(Adults, after you have settled yourselves, you could begin by listening to the full scripture passage. Alternatively, you could read the first paragraph of the reflection, then read the scripture, then continue with the reflection.)
In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus tells a parable about how we should be when we pray. We remember that parables are little stories to help us understand. In this parable, there are two people who go to the Temple to pray. The Temple is the most holy place in all Jerusalem, in all of Israel, because in the Temple, behind the great gold doors of the Tabernacle, is the Holy of Holies. This is where the Torah—the Law—is kept sacred. And God is there in the Word.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
One of the people is a Pharisee. A Pharisee is someone who knows the Law and the Torah so well that he can live life according to the guidelines and rules of scripture.
The other person is a tax collector. At the time of Jesus, Roman soldiers have taken over Israel. Roman rulers collect money called taxes from the Jewish people of Israel. They hire some of the Jewish people to collect the taxes from their neighbours. These are the tax collectors. Some of the tax collectors collect more than they should. They put the extra money in their pockets for themselves. We can imagine what their neighbours think of this! Tax collectors are not well liked by the other people of Israel.
Jesus tells us how they pray:
The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
And then Jesus gives us a clue to help us understand:
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other
Only the tax collector goes away "justified." Only he is in right-relationship with God. Why?
Let's consider the prayer of the Pharisee:
‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
It seems like the Pharisee does some good things: he fasts, which is a way to pray, and he gives away a good portion of his money to help people. Both of these things are good. This Pharisee seems to be making a list of the good things he has done. Does God need us to make a list?
The Pharisee begins his prayer with thanks—it is good to thank God, right? But what is he thanking God for? We notice that he thanks God for what he is NOT. We can wonder, is this true gratitude?
He spends a good deal of his prayer comparing himself to other people, all types of sinners. He notices the tax collector and thanks God that he is not like him.
He notices the tax collector? While this Pharisee is praying, who are his eyes on?
Let's now consider the prayer of the tax collector:
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
First, we can notice what his body is telling us. This tax collector stands "far off." He does not approach the Holy of Holies. He does not even look up to heaven; instead, then, he must be looking down. He beats his breast. People do this when they feel badly about something they have done.
Let's count the words of his prayer.
Only 7 words.
What do these words tell us?
We can tell that he knows something about himself. He is a sinner. He has done some things to hurt his relationship with God and with others.
We can also tell that he knows something about God. What does he want from God?
He wants mercy, and he knows that God has mercy to give.
So, while this tax collector is praying, who are his eyes on? His eyes may look down, but who does he see?
We remember Jesus' clue. Only the tax collector goes away in right-relationship with God.What does this tell us about what God truly wants from us in prayer?