I’m sure I’m not alone that I sometimes find it hard to pray. The enthusiasm is there – I want to pray but sometimes just can’t find the words.
In those situations, I usually pray what is known as the Jesus Prayer. For those of you not familiar with it, it’s a short and very simple prayer that says “Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.
Short, and to the point, not unlike the prayer we heard the tax collector praying in this morning’s gospel reading.
In this parable, Jesus is again turning things on their head and introducing an element of shock to his hearers.
Nowadays when we read about Pharisees in the gospels, they are often regarded as being corrupt, ungodly hypocrites. Tax collectors we can look at and think “well, they’re just doing their job”. In the days when Jesus told this parable, things were very different.
Pharisees were, at the time, very holy men. They were highly respected religious leaders keeping a very disciplined and ordered faith.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were utterly despised. They were seen as collaborators with the occupying Romans, collecting tax money on behalf of the Roman Empire, but more often than not, taking more than they should and keeping it for themselves.
So, those who heard this story for the first time were expecting the Pharisee to be the good guy, and the tax collector to be the bad guy, but they were in for a shock.
Jesus highlights the attitudes of them both. The Pharisee stands alone, isolating himself from others and justifying himself to God, but his focus isn’t on God at all, but on himself. “I thank you that I am not like other people. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income”. Although he’s going above and beyond the demands of religious laws, he’s puffed up with pride, boasting and being judgmental towards others. He’s the centre of his own world, basically saying “look at me – look how great I am – I’m so much better than him”
In contrast, the tax collector has no delusions of grandeur. He knows he has nothing to offer God, he comes as he is and simply says “God be merciful to me, a sinner”. He doesn’t focus on his sins, but on the mercy of God. He knows who he is in the sight of God.
It’s too easy for us to fall into the trap of being like the Pharisee and put ourselves at the centre, saying “Look at me, I’ve done this, this and this. Aren’t I wonderful”, or on the other hand to say “Woe is me! All these awful things have happened and I’m a terrible person”.
Both of these are very self centred and, as humans, it can be very hard not to be self centred and it’s just as hard not to compare ourselves with others. Society encourages us to be the richest, the fittest, the thinnest, the most popular. A few years ago in one of our Lent study groups, we were discussing what it means to be successful and it was hard to get away from the general view of society that success is measured by the amount of money or material possessions someone has.
We are in danger of losing sight of the eternal truth that every single one of us is made in God’s image and, as such, we are all of great worth to God whoever we are and God loves us all unconditionally, whatever our faults.
It’s not about what we do or don’t do, but about God’s grace. God isn’t bothered about possessions, prestige or social standing. God loves us and will never stop doing so. In that love, God is gracious and merciful when we fall short, when we get it wrong and when we sin, which we all do. We are not in competition with one another. We have all fallen short and we are all forgiven.
God sees the heart and hears the genuine prayer of penitence and Jesus encourages us to stay focused on God and to see others as God sees them – utterly loved unconditionally.
So when we pray, we must try to avoid being like the Pharisee in the story. After all, he hadn’t really gone to the temple to pray at all, but to show off to God how wonderful he was. All that stuff he said about fasting and tithing was probably true, but he allowed his pride to get in the way. Nobody can really pray if they despise anyone, because in prayer we don’t lift ourselves above anyone else. None of is is any more or any less a sinner than anyone else.
Instead, we should follow the example of the tax collector, praying in true humility, and if we can’t think of the words to use, simply say “Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”