The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke 18:10-14
Since we know that God is the most important person in our lives, it follows that knowing how to speak with Him is the most important art one can learn. It is even more important than learning how to speak to spouses or even to presidents or kings.
Since prayer is loftier and higher than any other work, learning to pray is really the art of arts. The Lord Jesus tells us so much about prayer during His three year ministry. One of the great parables of the Lord is this parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, who is also known as the tax-collector.
In this parable we see ego driven prayer and “God-centered” prayer. This attitude is not simply about prayer but about our general disposition in everything that we do. There is ego driven work and ego driven service in the church and on the other hand, there is God centered work.
The Pharisee prays and all along his mind is on himself and how he stacks up and compares to those around them. We often do the same thing. We hear about someone who has fallen on hard times and we thank God that we are not like that person. We often try to make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to others. The Pharisee was doing exactly that during his prayers that we supposed to be addressed to the Maker of heaven and earth. In a way his only consolation was this comparison to another man. His prayer was impure because it didn’t come from a place of honesty and openness. It was just a formal prayer that lacked depth. But even worse, it not only lacked depth, it contained judgment and comparisons to others.
During the time of the Lord Jesus, a publican or tax collector was seen as one of the worst types of people that existed. They worked on behalf of the Roman empire and were often unjust, unkind people. So the Lord uses this to really make the point. Whatever title one has, it has nothing to do with their righteousness or their love for God. Where the Pharisee was ego driven and “me-centered”, the prayers of the tax collector were “God-centered.”
The publican knew that he was not a good man. He was honest with himself. In fact we expect that every Christian should pray with this attitude. When we stand before God, no matter who we are, we are sinners. We could fill the day with this prayer of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” In fact, all the monastic and ascetic fathers and mothers of the Church teach that we should pray in exactly this way “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner!” They teach us to pray this way, not as mere formality or empty words, but to force ourselves to actually believe these words in the depths of our heart.
Why must we believe that we are sinners in the depths of our heart? Because until we truly believe that we are sinners we will fail to understand our need for a Savior. We will be closed off from God who wants to heal us. It is similar to a sick man who refuses to go to the doctor because he is in denial about his sickness. The doctor can’t help such a man.
We have to believe that we are sinners in the depths of our heart because that is a sign of real genuine humility. When we have this kind of humility we will find that God is quick to lift us up. As it is written in Proverbs 3 and as we are reminded by Our Lord Jesus “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11, 18:14, Proverbs 3:34).
What is better, to think that I am great and to find that God has not accepted me? Or to say that I am nothing and to find that God recognizes me and draws near to me? As difficult as it will be, we have to open our heart completely to God. We have to learn to pray with brutal honesty regarding who we are and what we have done. When we do this we will find that it becomes quite natural to pray just like the tax collector, and to say “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
No one is perfect. But the one who recognizes this within himself finds that God moves swiftly to perfect him. As the Lord says in today’s reading “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” It is my hope that we will all learn to avoid looking and comparing to others so that we can focus on our own sins and shortcomings. This leads to powerful prayer because it brings us directly to the love of Jesus Christ. And Glory be to God AMEN.