Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
1st Reading: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
In our Sunday morning Gospel readings, we're in a section about prayer. Luke talks a lot about prayer—Jesus praying, Jesus teaching his Disciples to pray the Lord's Prayer, and Jesus telling Parables about praying. Last week, we had the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, which Jesus told to encourage people to pray and not lose heart. That story ends with the question, “But when the son of man returns, will he find faith on earth?” That was a cliffhanger, to this Gospel story.
This Gospel is about what faith looks like and what prayer is. It begins to explore the question of whether God will find faith on earth, and if so faith in whom. It is especially directed at those who trusted in themselves, had faith in their own abilities, that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt. And it shows us something unexpected, that people who are aware of their mistakes and shortcomings, who might seem like they don't get it or that their faith isn't as strong, are actually the ones who are more tuned into God's love and mercy and compassion. It tells us that when we are humble and we don't feel very strong or faithful, we may be more open to God's love for us.
Last week we learned to be persistent in prayer and not lose heart, to have hope in God's justice, and to pray for God's justice, God's vision for this world, and to let our prayers be active, working for God's vision of justice. This week, we have two examples of people praying. God hears both their prayers. I am relieved that God even hears my self-centered, judgmental prayers. Maybe these two prayers are two ends of a continuum, between humble and proud. Maybe they are two parts of the same prayer.
I remember reading Goofus and Gallant in HiLights Magazine as a kid. The formula was always the the same. I just knew what each would do. Poor Goofus, never tucking in his shirt, always getting dirty, being rude, such a mess. And good old Gallant. He dressed well. He was always polite. He ate his food with his utensils. He was a model citizen. So here in the Gospel we've got Goofus and Gallant, and we know the formula—we know what to expect and we get a surprise.
Gallant dressed well. He had success in life. He was educated and well-liked. He always did the right thing. And then we've got Goofus, always screwing up, universally despised, rude, greedy, and untidy. And in the temple they go to pray and just like that, they switch places. Gallant opens his mouth, and we think we know which way its going to go. He starts the way we expect him to, “Thank you!” Oh good old Gallant, always being thankful. He's so aware of what God has done for him! But then it takes a turn. “I'm so glad I'm not like Goofus! What a loser! I always tie my shoes in a double knot and eat everything on my plate and say please and thank you and go to church every Sunday! Not like him!” And in contrast, there stands Goofus in the temple, frustrated, desperate, aware of his shortcomings, pleading, begging for God to hear him and love him and we hear Jesus say that Goofus is closer to God, that day. They have always fit in their categories of clueless, forgetful, idiot and conscientious, friendly, well-behaved golden boy.
Goofus and Gallant are actually two extremes on a continuum. None of us is completely one or the other. But we expect certain things from one and certain things from the other and it is surprising when someone we have known to do things right not to be commended and the one who is always screwing up to receive praise from Jesus. We forget, the Kingdom of God is not like this world. God doesn't see people based on expectations, or surface indications of right and wrong, but God knows our hearts. Every prayer is another chance for interaction with God, for us to reveal what is truly in our hearts, and for God to show love and mercy. Even when we are good, there are traps we fall into, such as becoming self-centered and worshipping ourselves, and when we can't seem to do anything right, that is when we know we most need God and we come to God in humility.
In this story, the pharisee in his prayer shows faith in himself and all that he can do. The tax collector shows faith in God. It's pretty clear to him that he's not where he should be. In fact it is almost as if the pharisee prays to himself. What does he need God for, if he can do it all?
The Messiah was expected to be Gallant—rich, well-dressed, a king, someone who would have the right friends. Instead, here comes Jesus, a bastard child, born in a stable, hanging out with all kinds of riff raff, homeless, arrested, weak, and eventually dead. This is proof that what often matters to us, doesn't matter to God. It is not about outward appearances, but orientation to God's priorities—justice, love, forgiveness.
God doesn't love Goofus or Gallant more, just like their mother doesn't love one more than the other. The part of the Gospel that says, “This man went down to his home justified rather than other,” can also be translated this way, “This man went down to his home justified as well as the other.” God doesn't leave either out in the cold. What God seems to want here is honesty, self-awareness, an openness to being changed for the better, and not putting others down to build ourselves up. God wants that because it is good for us and it is good for our brothers and sisters. It is about building up the Kingdom of God and working toward the vision God has for this world. If we think we're already perfect, we don't see the need for change. We are done. But if we see where we fall short and see this as an opportunity for growth, we are more open to God's action in our life. This reading also reminds us that none of us is in a vacuum. We affect those around us, and if we have a heart like God's, that heart will break when we know of the suffering of people around us. We cannot possibly be whole while others are hurting, because we are part of one another. The things we say and do have an effect on others.
I was always suspicious of Gallant, because I was Gallant. On the surface, I did what my parents asked me to, was polite, and cleaned up after myself. But inside I always wondered if I could keep up appearances, or if people would abandon me if I let my grades slip or started dressing Goth. And inside I was jealous of the Goofuses around me, who were living a more free life, making their own decisions based on their own consciences rather than some outward, outdated, and superficial rules that didn't really reveal whether someone was a good person or not. I was Gallant, relying on my own tenuous control and it was kind of miserable.
I have come to accept the Goofus in myself. I am more free to make mistakes, stick my foot in my mouth, every couple of weeks, just to keep me humble, and to be forgiven by those around me. I think I am more relatable when I am Goofus, not trying to better than anyone or good enough, but just another human being bumbling through.
In the Old Testament reading for this morning, there is no question that the Israelites are aware the they are Goofus. There is no more pretending. God is at the end of God's rope. Yet, there is hope. Where there is awareness and confession, there can be healing, and instead of giving up on them, God frees them and brings them home.
It might seem at first that Paul, in 2 Timothy is boasting in his own works, however, he gives all the credit to God. His faith is not in himself. His prayer is not to make himself better than others, but to lift up his life story as an example of how God never abandons us, even when the world doesn't appreciate the gifts God has given us.
Gallant, drop your resume of all the great things you do, and instead be honest about where you can improve. Stop comparing yourself to others and live an authentic life. God loves you and wants you to focus on what matters to God, God's vision of justice and love, not some arbitrary standards of appearance and manners and success.
Goofus, God loves you, too, and will never forget you or forsake you. Keep being honest about your shortcomings. Keep working on yourself. Keep focussed on what God wants for you. Keep worshipping God rather than yourself.
Remember our Goofus Savior Christ offers mercy and compassion to all of us, forgiveness and love, and rose from the dead to bring us new life. Whether we are Goofus or Gallant or somewhere in between, we are children of God who always hears our prayers.