Jesus told a story about two praying men at the Jerusalem Temple. The gist of the lesson is that self-righteous pride contaminates what would otherwise be a pure prayer.

The first praying man in Jesus’ story was a Jewish Pharisee, someone who savored his status as an elitist. This man asserted that he was not like “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11b). The Pharisee then told God how rigorously religious he was in fasting and in giving a percentage of his money. In effect, the Pharisee was saying, “God, look at how good I am compared to others and look at the great things I’m doing for you.”

The second man who was praying was a despised tax collector, and he simply cried “ ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ ” (Luke 18:13b). Whereas that first praying man was full of pride and put other people down to elevate himself, the tax collector confronted his own sins. Jesus was essentially declaring that this tax collector was more morally upright. The tax collector didn’t seek acceptance by God based on a false sense of moral superiority or on following strict religion.

The self-righteous Pharisee whom Jesus criticized was trusting in religious rules and traditions. This type of behavior appears when people use a strangulating code of conduct to justify themselves. Another problem is the sense of moral superiority felt when someone denounces an outsider who can’t or won’t perform certain rituals or who was born outside a certain ethnic group or religion. Jesus overcame all these problems by teaching principles which promote a loving, personal relationship with God.

Which of the two men from today’s story best represents you? Are you trusting in mere religion, perhaps out of habit, decorum or fear? Can you keep all the rules & regulations of a faith so rigorous that it suffocates your soul? Are you trying to earn your way to heaven by outward acts of piety? Drawing close to God transcends religious-based diets, tests of theological purity, silly arcane rituals and even creeds and confessions—all these can cause more problems than they attempt to solve. Instead, God wants people to follow the example of the tax collector who, though of bad reputation, ironically had the healthiest spirit with his sincere and simple faith.

There’s an unhealthy tendency for people to become isolated in tribes, neighborhoods, clans, ethnic groups and other aspects of social identity. The problem is that voluntary or forced segregation reinforces racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes. When people willingly segregate themselves it can promote suspicion that feeds prejudice and discrimination. God wants people to practice compassion, even toward the dreaded “other” or foreigner who may seem very different from you. Allow God’s Spirit to guide you over, through and around all boundaries that separate you from other human beings.

Sadly, religion can cause harm by advancing elitism, thereby contributing to social divisions. People who are soul sick from toxic religion become like the living dead, akin to zombies who bite with a mindless zeal which they mistake for righteousness. Instead, God encourages that the faithful reach out with a gentle and open spirit and embrace outsiders, even those who are look different, speak another language, and identify with a minority culture. Moreover, don’t allow a job title, occupation, social status, racial or sexual identity alienate you from your neighbors. All of us are of one human family, sharing the spiritual core that also connects us with God.

Following God’s path means that you can champion justice and equality rather than elitism and separation.  You’ll need persistence and mental toughness to help avoid frustration, especially when overcoming barriers people construct when you’re trying to help them. Not everyone will at first accept you or the assistance you’re willing to provide. Also, the journey toward social justice isn’t an exercise of angry, punching fists against real or imagined enemies. Even more than how you pray, how you demonstrate a humble, authentic faith will draw you closer to God. Your proper attitude will also encourage healthy relationships with other human beings who are just as imperfect as you.

It’s best to avoid the attitude of that ancient Pharisee or any of his modern step-children. Such a prideful, judgmental approach spreads a cancer into the spiritual DNA of humanity and can lead to persecutions and wars. Resist poison pride and instead realize that you are just as fallible and prone to moral failings those who are dismissed and condemned for their imperfections.

Even when other mere mortals think that they are better than you are, recognize that such preferential exclusivism isn’t from God. Offer your prayers to the Almighty without any tinge of pride or self-righteous elitism.  In other words, engage a pure prayer. As you do so, you’ll grow a healthy soul and God’s living Spirit will sprout new life from within you.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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