by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse
Trinity Season 2007
The Anglican maxim Lex Orandi Lex Credendi (the Law of Praying is the Law of Believing) teaches us that our true beliefs are reflected most clearly in the manner in which we pray. Take for instance the story of a young boy saying his bedtime prayers with his mother. “Lord, bless Mommy and Daddy, and God, GIVE ME A NEW BICYCLE!!!” His mother gently reminded him that God was not deaf, to which he replied, “I know, Mom, but Grandma’s in the next room, and she’s hard of hearing!” The little boy’s prayer revealed exactly where his faith lay.
The prayers of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in our Gospel lesson for today also tell us much about the faith of these two men. Both men went to the Temple in very much the same way we come to church. As such, their story does have some bearing upon our lives too.
There are basically three things we need to take notice of in this parable: First, why these two men went to the Temple; second, what they did once they were there; and third, how they returned home afterwards.
I. Why They Went
That both of them intended to go to the Temple is made clear in verse 10: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray.” There was nothing accidental about their geographical location.
Thus, although they were vastly different from each other coming from backgrounds and vocations which were poles apart, they were united in their intention. However, the first was a man we would all assume to find in a place of prayer on a regular basis. He was a religious man and was, consequently, a praying kind of person. As such, it was fitting for him to go to the Temple to give expression to that which he believed.
The second man was on the other end of the scale, so to speak. He was a man of the world—a man who had publicly placed his faith in money. His chosen lifestyle had branded him an outcast in the eyes of everyone in decent society. His choice of profession put him in league with those who oppressed his own people and it was widely known that many tax collectors took more than necessary to line their own pockets. Biblical faith did not gel with his type of life and he no doubt did not frequent the Temple precincts except perhaps for Circumcisions, Bar Mitzvahs, Weddings and Funerals. And you thought Anglicans started that tradition! And yet, there he stood in the Temple and like the Pharisee, he had come to pray.
Now, perhaps this is not so strange, as all men do pray at one time or another and on one or other level. Prayer is a common and universal instinct on the part of man. There is a sense in which prayer is natural to man, because he has been made by God for communion with Himself; and prayer is an act of communion with God. This is seen most clearly when danger threatens or when disaster strikes. God is often called upon or blamed at such times. “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
In many ways, we are rendered complete when we pray, as it is in prayer that we are most closely walking with God. As our Creator takes us by the hand to lead us through life, He gives us a most amazing gift—the opportunity to ask for His assistance at any step along the way. We were not made to live by our own steam—we are dependent beings and to cease in prayer is ultimately to cease in being fully human.
II. What They Did
So, here we have two men in the Temple praying. But their prayers are as different as they are. The Pharisee is, of course, immediately nailed in most commentaries, but let’s examine his prayer for a moment to see if there is any glimpse of our own hearts here. The opening sentence of his prayer could arguably demonstrate a grateful heart. “God, I thank You that I am not like other men.” The Pharisee recognized that there was a difference between himself and others and apparently attributed that difference to God. Surely we all should be thankful that God in His grace has made us different and is continuing to make us different, not only from other people, but indeed from what we used to be.
But the underlying attitude of the Pharisees’ prayer is revealed in the use of the personal pronoun “I.” “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” In other words, I thank you God that I have arrived—everyone else does it wrong—I do it right. But to limit this attitude to the sect of the Pharisees is to miss the boat entirely. In many ways, by doing so, we fall into the same error as they did. “God, I thank You that I am not like this Pharisee.” But if we are honest, we see that this smug and arrogant attitude has plagued the Church of Jesus Christ since its inception. St. Paul had to counsel the church in Rome, in Ephesus, and in Corinth against ethnic, financial, or theological pride and spiritual elitism and snobbery.
Today, especially since the Reformation, we have to do the same. Although few would actually pray a prayer like this word for word, our practice does betray us. Many live lives in which they thank God that they are not like others. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—I thank you that I do it right.” We simply must remind each other constantly that we are a sinful people saved by God’s grace alone and that if He had not mercifully granted that we actually do things right from time to time, we too would be in error. Indeed, we should never reach the point where we would consider ourselves above the possibility of error.
This thought should produce a humility in us so that we are slow to pronounce judgment upon those who are not like we are. In many ways, the Pharisee’s assessment of the tax-collector was not far off the mark. From what we learn about the tax-collector in his own prayer, he may have even agreed with the Pharisee. But it was not the judgment in itself that was wrong—it was the attitude behind the judgment. “I have it right—I do it right,” the Pharisee said, “And that makes me better than other men.”
The error lies in an attitude of self-righteousness in which our acceptability to God is based on being the one who actually “gets it right.” There’s no sense of personal failure—no sense of unworthiness—no penitence—no petition for help in living a righteous life—nothing like that. Make no mistake, those elements may be present even in prayers of this nature, but ultimately the life of the self-righteous prayer will reflect an attempt, whether subtle or blatant, to parade his “rightness” before God and man alike. The personal pronoun “I” will creep in at one point or another.
Then there is the prayer of our less likely candidate—the tax-collector. This man no doubt didn’t know the first thing about prayer. Perhaps somewhere in his past he had been taught “Now I lay me down to sleep”, but his general lack of participation in religious matters later in his life ruled out any possibility of theological correctness.
Yet, even in his theological ignorance this man knew that he was not where he ought to be before God. He realized that he had not only fallen short of his own ideals, but also of the glory of God. There is no presumption or pretence in his prayer and although it is a simple, one-sentence petition, his words speak volumes. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Everything about this man speaks humility—his posture, his action, his words. His honesty is alarming to us—his simple sincerity, disarming—because his prayer exposes our own desire to plead some sort of merit, be it ever so small.
This man knew he could not trust in himself. He knew that he stood justly condemned—he also seems to have known that he could not presume upon God’s merciful and gracious character. Thus he simply acknowledged his unworthiness and cried out for mercy.
III. The Result
Our Lord tells us that the Pharisee went home unchanged. He was still self-righteous, self-confident, self-absorbed, and self-opinionated. Everyone else was still wrong in his opinion and he was still proud that all things were so clear to him. Is there perhaps a small possibility that this could be you and me?
On the other hand, the tax collector—our unlikely candidate—went home totally changed—he had been justified by God. He had come burdened down with grief and sorrow over his sin and had left forgiven and released. The two men were still very different, but whereas the initial division between them was based on background, vocation, lifestyle, and so on, the differences now lay elsewhere. Their prayers had revealed an inner reality previously hidden from view. The one had spoken many words with his lips, whereas the other had spoken few words from a broken and contrite heart. Their true beliefs were reflected most clearly in the manner in which they had prayed.
We all came to church today to pray. In that we are all the same. But how will we leave church today? Will we go home justified by God or will we continue to justify ourselves? Let us never forget that it is by the grace of God alone that we are what we are.
And so, as we come humbly to receive the gracious gift of the Body and Blood of our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ, let us beseech the One to Whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from Whom no secrets are hid, to reveal to us our own inner most beliefs. And as we receive the tokens of His love for us, let us cry out with our brother the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”