Praying to Oneself

Do you ever find yourself praying to yourself, like the pharisee in today’s parable (Luke 18.9–14)? Luke is very hard on the pharisee. Most pharisees were good people, and, far from being hypocrites, were devoted to the Law, charitable and upstanding members of society. Unfortunately, being ‘good’ can sometimes get in the way of being truly open to God; and that is exactly what happens with the pharisee in today’s gospel. Instead of praying to God, he addresses himself; and rather than acknowledging his sinfulness, he gives thanks for his virtues. The tax-collector, by contrast, knows he is a sinner through and through and simply asks for mercy.

Being honest about oneself does lead to a great simplification in prayer. There is nothing to say except, Lord, have mercy on me a sinner. The pharisee, alas, has obviously read too many books about self-worth and that has led him onto dangerous ground, making comparisons between himself and others (to their detriment). Clearly, being honest about oneself shouldn’t mean denying the gifts God has given, but it should make us realise that they are indeed gifts, not something we have earned or have of ourself.

We can all take something away from today’s reading, but I guarantee it won’t be comfortable.

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Standing Naked Before God

Today’s gospel, Luke 18. 9–14, has always appealed. I’d like to be the publican but know I am the pharisee, or rather, I’m a bit of both. I’ve never liked simplistic readings which make the pharisee all bad and the publican all good. The fact is, the pharisee and the publican were both being honest about themselves before God. The prayer that each uttered was a truthful prayer: the pharisee did do all the right things, the publican was a sinner through and through. So why is the publican’s prayer held up to us as a model to follow, and the pharisee’s condemned as self-righteous boasting? It’s not necessarily because the pharisee is, in effect, praying to himself rather than God (we all do that at times); surely it is because the pharisee compares himself with someone else, to the other’s disadvantage, while the publican compares himself with no one, just asks for mercy. The humility of the publican consists in his being aware that he stands naked and alone before God; the pharisee wants to dress up his prayer with comparisons, a fig-leaf of propriety to cover his essential nakedness. He’s trying to hide behind others rather than face God as he is, not as he wants to be. Do we do the same?

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