Ep.174: What to Do When the King Goes Away.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Jesus told this story in Luke 19: 

A nobleman went away to have himself appointed king. Some of his subjects who hated him sent a delegation saying, “Please don’t make him king!” Before he left, the nobleman gave ten servants one mina each (perhaps $30,000 in today’s money), and told them to put it to work while he was away.

When he received his promotion and came back as king, he asked the servants to report how they’d used his money. The first had turned one mina into ten; the next turned his mina into five. The king praised them for being faithful and made them rulers in his kingdom.

A third servant reported, “I was afraid of you, because you are a hard master. You take out what you did not put in and you reap what you did not sow. So I stored your mina under my mattress, and here it is safe and sound!” 

The master replied, “If you knew I’m like that you should at least have put the money in a bank account to earn interest. Give this servant’s mina to the one who has ten.” 

Then he said, “By the way, all those people who didn’t want me to be king–execute them right now.” 

I think the point of this story is that the servants had to make a difficult choice in a dangerous political situation. If their master became king, they sure wanted to be on his side; but if his opposition successfully blocked his appointment, it would be better to side with them. What to do?

Clearly, the best option was to lie low and see who wins. If the servants openly traded their money in the nobleman’s name, it would be obvious to the haters and complainers whose side they were on. Safer to stick the money under a mattress until the political dust settles. 

So the master’s invitation was not simply to engage in trade and make money; it was an invitation to trust him rather than his opposition, to work openly on his behalf in an uncertain political and economic climate, to cast their lot with him when he was hated and absent. 

When the nobleman returned as king, he did not praise the servants for being successful and making lots of money. He praised them for being faithful, for being true to him when he was away, for declaring their loyalty to him through the political and economic storm. 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, it’s been a long time since you left to get yourself appointed king. In your absence, the world has been wracked with political and economic chaos, with religious wars, with rulers who would crucify you again if they could. We don’t see much evidence that your petition to become king has been granted. Perhaps we should play it safe, hide our allegiance to you, appear more accommodating to those who hate you.

But you are our Lord. Thank you for trusting us in your absence. We renew our allegiance to you alone, we support your cause, we trade openly in your name. 
    Though we have not seen you,
      we love you,
    And though we do not see you now,
      we believe in you,
      and are filled with joy inexpressible and full of glory
       for we are receiving the goal of our faith,
      the salvation of our souls (1 Peter 1:8-9).

In your absence, Jesus, we feel your presence within us. In your silence, we have heard your voice in our hearts. In your slowness to return, we have felt the gathering storm of your purpose. Grant us patience to wait and work.

And come quickly, Lord Jesus, to declare yourself openly as king.       

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Note: For this interpretation of the parable see Bailey, Kenneth E. The Presbyterian Outlook (April 2001). Online at https://pres-outlook.org/2001/04/capitalism-and-the-parable-of-the-talents/

Ep.173: Psalm 76: Warrior God.

Hello. I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Psalm 76 is a hymn of praise to God, the great warrior. Today, instead of following the poet into a prayer that asks God to be our warrior, let’s reflect on the topic of war as the Bible presents it.

The theme of killing to solve relationship problems surfaces in the first book of the Bible. After Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden, they had two sons. Cain, the elder, felt God was showing favoritism to Abel, his younger brother. Cain’s solution was to kill Abel. Today, individuals and nations still use this approach to address difficult relationships. 

Much of the Old Testament details the Israelite conquest of Canaan, the Promised Land. The Bible describes the conquest not as a “holy war” or “genocide”, but as a “divine war”, in which God demonstrates his power against false and evil gods to establish worship of the one true God. This is why the psalms celebrate God’s victory over evil and idolatry, and urge God into further battles. (See Thomas, Heath. The Old Testament, “Holy War” and Christian Morality. Blog post, 21 November 2011 at https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/the-old-testament-holy-war-and-christian-morality/).

But when God’s chosen nation, Israel, fell into idolatry, God showed that he is no respecter of nations. He sent  warring nations against Israel to expose and correct their errors. And what of Israel today? Does God protect them as his chosen nation? Or is Israel balanced on a sharp edge of violence and corrupt politics, as their ancestors were when God decreed the Babylonian exile? 

In the New Testament, Jesus and Paul are realists about war. The Israel they lived in was conquered and occupied by Rome. Using a battle metaphor, Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mat 10:34), and he predicted a future filled with “wars and rumors of wars” (Mat 24:6). Paul told Timothy to “fight the battle well” (1 Tim 1:18). In the book of Revelation, John had a vision of “divine war” at Armageddon at the end of time, when God will attack and destroy the enemies of his persecuted and oppressed people (Revelation 16).

I make three comments on war in the Bible

  1. First, wars and killing are pervasive in biblical stories and imagery. Just as they are in human history, for as long as people have written their stories and painted pictures on the walls of caves.
  2. Second God is present and active in human history, including wars. We’re fortunate that he doesn’t abandon us when things get messy and violent.
  3. Third, I find it helpful to interpret my life using metaphors of war. There are Goliaths within I must kill–hate and lies and envy. There are enemies in the world we must fight–injustice, poverty, and ignorance. Whether the psalms speak literally or metaphorically of war, they paint a true picture of the life we live and the God we serve.

Let’s pray, using some of the images from Psalm 76. 

    O God, you are radiant with light,
        more majestic than mountains rich with game.
    The valiant lie plundered,
        they sleep their last sleep;
    not one of the warriors
        can lift his hand.
    At your rebuke, God of Jacob,
        both horse and chariot lie still (vv. 4-6). 

O God, we have caught a vision of your radiant light, more majestic than mountains. As we journey, stumbling in darkness toward this vision, we encounter enemies everywhere. The world and our own hearts are rampant with prejudice, with lust, with pettiness and anger. As you waged divine war on behalf of Israel, so wage divine war in our lives. Lay waste the enemies of our souls, rebuke  them until horse and chariot lie still, until evil sleeps its last sleep. 

  You, God rose up to judge,
    to save all the afflicted of the land.
  Surely your wrath against mankind brings you praise,
    and the survivors of your wrath are restrained.

You are a God to be feared and obeyed, because nothing stops your plan to bring righteousness and justice and peace. The violent will be deposed, the unjust punished, and the wicked rebuked. O God, cleanse us from unrighteousness, purge the violence from our hearts, that we may greet you with joy and not with fear when you come. 

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.172: Bridesmaids, Wise and Foolish.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

In Matthew 24, Jesus tells a story about ten bridesmaids, waiting at the groom’s house for him to bring his bride to the wedding. When they found the bride, the groom’s companions would parade the bride and groom through town and country on their way home, choosing the route for friendly social impact instead of a carefully scheduled arrival. 

While this was happening, the bridesmaids talked themselves out, grew tired of waiting, and fell asleep. At midnight someone shouted, “The groom is coming!” The bridesmaids rushed to prepare their lamps, but only five of them, the wise ones, had enough oil. The other five said, “Hey, can you loan us some oil?” But the wise ones said, “We only have enough for ourselves.” 

While the five rushed out to buy oil, the bride and the groom arrived, started the party, and locked the door. When the five returned they knocked and said, “Please let us in.” But the groom replied, “Sorry, I don’t know you” and left them out in the night. 

Here are some observations on this story. 

First, it’s a story for our place in history. We are the bridesmaids, waiting for Jesus to return. But two thousand years and seventy generations of Christians later, there’s still no sign of his coming. Perhaps we need extra oil for our lamps.  

Second, all ten bridesmaids fell asleep, so in this parable, the point isn’t staying awake and watching. Jesus called some “foolish”, not because they slept, but because they didn’t carry extra oil to keep their lamps lit in case the party was delayed. Were they supposed to predict an unexpected delay and prepare for it?

Third, what does it mean for me to be waiting with a lamp, carrying extra oil in case the party is delayed? It’s an odd metaphor to layer onto my dog-walking, book-reading, video-producing, automobile-driving days. 

Fourth, When the five who went out to get oil returned to the party, why didn’t the groom open the door to them? Seems rather harsh. They solved their problem, didn’t they? They found the oil they needed. Did his “No” perhaps mean, “Not now. Come back tomorrow”? 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, it’s been a long wait for Jesus’ return, two thousand years and counting. In that time, the Roman empire has fallen, the nation of Israel has disappeared and come back again. The religion of Islam has risen to worldwide prominence. The Christian church has split into Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant branches. The human race has worked miracles with technology–miracles of communication, agricultural production, entertainment and weapons development. But we haven’t solved the problems of evil and poverty and prejudice and war. 

So we continue to wait for your kingdom, Jesus, for your return. We are not world-movers; we are your humble servants. But we receive into our small lives the gifts you offer in your stories. Here is our mustard seed of faith. Here is our pinch of yeast in the bread you are making. Here is our supply of oil in the lamp of faith. 

Teach us to be like the wise bridesmaids, keeping a constant supply of the oil of your kingdom. Renew and replenish the motivation of our lives, the preparation of our hearts, the deepness of our trust, that will keep our lamps burning, ready for the great wedding party you promised when at last you return.  

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Ep.171. Psalms. Half-time Break.

Hello. I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

The recent episode on Psalm 75 marks the halfway point in our journey through the psalms. Today, we take a half-time break to reflect on what we’ve encountered.

One thing I notice is that these ancient psalms are as current as the Globe and Mail. Three thousand years ago, psalmists were already covering today’s news: chaos, violence, and disasters;  corrupt politicians, war, and pandemics. The genius of the psalms is translating human experience into poetry rather than focusing on specific events. The Globe and Mail supplies the details of today’s disasters, but the psalms describe the experiences and emotions shared by humans in all periods of history. Names and faces change, but the news stays the same.

Another striking feature of the first 75 psalms is the backdrop of darkness and evil. I expected more praise, more optimism. But so far, the psalms have given greater expression to darkness than light, to difficulty than ease, to complaint rather than praise. In most of the psalms, however, the poet pushes through the darkness to light and hope. Perhaps then, as now, joy and hope are hard-won attitudes, rewards for struggling against doubt and despair. 

Over the last three years I have read The Harper-Collins Book of Prayers (compiled by Robert Van de Weyer. Castle Books: Edison, New Jersey, 1997), 400 pages of prayers featuring 200 authors, spanning 3000 years of history, 

In this wide field of prayers, one section stood out to me like a mountain resign above a plain. It was a small selection of prayers from the Psalms, including Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I was taken aback by the rawness, the power, the eloquence of that psalm, compared with hundreds of lesser prayers in the book. I thought, “That’s why the psalms are in the Bible. They speak simply and powerfully, as few humans have ever been able to do.” 

Another way the psalms have impacted me is by putting me in touch with my emotions. I tend to live life stoically, soldiering on through thick and thin, consulting my will, not my emotions. When I am tense and annoyed and out of sorts, my family knows it long before I do. The psalms teach me that emotion is an important part of my relationship with God and others, that love is not just a discipline or a behavior, but an emotion that wishes people well, that wants to be in relationship, that desires the best for others. 

But the scary part of emotions is that I can’t choose what ones I want to feel. If I lift the trap door and peer into the depths where I store my feelings–my love and anger and gladness and sadness–the whole crowd of them come jostling toward the light and threaten to overwhelm me. The psalms encourage me to feel each emotion and express it to God. Perhaps when the psalms have done their best with me, I will no longer be a soldier trudging along in endless twilight. Perhaps I’ll be a dancer and singer greeting the mountains and the dawn with joy, singing dirges in the valleys at night, awake to the full range of human emotion. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, in all our need, in our pain and joy, you have been there for us in the psalms. You have been our guide, leading us to green pastures and walking with us through the valley of shadows. You have been our king, bringing justice and righteousness. You have been our mother, sheltering us under your wings. 

Thank you for the psalms, for the words they teach us to pray, for the images that furnish our imagination. Thank you for the journey they take us on, moving from fear into courage, from isolation into community, from darkness into the light of your presence. 

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.170: Equal Pay for Unequal Work.

Ep.170: Luke 18: Equal Pay for Unequal Labor

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells the story of a farmer who hired day laborers to work in his vineyard. The first laborers started at sunrise; then the farmer hired additional workers 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. 

At quitting time which was 6:00 p.m., the foreman paid the laborers, starting with the five o’clockers, who had only worked one hour. They received one denarius, the standard rate for a full day’s work. Those who started in the morning thought, “This is good. Generous owner. If these guys got full pay for one hour, we should get lots for working all day.” But when their turn came, they got the same as the late-afternoon workers–just one measly denarius. 

Of course, the all-day workers grumbled. They had done the bulk of the work. They labored through the heat of the day. Hadn’t they earned more than the five o’clock slackers? What’s with this–equal pay for unequal labor? 

The farmer said , “It’s my money and I want to be generous. I don’t care when people punch in and punch out. I’m not a fan of pay equity and merit-based compensation. Go work for someone else if you want to count pennies. In my vineyard, the first are last and the last are first.” 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, are you saying that the thief on the cross who sneaked into your kingdom in questionable circumstances on his last day, will get the same reward as I, who have worked honestly and honorably all my life? Will the slackers who spent their money on motorhomes and vacation clubs, and skipped weeks of church every winter get the same reward as we who have scrimped and tithed and served the church faithfully and vacationed cheaply if at all? 

The Pharisees promoted themselves to first place in your kingdom, abstaining from evil, studying your word, keeping your laws, tithing scrupulously. But you said, “The first will be last, and the last first.” Did the Pharisees earn last place in your kingdom? I have worked hard like they did. What have I earned? 

O Jesus, here is my response to your story. I set aside all the time cards I have punched for you. All the work I have done for you. I confess I have been self-serving and arrogant, believing that my faithfulness and sacrifice deserve a generous reward. I confess to an edge of bitterness, wanting to come out ahead of the five o’clock slackers. I release my desire for recognition that I have spent years in your service, not just hours or days. 

O Jesus, I give up every claim to equal pay and generous reward. It is a privilege to be in your employ. It is an honor to work with you through the heat of the day. It is a gift to invest my life in your kingdom.

O Jesus, if the post-pandemic reckoning taxes away my savings, if inflation eats away at my comforts, if life is a struggle and its outcome uncertain; still I will praise you and work in your vineyard. It is enough to hear you call my name. It is enough to be a serf in the fields outside your castle. It is enough to spend and be spent in your service. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Ep.169: Psalm 75: God Crushes It!

Ep169_Psalm075. Power Images of God.

Hello. I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Psalm 75 uses three power images for God: God steadies the pillars of the earth (v. 3); God prepares a potion in his cup of wrath for his enemies (v. 8); and God cuts off the horns of the wicked (vv. 4-5, 10). Let’s look at these three images.

First, God says,
  I will choose the appointed time;
      I will  judge with equity.
    When the earth and all its people quake,
      I will hold its pillars firm (vv. 2-3).

This is God asserting that he will judge fairly. When the earth and its people quake, when world leaders further personal agendas, appointing only judges who agree with them, when nations build bigger bombs and missiles, when people revolt against their leaders; in all these shakings and quakings, it is God who holds the pillars of the earth firm. People may rage and collect guns and propagate fake news, but underneath are the everlasting arms. 

Second, God presents another power image when he says,
  To the arrogant I say, “Boast no more,”
      and to the wicked, “Do not lift up your horns.
    Do not lift your horns against heaven;
        do not speak defiantly” (vv. 4-5).
    “I will cut off the horns of the wicked,
        but the horns of the righteous will be lifted up” (v. 10). 

A word about horns. Ranchers remove horns and testicles from cattle to make them less dangerous and aggressive, safer to handle. Hunters hang racks of antlers on their walls. That says it all. You know you’re a real hunter when your wall hangings show the beasts you have conquered. God is the great hunter in this psalm, dehorning proud warrior nations, domesticating them to serve his purposes. 

The poet presents a third power image for God:
  In the hand of the Lord is a cup
        full of foaming wine mixed with spices;
    he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth
        drink it down to its very dregs (v. 8).

God’s wine is a picture of his anger. In his wrath, he makes the wicked drink wine until they are insensibly drunk, unable to strut about and make war and speak defiantly against God. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we prefer to think of you as a loving God, a safe God, but with the poet in Psalm 75, we reflect on your power and anger. We thank you that you are interested enough in human society to throw down the powerful nations and to implement justice. 

As our earth quakes and shakes with climate change, political divisiveness, fake news, drug abuse, and violence, we thank you that you judge with equity and hold firm the pillars of the earth. 

As authoritarian leaders exalt themselves, proudly displaying their horns of power–nuclear arsenals, warships, and armies–thank you, God, that you are the horn-cutter. Stop the arrogance of the wicked, crush their plans, bring the violent to a violent end. Bring wisdom and good governance on earth. 

As we see the greed and immorality of leaders, as they practice favoritism and nepotism and self-aggrandizement, we wait for you, God, to make them drink the wine of your wrath. They are drunk with self-importance, Lord. Pour out on them the wine of your anger that crushes them into submission, the wine of your wisdom that exposes their  foolishness and weakness, the wine of your justice that will put an end to their evil deeds.

O Lord, hold firm the pillars of the earth. Carry us in your everlasting arms.      

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.168: Book Review. Boase: The Prayer of Faith.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Today, let’s look at the book The Prayer of Faith  by Leonard Boase (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1976). First published in 1950, the author rewrote, rearranged, and republished in 1976. He comments on his revision: “The more things change, the more they stay the same. The car has been re-upholstered but the engine’s the same.” (p. 9) 

Boase describes prayer as a rope. The purpose of the rope is to pull. It is the pull that matters, not the rope’s color or age or hairiness or smell. In prayer, love is the pull, the most important part. We exert the pull by loving God, as we do thoroughly and with due attention whatever we happen to be occupied with–work, play, suffering, or having a time of formal prayer where we pay attention to God’s presence. 

Boase says that the first stage of prayer is usually “mental prayer”–that is, thinking about God or meditating on scripture to experience his presence. Mental prayer may succeed for a time, maybe even a long time. But then comes the darkness. (p. 23) 

He describes the darkness in a chapter titled “Frustration”, which begins: “There is a crisis in the life of prayer which, for many, spells disaster. There is a desert on this Golden Journey, where nearly everyone wanders lost and parched, and some die of thirst.” (p. 20). 

He continues, “We find ourselves lost, irretrievably lost, in the desert. No efforts, however frantic, seem to be of any avail. Not only do we feel no taste for prayer, but even if, spurred by an uneasy conscience, we override the distaste, we seem to have lost the knack.” (p. 24)  Boase  says about this darkness, “. . .we find that when we try to love God by thinking about him, our thoughts are cloudy and confused, and we cannot focus them on him or anything relating to him. This frustration. . . causes distaste and aversion to prayer.” 

I remember an early experience with this darkness. I decided to pray the Lord’s Prayer for a whole semester. But three quarters of the way through that semester, I was still unable to get past the first phrase, “Hallowed be your name”. I tried to pray almost every day, but my prayer was distracted, inattentive, unfocussed. With anger and frustration and disappointment in myself, I said to God, “I guess I’m just not able to pray. It doesn’t work for me.” 

I felt God reply “I have enjoyed your prayer this semester. It’s been good to hear you pray, ‘Hallowed be your name.’” 

Father Thomas Green makes a similar point. Suppose you plan to spend your birthday with God, he writes. You set aside the day for him and read scripture and pray and try to be present to God. But the whole day is dry and barren. You show up, but God doesn’t, and it feels like a wasted day. Then, Green says, three days later when you’re sitting on the toilet, you unexpectedly sense God’s presence and he fills you with peace and joy and the water of life.

What is it with this darkness and dryness in prayer? Boase says it’s God working in us to build faith, a faith that helps us be present with God in our spirit, rather than our mind or emotions. God wants us to worship in spirit and truth, so he helps us by letting our mind and emotions go dark, and teaches us a new way of experiencing his presence.

The way through the darkness is to keep on praying, to keep listening in silence for God, to reach out to him with our heart, even when our mind is distracted and our feelings are not engaged. 

Leonard Boase calls this the prayer of faith, because it is God’s gift, drawing us into communion with him by a hidden way. Teresa of Avila calls this the dry well. St. John of the Cross calls it the dark night of the soul. If your prayer has begun to be dry or dark, you might find this book helpful. 

It’s The Prayer of Faith, by Leonard Boase. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, wherever we are on the journey of prayer, we ask you to be our companion and guide. Save us from self-deception, from an unhealthy desire for mystical experiences, from imagining we have found the best way to pray. Above all, whether we pray in light or in darkness, lead us deeper into the prayer of faith. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Ep.167: Psalm 74: Crisis of Faith.

Hello. I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Psalm 73 described the author’s personal crisis of faith. He felt God was giving the wicked great success, and making his own life miserable. Today’s psalm, 74, describes a community crisis of faith, as Israel remembers how the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed God’s temple. It looked like God rejected his people and his temple, and gave their violent enemy complete success.

Feel the pathos as Israel complains to God about the situation:
    Why have you rejected us forever?
        Why does your anger smoulder against the sheep of your pasture? (v. 1).
    Turn you steps towards these everlasting ruins,
        All this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary (v. 3).

It is a long, long road from the comfort of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, he leads me beside quiet waters” to this psalm which asks, “Why does your anger smoulder against your sheep?” 

Feel the hopelessness in Israel’s memory:
    Your foes roared in the temple where you met with us (v. 4a).
    They smashed the carved panelling
          with their axes and hatchets (v. 6). 
     They burned your sanctuary to the ground;
          they defiled the dwelling-place of your name (v. 7).

And feel their despair when God doesn’t seem to notice or care:
    We are given no signs from God;
        no prophets are left,
        and none of us know how long this will be.
    How long will the enemy mock you, God?
        Will the foe revile your name forever?  (vv. 9-10).

But the poet does not stop his journey at the station of despair. The chaos in the temple, the chaos in Jerusalem, and the chaos in his life of faith remind him of creation, when God overcame the forces of chaos to create an orderly and beautiful world. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, 

As the poet shifts his focus from the destruction of the temple to your power and your kingship, we say with him: 
    God, you  are our King from long ago,
          you bring salvation to the earth (v. 12).
  It was you who split open the sea by your power. . .
  It was you who crushed the sea monster
      and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert (vv. 13-14). 

You were not weak at creation, God. You wrestled with the waters of chaos, you wrestled with the sea monster, you overcame the beast and cast it into the desert.

You replaced the primordial darkness with order and beauty and light:
    Yours is the day, and yours the night;
          you established the sun and moon.
      You set the boundaries of the earth,
          you made both summer and winter.
You are not a God who leaves things in chaos. You are the author of life, you shine light into the darkness, you create a world with dependable boundaries for the seas and dependable seasons for the climate.

We pray then for our lives, our churches, our society, which are overrun with chaos. Make us a new creation, God. Overcome the darkness, wrestle our monsters to the ground, send us summer and winter, light and darkness according to your design, bring your people out of despair into jubilant hope.

We are the sheep of your pasture, Lord. Lead us from pain and doubt and chaos back to the still waters and green pastures of Psalm 23. 

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.166: How Not To Pray.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Luke 18 has one of Jesus’ best-known parables. It goes like this: a Pharisee prayed, “Lord, thank you that I’m not like others –robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even this, this tax collector! . Look at me, O Lord: I fast twice a week and tithe ten percent.” But back in a corner, the tax collector beat his breast for shame, and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” 

Jesus said, “The tax collector went home justified before God. The Pharisee did not. If you promote yourself, God will demote you. But, if you humble yourself, God will exalt you.” 

What did Jesus mean that the tax collector was justified before God? Since the root word of justify is “right” or “righteous”, let’s consider who is right and who is wrong in this story. 

The Pharisee compared himself with people who were clearly wrong, and explained to God just how right he was. In contrast, the tax collector said to God, “I’m a sinner. I’ve done pretty much everything wrong.” And in a stunning reversal of right and wrong, Jesus tells us that God accepted the tax collector with all his wrongness, and rejected the Pharisee with all his rightness. 

That gets us close to the heart of the story. I think “justify” means that God smiled on the tax collector and thought, “Now there’s someone I can work with.” But he shook his head at the Pharisee and thought, “He’s so full of himself, there’s no room for me in his life!”  

Here are some things to note in the story:

First, if you feel you’re doing pretty much everything right, and that you are better than those of us who are blatant sinners, be cautious about presenting your brilliant conclusion to God. 

Second, if you feel you’ve done pretty much everything wrong in life, do mention this to this God when you pray. Until you become perfect, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner” is a very good way to start praying. 

Third, God’s primary way of dealing with us is not based on our behavior . The Pharisee spent his life studying scripture and improving his behavior, but apparently, God wanted something else.  

Fourth, remember this: Prayer is not just the words we say to God, it is also the tone we adopt in our relationship with him. Do you detect a note of arrogance in the Pharisees’ prayer, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like sinners”? Perhaps God isn’t looking for rigorous spiritual disciplines like fasting and praying and tithing. Maybe God wants soft hearts and sensitive spirits. 

Finally, Jesus says God deals with us on the basis of forgiveness. It is his pleasure to extend mercy to those who know they are wrong and say so. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we thank you that we are like other people. However far we have advanced in fasting and tithing and praying, we are still at the beginning with you. 

Today, we need you to justify us, to overlook what is wrong in us, to hear our prayer for mercy, and welcome us with your smile and affirmation.

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Ep.165: Psalm 73: What is God Good For?

Hello. I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

The poet begins Psalm 73 by stating his traditional belief that God rewards the good. But he soon introduces a shocking new perspective. When he sees how successful the wicked are, he decides that maybe God isn’t so good after all. 

Here’s what the poet sees when he looks at the wicked. May you sometimes see the same things.
– The wicked have robust health (v. 4)
– They have fewer troubles than the righteous (v. 5) 
– They speak arrogantly against heaven, advocating violence and malice, but God does nothing (v. 6)
– They are popular. People flock to their rallies and praise them (v. 11)
– They say, “God doesn’t see or care” so we can do whatever we want (v. 13)
– And they just keep getting richer and richer. Their stocks go up and mine go down. 

Their success breeds shocking arrogance.
  Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
      and their tongues take possession of the earth (v. 9). 

Now compare that with me, says the poet. I keep the covenant, I avoid evil, and what does it get me? God sends me trials every day and threatens punishment if I disobey. He doesn’t make me healthy or wealthy. This is no way to live! Maybe, like the wicked, I should declare my independence from God. Maybe I should quit paying his taxes and observing his rules. 

But then the poet worships in the temple, where he finds God’s presence and begins to see things differently. 

First, he gets a new perspective on himself. He says, “I’ve been thinking like a donkey”:
    When my heart was grieved
        and my spirit embittered,
    I was senseless and ignorant;
        I was a brute beast before you, God (v.21). 

The writer also gets a new perspective on what happens to those he envies. He says:
    . . . then I understood their final destiny (v. 17)
    Surely God places them on slippery ground;
        he casts them down to ruin.
    How suddenly they are destroyed,
        completely swept away by terrors (v. 19).

And finally, the poet gets a new perspective on what goodness is. Goodness is not the stuff we accumulate or the independence we fiercely defend. Rather, goodness is found in relationship with God. The poet says to God,
    …I am always with you;
            you hold my right hand.
            you guide me with your counsel . . .
      Whom have I in heaven but you?
            And on earth I desire nothing beside you (vv. 23-25). 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, like the poet we have envied the wicked.
– those to whom dishonesty and wealth come easily, while we work hard for a bare living.
– those who are rich and popular, while we are socially awkward and poor.
– those who have good looks and robust health, while we are sick, depressed, and hurting.
– those who live comfortably with the status quo while we struggle with issues of righteousness and justice.

With the poet we are tempted to say,
  Surely in vain we have kept our hearts pure
      and have washed our hands in innocence.
  All day long we have been afflicted,
      and every morning you correct us (vv. 13-14). 

As we come into your presence today,God, we invite you to change our perspective. Thank you that: 
     …you are always with us,
            you hold us by our hand.
      You guide us with your counsel
            and you will take us into glory.
      Whom have we in heaven but you?
            And earth has nothing we desire besides you.
      Our flesh and heart may fail,
            but you are the strength of our life
            and our portion forever  (vv. 23-26). 

It is good to be near you, O God, our help and our refuge (v. 28). 

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.