Deuteronomy 22-24, Psalm 60, Luke 18
Pray without ceasing
Deuteronomy 22 – 24
Deuteronomy 22 tells us that “a woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.” (Deut. 22:5) Likewise, we are instructed that we “shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.” (Deut. 22:11) Furthermore, “You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, including on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.” (Deut. 23:19) Bankers beware! Fortunately, foreigners may be charged interest on loans.
If we followed these laws literally, women could not wear pantsuits and unisex clothing would be illegal, the garment industry would be wiped out or at least no blended fibers could be produced and Jewish operated banks could not charge interest to Jews.
While issues concerning homosexuality have received more than enough sustained attention by the church over the past 20 years, little has been said about pre-marital sex. Deuteronomy 22 has much to say about what should happen to a woman who is not a virgin at the time of her wedding. Having officiated at approximately 150 weddings, I suspect that few of the brides and grooms were virgins.
The “in thing” in colleges apparently is “hooking up.” This is a one night stand with no commitment. It’s just quick, simple sex. College is challenging with huge workloads and lots of activities. So have a little passion, move on and forget it. If this is what we have come to as a society, then we have erred from a set of strange oppressive rules found in the Book of Deuteronomy to something equally strange and full of meaningless freedom today. Surely, there is a middle way between these extremes that is healthier.
A key teaching is exemplified in the command not to withhold “the wages of the poor and needy laborers” (Deut. 24:14), which speaks as truthfully today as it did 2,500 years ago. Likewise, we are commanded not to “deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment as a pledge.” (Deut. 24:17) The Israelites are reminded that their ancestors were resident aliens in Egypt. Hence, they should not glean all of their land or gather all of the grapes in their vineyard, but must remember the poor and needy and contribute generously to meet their needs.
The average person living on food stamps in the United States currently receives $30-$35 per week to eat. That is not much money to survive upon. Try doing it for a week or throughout Lent as a spiritual discipline and see what happens. God calls us to help end human hunger.
Between chapters 22-24, we find almost two dozen commands that begin with “you shall not” or “you may not” or “you shall.” The New Testament shifts to a more positive approach by drawing us to love one another, versus commanding what we must or must not do. Love is the best motivator. There are times when we and others need to be motivated by following the law and regulations. Few of us would give the government our full asking, if paying taxes was merely a “suggestion.” Yet, we do our best when love inspires us from within rather than fear, guilt or someone saying you must do this or else.
Psalm 60 is one of a series of psalms that function essentially like divine 911 calls. This is a psalm of lament. The laments are divided into two categories – individual and communal laments. Psalm 60 is a communal lament. These express human travail and ask for God’s blessing following a natural disaster, plague or defeat. You may think of this in terms of the prayers offered across the United States following September 11. Other communal laments include psalms 44, 74, 79, 80, 85 and 90.
A communal lament may include any of these five parts: 1) an address to God 2) the lament proper describing whatever the people have undergone 3) a national confession of trust 4) a petition requesting specific help from God and 5) a vow of praise, where we say, “If you do this, O God, we will praise you.”
Psalm 60 is a lament after a national humiliation. Verses 1-3 mirror the Book of Isaiah, where we read, “The earth is utterly shattered, it is convulsed and reels wildly. The earth lurches like a drunkard and sways like a watchman’s shelter.” (Is. 24:19-20) This psalm may date to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. when the Babylonians destroyed the city. We read,
Have you not rejected us, O God?
You do not go out, O God, with our armies. (Ps. 60:10)
This line may refer to the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, which was lost in the destruction of Jerusalem and could no longer be taken out into battle as earlier. More than 2,500 years after this was written, Christians still feel God’s power when they obey God’s teaching. Whatever challenges we face, we face them with God at our side. If we maintain our partnership with God, we never face our foes alone.
At this point in our journey through the gospels, it is good to focus principally on stories, teachings and parables that appear only in Luke, who gives us lots of new material with which to work. Scholars believe that Luke had access to a special source simple called Q, which stands for quelle – the German word for “source.” Some scholars do not believe that Q exists, but the majority supports the Q source.
They believe that Luke drew upon Q to tell the Parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8). These parables appear only in Luke. Likewise, only Luke tells the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. (Luke 18:9-14)
Prayer is particularly important in Luke’s Gospel. It is Jesus’s ultimate energy source. When I was a little boy, my father gave me a small antique motor mounted on a wooden platform. I did not know what to do with it. One day my father took me to a hobby store. We bought an 8-volt battery and attached two thin wires from the battery to two terminals on the base of the wooden motor. Suddenly, the engine started. An axle revolved. I attached things to the pulley at the end of the axle and operated other devices using it. The key was the battery and the wires. Without them, the motor was useless.
You and I are the motor. God is the battery, and prayer connects us to God’s incredible power. In the Parable of the Unjust Judge Jesus suggests that God is the righteous judge who will hear and respond to our prayers, but only if we pray with great persistence.
A classic example of this is St. Augustine of Hippo’s mother, Monica. Her story is told in Augustine’s autobiography entitled The Confessions. It is a literary masterpiece, a great read and the first autobiography in Western literature. Augustine chronicles his early life and temporary infatuation with the religion of Manicheanism, which today we would label of cult. He fathered an illegitimate son and showed little interest in Christianity. All the while his mother prayed constantly for his conversion, shed tears and longed for him to turn around. At long last, God rewarded her fervent prayers.
In the Parable of the Pharisees and the Tax Collector, Jesus tells a story of a Pharisee, who went beyond what would be expected of a good Jew. He fasted twice a week and tithed a tenth of all his income. He prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11) But the tax collector, who collaborated with the Roman government, went beat his breast in humility and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)
Jesus said, “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.” (Luke 18:14) The words uttered by the tax collector inspired the Jesus Prayer, one of the most famous Christian prayers, which dates back to the monastic Desert Fathers who settled in the Egyptian desert in the 5th century.
The first formula of this prayer is found in “Letter to an Abbot” written by St. John Chrysostom, who died in 407 A.D. This letter speaks of “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy” and “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on us” being used as a ceaseless prayer. More is written about this prayer in The Philokalia, which is one of the most important spiritual texts for the Eastern Orthodox Church.
People who use the Jesus Prayer recite the words “Lord Jesus Christ, only son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner” over and over again. These words are said to be the Gospel in miniature. They come from the words of the tax collector, who beat his chest saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Eastern Orthodox spiritual fathers believe this prayer helps to unlock the human heart and allows us to follow the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
This Bible quote and the Jesus Prayer are central to The Way of the Pilgrim, an 18th century Russian spiritual classic written by an anonymous author, which tells how God brought transformation and healing to a lonely, depressed man using the Jesus Prayer and how God changed the world through him.
The story begins one day in the early 1800’s when a poor young depressed and homeless Russian man went to church desperate for God. He had been orphaned as a child and lost the use of his arm in a tragic accident. His brother had stolen his inheritance, and his wife had died a few years after he was married. In church he heard a sermon preached on 1 Thessalonians 5:17, where St. Paul admonishes us to “pray without ceasing.” The homeless man was drawn to such a life, but could not conceive of how even to begin to pray continuously.
He decided to set out on a journey, carrying only a knapsack, some dried bead and a Bible in his breast pocket as he set out to find someone who could teach him how to pray without ceasing.
He asked everyone he met if they knew how to pray without ceasing. No one knew how to do this. Finally, a Russian staretz or mystic taught him the Jesus Prayer. By practicing it and reading the Philokalia, the pilgrim learned to pray without ceasing. He walked about the countryside with his Bible on his heart and the Jesus’ Prayer on his lips, praying it thousands of times each day until the prayer prayed itself within him. Soon miracles began to occur in the villages he entered, because he had become a channel of God’s grace. The Way of the Pilgrim is a great spiritual classic based on Luke 18:13.
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? (Luke 18:7)
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! (Luke 18:13)
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. (Luke 18:14)
But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. (Luke 18:17)
Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18:25)
[Jesus] replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God. (Luke 18:27)
Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life. (Luke 18:29-30)
What motivates you to do the right thing? Do you feel guilt ridden? Why? In the midst of your current challenges, do you feel that God is with you? How persistent are you when it comes to praying and conveying what’s heaviest on your heart to God? What does it mean to you to pray humbly to God?
God above us, God below us, God all around us, be now the God who builds a bridge so that your truth may travel into our hearts and unite our wills to your will. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania