Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
- Luke 18:9-14
Yesterday we read that Jesus spoke a parable to His disciples, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: "There was a in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, 'Get justice for me from my adversary.' And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, 'Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.'" Then the Lord said, "Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?"
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector." The Pharisee is an expert in the Law and the Scriptures, one who carefully observes all details of a pious life according to the Law. The tax collector is his opposite: despised by the community as a sinner who not only collaborates with the occupying Romans forces, but who betrays and cheats his own people, taking via extortion what he can for himself.
"The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'" My study bible points out for us that the practices of this Pharisee are worthy examples to follow. His good deeds listed here (fasting and giving tithes) are the primary weapons against the passions of lust and greed (adultery and extortion are two of the things he lists as properties of other men). But without a humble and repentant heart, outward practices such as these have no value. They lead, says my study bible, only to pride and judgment of others. Note how the text tells us he prays with himself. Prayer is communion and dialogue with God. My study bible explains of this case that God is absent where there is boasting.
"And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!'" This tax collectors shows by his posture an awareness of himself -- of the state of his soul. He stands afar off, away from the altar of sacrifice with his eyes downward. This prayer, God, be merciful to me a sinner, is the basis for the Jesus Prayer (a practice designed to fulfill St. Paul's admonition to pray without ceasing), and also the refrain that permeates worship everywhere, including personal prayer: "Lord have mercy."
"I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." To be justified is to be forgiven and set right with God; that is in right relationship to God (and by extension to others). My study bible says that inward humility is blessed while pride in outward deeds in condemned.
One thing we can notice about the tax collector: for all of his sins, he's honest with God. At least here and now and in this moment, he's honest about the sins he's committed. And there's more to it, there is real relationship -- a give and take, if you will -- involved here in his prayer. He asks God for mercy, but in a form that is suggestive of the words, "Forgive me." He's aware of his sin, and he's engaged with God: he's asking for God to overlook his sins, to consider them 'paid' in some sense. This is what his particular prayer for mercy suggests. As the text tells us, the Pharisee isn't really engaged with God. He prays with himself. It's as if he's looking in his own mirror, and admiring himself by looking down on the tax collector. It seems to me there is a great stress placed on our choices. The Pharisee seems to take for granted that somehow God has made him superior to others; but he is in fact congratulating himself. Even among His disciples, Jesus discourages us from comparing ourselves to others. At the end of John's Gospel, Peter is told three times that he must "Feed My lambs," after Jesus asks three times, "Do you love Me?" And Jesus tells him, "Follow Me." Then Peter asks, indicating John himself, "Lord, what about this man?" Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me." (See John 21:15-25). Our work is to focus on our own lives and our own relationship to God in our prayer. It's a very real sense in which we are to mind our own business. Jesus has just warned of the time of His Second Coming, and of the Judgment (yesterday's reading, above). The best way we learn discernment for the time in which we live is through constant prayer, such as the Jesus Prayer practice, which is a repetition and variation of the simple prayer, "Lord have mercy." But here Jesus teaches us how to pray: we enter into dialogue with God, we seek to make right our most basic relationship -- that with Creator. In the mirror of God's gaze, there is nothing hidden nor secret, but we stand before love and truth. That is, before judgment itself. It's in this understanding that the tax collector can pray, with trust, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!"