Throughout the Gospels Jesus taught in parables. The word we translate as parable in English is the Greek word parabolhn, which literally means in English, “Beside-Cast,” and is meant to convey the act of laying something next to another object for the purpose of comparison. And this is exactly what Jesus does as He describes certain aspects of the Kingdom of God. In the case of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is dealing with prayer, and more specifically, humble prayer.
A good place for us to start when considering humble prayer and its impact on our lives is to simply ask ourselves, “How’s my prayer life?” There is a beautiful quote from the 19th century Russian monk and bishop, St. Theophan the Recluse, which helps us to redirect our focus towards our prayer life;
Let me recall a wise custom of the ancient Holy Fathers: when greeting each other, they did not ask about health or anything else, but rather about prayer, saying “How is your prayer?” The activity of prayer was considered by them to a be a sign of the spiritual life, and they called it the breath of the spirit. If the body has breath, it lives; if breathing stops, life comes to an end. So it is with the spirit. If there is prayer, the soul lives; without prayer, there is no spiritual life.”
Take a couple of minutes to really consider what St. Theophan is saying here. To the ancient Holy Fathers, prayer was as necessary as breathing. If your ability to breathe is in any way hindered, you suffer a slow death. Breathing is something we must do for our entire lives; from the very moment of our birth to quite literally our last dying breath. Breathing is a sign of life and a basic requirement for our existence.
Now consider this in light of our spiritual rather than our physical life. When our prayers become hindered or non-existent, then our spiritual life begins to suffer, and all aspects of our faith slowly dies. And just as breathing is a basic function that demonstrates the existence of life, so too does prayer indicate the existence of our spiritual life. Most of us will agree that no one can be considered a faithful Christian if he or she does not pray. We cannot claim to be in communion with God if we do not spend time in dialogue with Him.
Prayer is our communication with God; the link that connects us with our Heavenly Father. How long will you be able to last without your cellphone? Even if you do not expect to make or receive a phone call, you feel lost without the device. Why? Because you are afraid of “missing a call,” being out of touch with your loved ones. Should not this be the same case with God? Without prayer we lose that vital piece of communication. We may wonder why God seems so far away, or why He does not speak to us when we need answers to those pressing questions of life, but do we ever stop to consider why He seems to ignore us? Why does God seem so distant, especially in our time of need? One reason may be that we have neglected the line of communication. Like a cellphone with a dying battery our spiritual life is slowly being drained and the only way to recharge it is through regular, pure prayer. We will find that God hasn’t gone anywhere; it is we who have been moving away from the center of life by neglecting our communion of prayer.
So, what is pure prayer? First and foremost, it is praying with humility, something that can and should be practiced by every faithful Christian; it is not the realm solely of the theologian. It is something available to everyone who is willing to humble themselves before God. Our Gospel lesson provides the contrast between someone who prays out of pride, and someone who prays out of humility. The Pharisee, a man who is leaned and practiced in the minute intricacies of his faith, is too wrapped up in his own pride to offer real prayer to God. He thinks he is justified, to himself and God, by comparing himself to the Publican. But the Pharisee has certainly set his bar for righteous rather low. And that can be our tendency as well, to justify our own actions by comparing them to someone else’s, especially if the “someone else” is more of a sinner in our eyes than we are. The Pharisee gives a voice to what he is really feeling inside: “‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector’” (Luke 18:11). I guess we can’t say that the Pharisee was thankful but look at what he is thankful for: the blessing of not being like the tax collector! This may sound ridiculous but how many times have our own prayers amounted to nothing more than self-righteousness, giving God a full accounting of what a great Christian we are, as if God did not already know the strength of our faith.
Now, let us cast this example beside the other person in our parable, the publican. Most of us know how despised the tax collector was in first century Palestine. The tax collector represented everything that was wrong with living under Roman occupation. The publicans were Jews, yet they taxed and extorted their own people. They weren’t even Roman citizens, yet they collaborated with the enemy, collecting money to support the Empire. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, they took more than what was owed to the Romans and pocketed the difference, stealing from their own people with impunity while under the protection of the Roman officials. As we saw last week with the account of Zacchaeus, tax collectors were bundled into the same despised group as the various other sinners, and no self-respecting Jew would want to be seen with the publican. The Pharisee in our parable could not have set his bar for righteousness much lower than the publican. So it would seem to us, as well as Christ’s audience in the first century, that the outcome of this parable should have been obviously in favor of the Pharisee.
But as in all His teachings about the Kingdom of God, Jesus has a surprise ending for his listeners. First notice what the Pharisee is doing: he is contrasting himself with the worse sinners that he can think of, then caps off his “prayer” with informing God of his own pious actions of fasting twice a week and tithing all he has. It would seem that the Pharisee should be righteous and be justified in the eyes of God because according to some people the Pharisee was doing everything right. However, these pious acts should just be a means to achieving the greatest of the virtues, not an end in and of themselves. And Jesus confirms this when He tells us that it was the Publican, not the Pharisee, who went home justified (v. 14). It was the Publican’s simple, heartfelt prayer, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” that demonstrated a greater depth of faith than all the fasting and almsgiving ever could. The humility that the Publican demonstrated, standing alone with his head bowed, was proof of his love for God and his understanding of the need for repentance. Pure prayer is a humble act of contrition, acknowledging our sins and begging God’s forgiveness.
The Publican’s humility is demonstrated not only by what he prays but how he prays. Making a big show of how humble and righteous you are may impress others in this world, but it will not impress God. Jesus taught us that our prayers like our charity should be done in secret, where only our Heavenly Father can see. “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matt. 6:6). It is more important for us and our salvation that our Heavenly Father hears our prayers, since it is towards Him that our prayers should be directed.
Unfortunately, humility is a trait that often seems to be in short supply these days. In order to be humble, you must have a conscience that lets you know when you are doing something wrong. It should then be our humility, not our need for self-justification, that ultimately brings us to God, seeking His forgiveness.
As we continue our Lenten Journey over the next several weeks, we will have plenty of opportunities through the services of the Church to reflect on our own actions and attitudes towards God and our fellow human beings. We should also be reflecting on the strength of our own prayer life and work towards improving our line of communication with God. When we humbly seek God’s will through prayer, we will find ourselves transformed, which is what the Lenten experience is about: transformation of our life into one that is pleasing to God. We should keep the words of Psalmist in our hearts as we prepare for our encounter with God through prayer: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 50 (51)). So may our broken and contrite hearts be our daily sacrifice, reflected by our humble, pure prayers to our Heavenly Father.