Proper 25C’22
23 October 2022
Luke 18.9-14
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
North Little Rock, Arkansas
The Rev. Carey Stone <+>

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.

– The Jesus Prayer

I’ve got to hand it to the religious scholars who picked today’s gospel story about the Pharisee and the tax collector to fall right in the middle of the time of year most churches are running their stewardship campaigns. This time of year, both the clergy and laity will be asking everyone in the church to step up and to do more for the cause of Christ and St. Luke’s than last year.

The Pharisee stood by himself, with head held high, he was much admired for his pious practices and he bragged about it: “I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income.” If we could pick a song to characterize him, we could pick Mac Davis’ song from back in 1974:

Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble

When you’re perfect in every way

I can’t wait to look in the mirror

I get better lookin’ each day

To know me is to love me

I must be a heck [hell] of a man

Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble

When you’re doing the best that you can

We’re doing the best that we can!

Give yourselves a hand.


Not only did his religious practices give him an inflated sense that God must be truly pleased with him, he also stroked his own ego by claiming the moral high ground and comparing himself with others, he said: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” He felt confident that if God were giving out merit badges and commendations, he would surely be near the front of the line to get his.

Then there was the tax collector, despised by his fellow Jews, viewed as a cheat and collaborator with the occupying Romans. He was one that knew his need of God, and there were no merits he could claim that would justify him before God. He was off to himself, and couldn’t even look up toward heaven and beating his breast he prayed: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” His song might be the one written by Buck Owens and Roy Clark:

Gloom, despair, and agony on me

Deep dark depression, excessive misery.

If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.

Gloom, despair, and agony on me.

Seriously, the prayer would touch the heart of God, the tax collector would walk home that day forgiven, and the pharisee would not. The prayer of the humble tax collector became the original source for a method of prayer that would become used literally all over the world, and became known as simply, “the Jesus Prayer.” 4th century monks from the Egyptian desert took the prayer of the tax collector and modified it slightly: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”[2] They would say it repeatedly while using measured breathing as a form of meditation and the prayer is still widely used to this day. 

And why is this prayer still being said by so many over so many centuries? Because we still need it – because I still need it.

Pride and prejudice still run rampant and the religious are not exempt from its charms. In fact, I wonder if we should start putting a surgeon general type warning on every Sunday Church bulletin: 


It seemed like an innocent enough thing to do, to drive up JFK, enter the parking lot of Hoggs Market, order lunch and sit down by myself at a table for two. About halfway through my meal, a woman who appeared to be about 70 years old asked if she could sit down with me. I reluctantly agreed. Her graying hair was pulled back into a bun, and she was wearing a dress that reminded me of my long-deceased grandmother. She asked is I was a priest – I suppose the collar was her clue. I answered “yes” and told her about St. Luke’s just down the road.

She then began telling me about her church. I had a feeling I knew where she probably attended – the massive church on the interstate with the huge steeples. She currently was an “out of work caregiver” for older adults and she was excited about a couple of prospects. She then asked if she could share her testimony with me. I wasn’t sure where this might lead but I reluctantly said yes. She said, “let me see if I can find it.” What on earth did she mean “find it?” I soon understood, she retrieved her cellphone from her purse and said that she needed to show me a picture. She held up her phone and showed me the photo of a younger woman, who was bedraggled, poorly dressed, and had a faraway look in her eyes. The woman then said, “this was me 23 years ago when I was a Meth addict!”

I felt cold chills down my neck, a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat. She proceeded to tell me how she volunteered with a ministry at her church that helps alcoholics and addicts to find sobriety, God, and recovery. She also told me that at a recent Church service they had baptized 200 people. I immediately asked myself, “Fr. Carey have you baptized 200 people recently?” I was touched, I was humbled, by this woman who has a different life than mine, dresses differently than most women I know, attends a very different church from mine, but in the end, we were both sinners in need of saving. Her church might not work for me, but it certainly has for her and for that I am grateful!

The encounter reminded me that there are many ways of being lost, some like her are prodigals, some like me are elder brothers, good religious folk who don’t quite know what all the fuss is about. The Good News is that God’s grace can meet us wherever we are, ‘from the upper-most to the gutter-most.’

Every Sunday we say together a prayer called the “General Confession”

Most merciful God,

we confess that we have sinned against you

in thought, word, and deed,

by what we have done,

and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

have mercy on us and forgive us;

that we may delight in your will,

and walk in your ways,

to the glory of your Name. Amen.[3]

The operative phrase in this prayer? For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;

At the end of the day, we all sinned and fallen short of God’s perfection.
Salvation is pure grace – a gift that we could never earn or deserve through any of our own pious practices or good works.

St. Paul said it best:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”[4]




[3] “General Confession,” The Book of Common Prayer (Church Publishing: New York, 1979)

[4] Ephesians 2.8-9