Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Praying like a Pharisee? Or praying like a Publican?

The Pharisee and the Publican praying in the Temple ... who was good at praying, and who was a model for praying?

Patrick Comerford

Luke 18: 9-14


9 Εἶπεν δὲ καὶ πρός τινας τοὺς πεποιθότας ἐφ' ἑαυτοῖς ὅτι εἰσὶν δίκαιοι καὶ ἐξουθενοῦντας τοὺς λοιποὺς τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην: 10 Ἄνθρωποι δύο ἀνέβησαν εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν προσεύξασθαι, ὁ εἷς Φαρισαῖος καὶ ὁ ἕτερος τελώνης. 11 ὁ Φαρισαῖος σταθεὶς πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ταῦτα προσηύχετο, Ὁ θεός, εὐχαριστῶ σοι ὅτι οὐκ εἰμὶ ὥσπερ οἱ λοιποὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἅρπαγες, ἄδικοι, μοιχοί, ἢ καὶ ὡς οὗτος ὁ τελώνης: 12 νηστεύω δὶς τοῦ σαββάτου, ἀποδεκατῶ πάντα ὅσα κτῶμαι. 13 ὁ δὲ τελώνης μακρόθεν ἑστὼς οὐκ ἤθελεν οὐδὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ἐπᾶραι εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν, ἀλλ' ἔτυπτεν τὸ στῆθος αὐτοῦ λέγων, Ὁ θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ. 14 λέγω ὑμῖν, κατέβη οὗτος δεδικαιωμένος εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ παρ' ἐκεῖνον: ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὑψῶν ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται, ὁ δὲ ταπεινῶν ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται.

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13 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!” 14 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.’

The Pharisee and the Publican

In the Year II Liturgy module, we have been discussing how prayer is both an individual and a collective action. And even when we pray individually, we pray for ourselves and we pray on behalf of others.

Prayer is a dialogue with God, a spiritual breathing of the soul, a foretaste of the bliss of God’s kingdom.

As Maurice reminded us in his sermon at the Community Eucharist last Wednesday, Christ teaches his disciples how to pray, by word and by example. When they ask how to pray, he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 1-5), giving them an immediate example of model prayer

But he also gives example of prayer in the parables, particularly in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple (Luke 18: 9-14), which is the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sunday after next, 24 October, the Fifth Sunday before Advent.

The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican and their prayers is a interesting way to examine our own approaches to prayer. In this parable, Christ teaches the disciples to pray not by giving words but by giving examples of how others pray – but can we be too quick to say that we are presented with one good example and one example?

Both the Pharisee and the Publican prays for himself. Each bares himself before God.

The Pharisee gives thanks to God. He prays. In fact, by all the current standards of and means of measuring Jewish piety, he is a good man. Look at what he tells God and us about himself.

First of all he thanks God that he is not like other people. The Morning Prayer for Orthodox Jewish men, to this day, includes a prayer with these words: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a gentile, … a slave, … a woman.”

Thanking God that I am not like others is not an expression of disdain for others; it is merely another, humble way of thanking God for being made the way we are, in God’s image and likeness. The Pharisee’s prayer is not unusual.

The Pharisee then goes on to tell God that he obeys all the commandments: he prays, he fasts and he tithes – in fact, he tithes more than he has to, and perhaps also fasts more often than he has to – and he gives generously to the poor. He more than meets all the requirements laid on him by the Mosaic law, and he goes beyond that. He is a charitable, kind and faithful man.

Anyone who saw him in the Temple and heard him pray would have gone away saying he was a good man, and a spiritual man.

But, despite attending to his responsibilities towards others, the Pharisee in this parable does not pray for the needs of others, in so far as we are allowed to eavesdrop on his prayers.

But then, neither does the publican pray for the needs of others.

So neither man is condemned for not being heard to pray for the needs of the other.

What marks the prayers of the Pharisee out from the prayers of the publican is that, in his prayers, the Pharisee expresses his disdain for the needs of others.

The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is also a reminder that at times people may think that because they have sinned they should not pray.

But the story of the story of the Pharisee (apparently good) and the Publican (apparently bad), tells us that the Pharisee prayed easily, while the publican could not even lift his eyes to heaven. Instead, the publican smote his breast and prayed: “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Jesus tells us it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.

The publican wants to pray even when he feels guilty of sin.

We do not have to wait until we feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so that we can pray. Such prayer is almost useless. I know I can all too easily pray the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner,” more readily when I am feeling righteous than when I realise I am a sinner.

Religious feelings can be deceptive in the extreme. When I think I feel like praying, I may in fact be feeling “pious,” and I may not be ready to pray at this stage. Instead, I may be preparing to be self- consumed and self-congratulatory about being a pious person of prayer.

But when I feel like the Publican in our parable, then I can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell you, “I can’t take communion … lead the intercession … serve at the altar today, because I don’t feel worthy.” But surely I’m in much greater danger when I do feel worthy.

When does someone ever say, “I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere with prayer!

In ministry, we need to help people to pray like a publican. They will find so many more times available for prayer if they do. And while they are there, you and I should pray for those who are praying like a Pharisee, so that God may free us from our delusions.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 13 October 2010