We don’t sing a lot of the old timey classic hymns anymore. That’s sad for some, but, like anything else, we’re looking for hymns to have meaning for us today and, whether it’s the language, the theology or simply the relevance, there are lots of hymns that get left behind. They’re not gone, though, especially when they’re tied to memories and traditions. Sometimes, they just get a “tune up.”
Every so often, a line or two from an old classic just jumps out at you, though, because it’s saying something so profound, so meaningful and so important that you best not ignore it. In 1834, Charlotte Elliott wrote a hymn with every verse beginning “Just as I am” and every verse ending “O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”
Have to sing it this week, because it goes with a story Jesus tells about how we come to God in prayer. It’s really about how we come to Jesus and to each other, too. We should come just as we are.
The Gospel of Luke relates how Jesus was concerned about how people can sometimes be a little self righteous and full of themselves. So he told them a story about a pharisee and a tax collector or publican. Pharisees were a unique combination of religious leader, politician and community leader who had a great influence, particularly when it came to strict adherence to the law. They were meant to be holy people. During the Roman occupation, “publicani” were local business people who contracted with the Romans to collect taxes, supply the army and run public works. They were also notoriously corrupt, overcharging, accepting bribes and pocketing their own side profit. They were often despised and treated with contempt.
The pharisee makes a big show of going into the temple and standing front, pointedly praying his gratitude for not being like “those” people - sinners, all - especially like that publican. Not only does he pray, he fasts and gives regular donations to the temple. He does everything “right.”
The publican stays back in the shadows, away from people, and simply prays for mercy. I’m a sinner, he says, have mercy on me.
Jesus tells them it’s the publican who’s right with God. The pharisee prays from his own self importance, he puts on a show and has only contempt for those around him. The publican simply comes as he is, prays from his heart and asks for mercy. “Just as I am,” the publican seems to say.
Jesus frequently talks about the importance of sincerity, of authentically engaging and expressing what’s in our hearts. It’s not the letter of the law, it’s not the ritual practices or the traditions (or even the things we just keep doing because we’ve always done it that way), it’s what’s in the heart.
Thing is, prayer is just the first step. God already knows us, just as we are. When we come to God, it’s about how we come - is it authentic and sincere, true to who we really are? Prayer doesn’t change God or God’s relationship with us, it changes us and our relationship with God. And when we are changed, we change things. We take action, action that’s based on what is true and authentic in us.
I like to think the publican goes away right with God into a different life, but Jesus doesn’t say. I think that’s the point. It’s a challenge to those who heard him then and to us now: pray with honesty and sincerity, then do something.