(You could begin by reading the scripture passage. Better yet, ask someone to read it to you. The Word of God is meant to be heard.)
In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus tells another parable about prayer. We know that prayer is conversation with God, both listening and speaking. Conversation deepens relationships. This parable, then we can say, is about relationship with God.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The people listening to Jesus know Pharisees and tax collectors. Pharisees are good people. True, some of them make it pretty clear that they are better than everyone else, and that is annoying. But they know the Law written in the Torah and they live life accordingly.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, are not known for living their lives according to the Law in scripture. They work for the Romans who have taken over Israel. While that may be excusable—everyone has to earn a living somehow—it is a well-known fact that many of them collect more money than they should and put it in their pockets.
The people listening to Jesus know the sorts of people his two characters are. They also know that Jesus likes to turn things around. Who will be the good guy? Who will be the bad guy?
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.’
The people listening nod, knowingly. Yup, they could have predicted that to be his prayer. "Tooting his own horn," some might say. "Exalting himself," Jesus might say. Comparing himself with everyone else. Thinking he is better.
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!’
Well, the people could have predicted this, too. The one they love to hate is the hero of this parable.
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Like the people listening to Jesus, we get it. We know, because Jesus tells us, that our prayer ought to be like the tax collector's. To be in right-relationship with God, we need to look truly at ourselves—not at everyone else—and at the same time, keep our focus on God.
It is easy to separate the world into two groups of people:
those who are like the Pharisee—who do good things and know it, who compare themselves to others and congratulate themselves for being better;
those who are like the tax collector—who have done wrong and know it, who seek to make things right again by asking for God's mercy.
But if we try to separate the world this way, are we not in some way being like the Pharisee? Are we not judging people, deciding who knows they are a sinner and who does not?
Might we do better to consider whether sometimes
we are like the Pharisee,
and other times,
we are like the tax collector?
We do good things, right? We want to do these things—we like doing them—because we do them for God. This is good. We help build the Kingdom.
But do we also sometimes compare ourselves to others, thinking about how much more good we are doing compared to them?
Can any of us, ever give God enough—God who gives us everything in abundance—life, love, forgiveness, mercy?
It is difficult not to compare ourselves with others, but Jesus tells us that when we pray, our eyes must be only on ourselves and on God—a private conversation. How close we are to God when God gazes on us, and we gaze on God!
The tax collector's prayer has become known as "the Jesus prayer."
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
That prayer has 12 words. We can make it simple again, and pray like the tax collector:
Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.
We can try to pray that prayer each day this week. How will we remember to do this?
We can gaze at God knowing God gazes at us.
We will see how this makes us feel.