The Pharisee prays silently because he is too well bred to pray aloud. He starts with thanksgiving for all his many blessings… And he is thankful that with all his wealth, he is certainly superior to that other man. The Pharisee certainly out ranks him — just look at his clothes – patches and hand-me-downs. The Pharisee thinks he is superior to other men. After all, he’s not a thief or adulterer – but God knows all that about him. He’s certainly more important to the world than that mere tax collector. The Pharisee looks absorbed in his prayer but he has a real attitude problem. He is so superior to that other man. He mentions his tithing, his fasting and so forth. He forgets what prayer is all about. He thinks of his good qualities, but he is not praying.
Meantime, the publican is praying not with words but with sighs that are too deep for words. He just feels wretched. His life is a mess; he has no future, no hope. He dare not disturb the Pharisee at his devotions. In the eyes of the Pharisee, he is strictly second-class. In truth, he may be a good father, a faithful husband, a dutiful son to his parents and so forth but he does not mention all that to God. His prayer is simple. “Be merciful to me, a sinner.”
He left believing that God would have mercy – just mercy – on him. That would be enough. I’m sure we could think of real people fitting into one category or the other.
Perhaps on the right side of things, we would think of someone who never refuses an opportunity for charitable service. We know those who are at peace with God, a person who is emotionally available to others, a person who recognizes no class or distinction of wealth or color or family name or sexual orientation.
In trying to lead and teach the Christians at Corinth, Paul wrote to them, “… we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”
Surely, we can tell whether someone is being true to their calling to be one of the people of God. We can tell by the aroma of Christ carried by some people that they never pray, “Thank God I am not like others.” Rather, the right prayer, the only prayer for that sort of person is “God, be merciful to me. I am a sinner.”
If we were to rewrite or rethink this parable to put its lesson into modern language, we might consider the story a certain priest told about a rather ordinary man, past middle-age. He said he noticed this man coming into the church everyday about lunchtime and kneeling for a few minutes. The priest stopped him one day on his way out and commented that his devotions were certainly brief. “Yes,” he said. “I have only a few minutes to get back to work.”
“Then would you mind sharing with me some of your prayer concerns?”
“I don’t mind. I just kneel and say ‘Jesus, its Jimmy.’ That’s real humility, not to tell God how good or deserving we are, not to ask for miracles for ourselves, but just to report for duty. God, after all, is the central figure in our devotions, rather than telling him about our good points.
The publican in his sins prayed for the greatest thing about God, and that is his power and love to forgive us and to save us from ourselves.
Five hundred years before the coming of Christ, Isaiah wrote in the past tense of God’s own servant who would come at some point in the future, “…he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
We must be humbled by the love of God who came to earth in the form of a son. Humility can hardly come from comparing ourselves with others. Humility does not come from believing that we are better than those we consider beneath us, who should remember their place and get in it. Humility comes by knowing that we are in God’s presence, in the presence of magnificence and glory that we are not worthy of.
The prayer of the humble is always “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Now, wouldn’t we love to be counted among the humble?
We instinctively like the publican, given the choice between these two. His position as tax collector left few commandments unbroken. He had lied, cheated, stolen through legal loopholes and some not so legal. He had put money before his God — and yet he called out for mercy.
What a faith, to believe against all odds that God would be merciful to him. And just as instinctively, we dislike Pharisees. They criticize or condemn everything in sight, the ones who gladly climb to success at the expense of others.
Modern Pharisees never see their own sins, but are quick to point out the sins of others.
A famous playwright said of his father, “It wasn’t easy at all for Father to see his faults. And if he did, it certainly did not occur to him to ask God to forgive them. He forgave himself.”
Do we know people who never shed a sympathizing tear for others, who never do a good deed of compassion and concern?
For some who are well acquainted with God in prayer and praise, there is always the temptation to get buddy-buddy with God, to make him a servant who is supposed to jump at our every command, supposed to answer every petty prayer for sunshine on our parade. We could not imagine that such a person would kneel in silent humility during the day’s work to whisper, “Jesus, its me.”
In the words of one of the old confessional forms, “…it becometh us diligently to examine ourselves, but we shall find nothing in us but sin and death, from which we can in no-wise set ourselves free.”
The right prayer for worship is our whispered common cry to God for grace, a plea for God’s help upon us in this and every congregation where God’s name is spoken.
In his show of piety, false to the core, the Pharisee asks God to look upon his good works, to count him worthy of salvation, to save him because of his goodness.
But the publican looks only at God, the same God who has promised to save those who believe in his love and mercy and kindness, who call on the name of the Lord Jesus…
So we praise God in our prayers, and ask only to serve him, to give honor and glory to his name, because we are people of God and he is good to us.
God has spoken to us through creation itself, through the great line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the prophets and the kings, through the remnants of a chosen people in exile in Babylon, and finally in this latter time, God has spoken to us through his son.
Jesus Christ is the presence of God in our times. He has come to take our sins upon himself, to rise from the tomb for our salvation. We don’t intend to play the part of the Pharisee.
Edward Sill wrote of a king who thought to make light of matters of religion and of the spirit, and of prayer.
“The royal feast was done; the king sought some new SPORT to banish care.
“ And to his jester cried, Sir Fool, kneel now, and make for us a prayer.
“He bowed his head and bent his knee upon the monarch’s silken stool.
“His pleading voice arose, O Lord, be merciful to me, a fool.
‘Our faults no tenderness should ask, the chastening stripes must cleanse them all.
“But for our blunders, oh, IN SHAME, before the eyes of heaven we fall.
“These clumsy feet, still in the mire, go crushing blossoms without end.
“These hard, well-meaning hands, we thrust among the heartstrings of a friend.
“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes, Men crown the knave and scourge the tool that did his will.
“But thou, O Lord, be merciful to me, a fool.
“The room was hushed; in silence rose the king and sought his garden cool.
“And walked apart, and murmured low, be merciful to me, a fool.”
Can we disclose even to God our inner wrongs and evil deeds, our misunderstanding of others and our own moral failures?
Wouldn’t we like a strong and steady faith that is yet humble before God? Where WOULD it all lead?
Sometime after the priest came to know Jimmy, he was called to his bedside in a modest fourth floor apartment. It was obvious that Jimmy had not long to live.
The priest knelt and prayed for Jimmy dying even while he prayed.
Much later, he told that when he rose, he heard the whisper of divine love: “Jimmy, its Jesus.”