“The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’” (Luke 18: 13)
The theme of prayer in the Gospel of Luke is very pronounced. Of all the gospels, St. Luke records the highest number of times Jesus prayed. From His lived example, He taught His followers and all of us the importance of prayers in our lives. First Jesus taught us to pray in the Pater Noster, with emphasis on the fact that in prayer, persistence attracts God’s loving and generous response (Luke 11:1-13). He later develops a similar emphasis with the Parable of the Persistent Widow or the Parable of the Unjust Judge stressing the “need to pray and never lose heart” (Luke 18: 1-8). In today’s Gospel, St Luke presents us with the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to render Jesus’ teaching on how not to pray vis-a-viz the qualities of a good prayer. In prayer, we encounter God in different, but profound ways. We come to our Creator, Who is also our Father, Infinite in majesty, Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnipresent. By all standards, we are incomparable and most unworthy to embrace His Presence but His mercy, through the selfless sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, makes this relationship not only possible but available and accessible. It is a privilege to call God, our Father; a gift we have by the power of the Holy Spirit poured on us at our baptism. As John, the evangelist and Paul, would testify: “Yet to all who received Him, to all who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1: 12); “And because we are His children, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Galatians 4: 6). Therefore, prayer is a gift and a privilege that we should be grateful to God for.
Therefore, how should we pray? Or, perhaps the question should be: how should we not pray? Jesus Christ responds to either of these questions with a dramatic parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, who went into the temple to pray. The addressee of this parable is clearly stated: “… some people who prided themselves as being virtuous and despised everyone else” (Luke 18: 9). No doubts, Jesus was addressing the Pharisees, who He often called “hypocrites” because of their intentional dual personality for human praises (Matthew 23: 13-24; Mark 12: 40; Luke 11: 39-42, 44, 52; 20: 5). This peculiarity shows forth in the parable Jesus tells today. The Pharisee went into the temple, most likely he would have walked up to the front, so as to be seen, and said this prayer to himself:
I thank God that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.
Notice that the first thing Jesus said about the Pharisee’s prayer is that he said it “to himself.” His focus was not on God but on himself. He was expressing his worthiness and goodness to God, before Whom, none is worthy: “If You, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, whom would survive” (Psalm 130: 3). “We have all sinned, and have fallen short of the grace of God” (Romans 3: 23). “If anyone says he has not sinned, he makes God out to be a liar, and His Word is not in him” (1 John 1: 10). The Pharisee went against all cautions by justifying himself. He was soaked up in his pride and his false sense of worthiness. Nothing blinds us from ourselves as pride: it does not allow us to see who we truly are, rather it deceives us that we are always better than the rest of women and men. This explains why the proud always compares himself to others; he judges and condemns them. Just as the Pharisee did in his prayer: “I thank God that I am not … like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here.” God hates pride, Proverbs 8: 13 tells us. Everyone who is proud is an abomination to God (Proverbs 16: 5). C. S. Lewis, the renown English writer and lay theologian, felt that sexual immorality, anger, greed, drunkenness ... were just fleabites in comparison to pride. He taught that the sin of pride precedes every other sin and called pride “a complete anti-God state of mind.” No wonder the Pharisee did not go home at rights with God. His prayer could neither be heard nor answer by God. This is what prayer is not.
The prayer of the tax collector provides a perfect template for the prayer of every Christian. He too went to the temple to pray. Here we see two people in the same place, perform the same action, but with different attitudes that produce different results. The tax collector, Jesus narrates: “stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’” (Luke 18: 13). Notice here that the tax collector “stood some distance away”, reminiscent of the respectable distance the Jews were to “stand some distance away” from the Ark of the Covenant (Joshua 3: 4) as a sign of reverence to God. It also calls to mind the ten lepers who had to “stand some distance away” from Jesus because they were unclean (Luke 17: 11-19). Thus the action of the tax collector evokes both a profound sense of reverence and a deep sense of unworthiness before God. And so, he did not dare to look up to heaven, the abode of God Almighty. The tax collector directed his prayer: short, simple and from the heart, to God. He acknowledged his sinfulness and cried to God for His mercy. The tax collector demonstrated trust in the mercy of God, for though he knew he was a sinner and unworthy, he believed that God is merciful and forgiving. Jesus said of him: “This man went home at rights with God.” The First Reading (Ecclesiasticus 35: 12-14; 16-19) offers the explanation for that: “The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and it will not rest until it reaches its goal; it will not desist until the Most High responds and does justice to the righteous, and executes judgement. Indeed, the Lord will not delay …” And so, this is what our prayer ought to be like.
Our Lord Jesus Christ invites us today, to pray with a humble spirit: recognising our sinfulness without making excuses; to perform Godly acts without seeking affirmation; to love all without criticising. Jesus reminds us again that God, Who knows the innermost hearts of men and women, exalts the humble and brings down the proud. We must bear in mind that it is not the length or quantity of the prayer said, but the quality of the heart from which it is offered that brings the results.