SIRACH 35:12-14, 16-18 | 2 TIMOTHY 4:6-8, 16-18 | LUKE 18:9-14
We’re continuing our reflection on prayer this week. Last week’s gospel passage was a teaching about the efficacy of stamina in prayer – never give up. In this week’s passage, Jesus spun another parable exposing a serious blockage to prayer’s efficacy. It’s about two men praying in the temple.
One was an ultra-orthodox Pharisee. The literal meaning of the word Pharisee is: “one who is separated.” The members of this religious sect saw themselves as separate from the rest of humanity because of the depth of their commitment to the minutiae of the law. This Pharisee’s commitment was impressive. He fasted twice a week. Jewish law prescribed only one obligatory fast day, Yom Kippur. He gave tithes on everything he owned. The law prescribed tithing only produce. The Pharisee’s prayer that day consisted of reminding God how he stood apart from the rest of humanity. He even looked with disgust at the tax collector who was praying near him. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.”
The tax collector’s prayer was very different. He “would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God be merciful to me a sinner.’” In fact, a more accurate translation of the tax collector’s prayer would be: “O God, be merciful to me THE sinner.”
The Pharisee’s prayer boasted of his elevated status among other Jews because he fasted more often and more intensely, and because he tithed more lavishly than the ordinary people. The Pharisee wore his religion on his sleeve, and he was damn proud of himself! He wasn’t praying. He was boasting.
In the eyes of his fellow Jews, the tax collector was judged as a national traitor because he collected taxes for the Roman occupiers. He most likely, as was all too common in Jesus’ day, extorted more than enough money to cover the tax to Rome. The extra money went into his pocket. Rome didn’t care as long as the taxes kept flowing in. His prayer came from a heart full of sorrow and contrition. He stood alone and naked before God – he was THE sinner. He gave no excuses. He simply stood before God in humility and sorrow.
The parable told us that the tax collector was justified; the Pharisee was not. In other words, the tax collector was healed – his spirit was redirected toward the divine life. The Pharisee left the temple bloated by his own self-importance and spiritual narcissism.
Jesus was teaching us that fruitful prayer must be honest prayer. We can not, and should not, ever compare our spiritual lives to others. When we pray, we need not hide anything from ourselves or God. When we pray openly and honestly, we expose our weaknesses, our strengths, our joys, our sorrows, our successes and our failures.
An open heart is the path to God, and God’s path to us. That’s what it means to be justified to take the life-long journey of spiritual healing.