Prayer is important for Christian disciples because we all desire to be justified by God and to experience the Lord’s mercy. Prayer is an effective means of grace which is always a gift from God. Prayer demonstrates our dependence upon God for everything in life and even life itself. Prayer is not an optional part of discipleship but an essential and ongoing part of every disciple’s life. So, through the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus teaches us how our prayer should be.
The pharisee’s prayer is self-focused. The Greek text (pros heauton) literally says that he prayed “to himself”. Praying to himself means he is his God, which is the essence of the sin of pride because the sin of pride is disordered self-love in which a person sets themselves in place of God. So pharisee’s prayer became idolatrous because he made himself God and spoke to himself in his own prayer.
By contrast, the tax collector prays to God. He recognises that God is God and He is not; he recognises his nothingness. As we know, the word “Humility” comes from the Latin word “Humus”, which means mud. So the tax collector recognises that he’s dust in the wind. He’s weak and small; he’s a creature, not the creator.
The Pharisee reveals that his ultimate concern is himself through his stated interest in his own social standing, his own holiness, his own security, and his own justification. The only concern the Pharisee shows for others is that he can consider himself better than the rest and separated from the rest. That can happen to us in our prayer as well, whenever we pray only about ourselves and our own concerns or whenever we consider our own point of view as the only one to be considered. It can also happen to us whenever we fail to consider that God’s will is more perfect than our own and that God knows what is best for our lives. So, let us always remember that prayer is meant to be a dialogue with God that changes us.
Secondly, he judges others. He’s focused on other people, extortioners, unjust, adulterers etc. In doing so, the Pharisee revealed that his prayer is one of judgment and condemnation of others while acknowledging no fault within himself. As a result, he sees no need for personal conversion and so does not ask for God’s mercy. It is significant when we are told that he makes his prayer as an action of thanksgiving. The Greek word for thanksgiving is “Eucharistein”. By the use of this word, Jesus is trying to tell us that Christians must be careful, lest their prayer becomes like that of the Pharisee when we gather for the Eucharistic celebration. When we take our eyes off Christ or are unaware of our own sins, we are in danger of giving thanks for the wrong reasons. The celebration of the Eucharist is meant to be our source of communion with God and others. However, when we are judgmental and condemnatory of others while esteeming our own self-righteousness, then our prayer of thanksgiving becomes a source of division rather than communion.
Whereas the tax collector judges himself and cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. He’s not paying attention to others. He’s focused on his own sinfulness, his own need for mercy, and his own need for redemption. It is human nature to compare ourselves with others and think that we are just. But we need to compare ourselves with God, who is Holy. God teaches, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44). Our holiness should never be compared with anybody except God, who is Holy for all eternity.
Thirdly the Pharisee is blind to his sin and says: “I am not like other men”. The tax collector is Sorry for his sin, and he “beat his breast”. Dear friends, recognising one’s sin is grace. Sometimes we easily say: “I don’t have sins”. But remember, whenever we say so, we place ourselves in place of God and become similar to this pharisee. St John, the apostle, warns us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8).
Fourthly pharisee is proud and exalts himself. He praises himself while praying about two things—fasting and almsgiving—that Jesus insists his disciples do in secret so as to avoid praise (Mt 6:1–18). On the other hand, the tax collector is humble. He “humbles himself”. The Pharisee points to his religious practices as the basis of his righteousness. He asks nothing from God because he doesn’t think he needs anything from God. Fasting twice a week was going beyond the norm, as was paying tithes on everything. Tithes were normally only required on some things, and most people only fasted one day a week. In his own eyes, the Pharisee is already spiritually rich, so he is blind to his real spiritual need.
The very actions of faith (fasting and tithes) that were supposed to deepen his love for God and his neighbour ended up separating him from God and his neighbour when those practices became a source of selfish pride and a judgmental attitude towards others. Rather than those actions making him a better person, they just made him arrogant. Such an attitude can happen in the lives of faithful Christians as well. We can become so reliant on and trusting in our own religious practices and sacrifices that we actually lose sight of our real need for God.
The Tax Collector’s prayer is marked by three distinct qualities: humility, simplicity, and honesty. The humility of his prayer is manifested by the fact that he would not raise his eyes to heaven. His humility is also evidenced by the indication that he beat his breast as a sign of remorse and grief. The simplicity of his prayer is manifested by the fact that his prayer didn’t become wordy. Rather than trying to prove his self-righteousness or explain, justify, and defend his sins, the Tax Collector simply acknowledges his need, states his petition, and entrusts himself to the Lord’s compassion. The honesty of his prayer is manifested by the fact that he acknowledges who he is (a sinner) and his need for God (mercy). That type of prayer, Jesus says, is what justifies a person in the eyes of God.
These are the three qualities we need to cultivate in our prayers. In the holy mass, we practice all three qualities. We manifest honesty and humility when we beat our breasts as a sign of remorse and grief and when we genuflect during the consecration. Our simplicity of prayer is manifested by following the prayers stipulated by the Church in the order of holy mass.
So let us acknowledge our spiritual poverty so that we may be blessed with the gift of justification and deepen our communion with God and others, which is the ultimate aim of prayer.