Lord, Teach Us To Pray: Humble as a Mumble

by | Mar 5, 2023


Jarrett McLaughlin
“Lord, Teach Us To Pray: Humble as a Mumble”
March 5, 2023
Luke 18: 9-14

We are continuing our series called “Lord, Teach Us to Pray.” We are taking a tour of the prayers contained in Scripture to see what they can tell us about the practice of prayer. Today’s prayer is lodged within one of Jesus’ parables found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18, verses 9 through 14. Before we read, though, I invite you to pray with me.

Prayer for Illumination:

Lord, we are distracted by many things and we do not know how to pray as we ought. By your Spirit, guide us into deeper truths of who you are and who we might yet become. Amen.


[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
This is the Word of the Lord. THANKS BE TO GOD.


If I may, I’d like to begin with a brief history of the many ways that I have practiced self-aggrandizement in the eyes of my children.

I have told my daughters that I invented the cartwheel, the forward roll and really the entire discipline of gymnastics.
I have also claimed to be the most flexible person in the world…but only between the hours of 2:00 and 4:30 am when they are asleep…that’s why they never get to see it.

When they are unhappy with my attempts at putting their hair up, I remind them that even if mine aren’t as tight as their mother’s, the ponytail really was all my idea.

Let’s see…additionally, I choreographed the entirety of High School Musical and I taught Lin Manuel Miranda how to rap, so if you’re a fan of the musical Hamilton, you are welcome.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think they’re buying it.

As a Father, though, telling tall tales is kind of my thing.
This may explain why I feel some kinship with this Pharisee in our parable today.

Jesus populates his parable with two characters – and both of them are a little Extra. They’re Caricatures actually.

In one corner you have a Pharisee who is pretty pleased with himself. His prayer reads more like a resume to God. Like High School seniors feverishly making their case to a college admission board, the Pharisee submits all of his holier-than-thou bonafides, trusting that these are what will make him acceptable in the eyes of God.

Here’s the thing though – None of this was expected of a first-century Pharisee. A first century Jew might fast once a year on the day of Atonement. Fasting twice a week is ridiculous. Tithing a tenth of what you earn…maybe. A tenth of everything you own – that’s absurd. I imagine even a Pharisee would laugh at such an over-the-top caricature.

In the other corner you have a tax collector. The Gospels have conditioned us to scorn the Pharisees as Jesus’ enemies while having great sympathy for the poor, defenseless, ostracized tax collectors that Jesus so often befriended. Again, for Jesus’ original audience this would have been quite the opposite.

A tax collector paid Rome for the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Empire. Of course, Rome did not care if you collected more than the prescribed tax, so long as the Emperor got his cut. So Tax collectors were notorious for fleecing the peasant class to line their own pockets. They were low-down, despicable traitors. Think Benedict Arnold meets Bernie Madoff.

All to say, when Jesus trotted out this tax collector, it’s not difficult to imagine his original audience “Boo-ing” something fierce.

But here’s the thing – parables are not fables with predictable moral lessons. Parables are more like fishing lures – they draw you in with flash and bright feathers, but then comes the bite of the barb that you did not see coming.

Parables subvert expectations.
By design, parables make us consider how utterly madcap the Kingdom of God might be.

If anybody was going to leave the Temple justified in the eyes of God, it was going to be the Pharisee. He is a model of faithful living. What then should we think when it is the tax collector who is lifted up instead.

Perhaps the answer lies in their respective prayers.

Last week, during Children’s Time, I got out my toothbrush and said that there’s no one right way to pray just like there’s no one right way to brush your teeth.

Incidentally, I did receive this email last week: “I’m barely a dentist but on behalf of pediatric dentists and hygienists in this town who have spent months, IF NOT YEARS, teaching children the correct method of brushing their teeth – What Have You Done?!?”

Yeah – I might need to back-pedal on that one. There may very well be some preferable ways to brush your teeth…but this parable most definitely demonstrates that there is a wrong way to pray. It’s all in the I’s and the Eyes.

In his prayer, the Pharisee says “I” four times in the course of a very short prayer.
“I thank you that I am not like this Tax Collector.”
“I tithe twice a week.”
“I give a tenth of everything I own…the prayer is all Me, Me, Me.

It’s not “How Great Thou Art.”
It’s “How Great I Am.”

But it’s just as much about his eyes.
When the Pharisee prays – did you notice where his eyes are focused…where he is looking? He’s looking directly at the tax collector. He literally cannot tear his eyes away from the guy. For the brief moment that the prayer escapes the gravitational pull of his ego, it doesn’t soar heavenward towards God at all. All he can see is this tax collector who fills him with revulsion. His prayer is oriented horizontally.

By contrast, the tax collector’s eyes are oriented vertically. Luke says he would not even look up to heaven but instead beat his breast, saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” God is centered in the prayer – which is a humble mumble for mercy and grace.

To be clear, praying with an eye towards the horizontal is not a bad thing at all. We are supposed to pray for our family and our friends and strangers.
The communities we live in and the people we encounter deserve our prayerful attention.
Praying with your eyes fixed on others is not only okay, it’s crucial.

But if our prayer causes us to drift further away from our neighbor then something is not quite right. And did you catch that detail – when the Pharisee prays, Luke takes care to say that he “stood by himself.”
If prayer increases our distance from and our disdain for others then perhaps we aren’t doing it right.

Prayer ought to lead us toward one other;
Prayer ought to lead us into a deeper compassion.

Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes about the practice of prayerfully seeking Christ in every person you meet:

The next time you go to the grocery store, try engaging the cashier. You do not have to invite her home for lunch or anything, but take a look at her face while she is trying to find arugula on her laminated list of produce.

Here is someone who exists even when she is not ringing up your groceries. She is someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s mother. She has a home she returns to when she hangs up her apron here, a kitchen that smells of last night’s supper, a bed where she occasionally lies awake wrestling with her own demons and angels.

“You saved eleven dollars and six cents by shopping at Winn Dixie today,” she says, looking right at you. All that is required is that you look back. Just meet her eyes for a moment when you say “Thanks.” Sometimes that is all another person needs to know; that she has been seen – not the cashier, but the person.”

I wonder what would happen within this Pharisee if he began to wonder “Why does this tax collector participate in such a terrible taxation system?”

Or if he just got curious about what brought the tax collector into the Temple for prayer in the first place: “What if this tax collector is longing for a way out? What if he wants to change?”

But so long as he stands by himself, thanking God that he’s not like those people, he’ll never reach that place of deep compassion.

One crucial purpose for Prayer is that it expands the realm of our concern…it broadens the scope of who and what concerns us.
Prayer stretches our capacity for care so that it takes in more people and more situations.

When we practice prayer like that – who’s to say – maybe we just might become the most flexible people in the world. May it be so. Amen.