The older you get the more you come to realise that you can never escape the person who is so full of himself that his conversation inevitably swings to the subject of his own achievements, importance, and superiority. You often find them sitting next to you on a plane or a train. Have you travelled to some interesting place? He’s travelled more. Do you play golf, knit, or cook? She does it better. Do you suffer from arthritis? No one has ever suffered like her—or borne the pain more nobly.
Most of us would like to avoid people like this. And if God were like us, maybe he would have fled too when he spotted the Pharisee in today’s parable entering the Temple to pray. Because although the man begins well— with “I thank you God”—his prayer of thanksgiving has nothing to do with God’s work. It’s all about himself: how much he’s doing for God and how brightly he shines out among the sinners. His words gush up like a fountain in smug praise of his own accomplishments and spiritual state.
Meanwhile, at the back and in the shadows, a tax collector is beating his breast. Eyes on the ground, hardly daring to speak in the presence of Almighty God, he utters just a few heartfelt words: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”. Is he perhaps repenting of having extorted a widow’s last coin? Is he a saint in tax-collector’s clothing? Our Lord doesn’t tell us. But it’s clear though, that this man knows his deep need for divine mercy, and he turns to God as the only one who can save him.
Today, Our Lord invites each one of us to pray as the tax collector did, in humility and simplicity. We must learn to take our eyes off ourselves, and fix them on God. We must come into his presence, recalling his glorious majesty and his great love for us. We must offer words of thanks and praise for everything that God has done for us. Or, if need be repent of our sins and our failings.
And if words fail us, that’s fine; because essentially, prayer isn’t about the words we bring to God. It’s about bringing him a heart that’s empty of self, as the psalmist says: a “humbled contrite heart” a heart that God can heal and fill with his own love.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, I know that there’s some of the Pharisee in me. Have mercy on me, a sinner.