How do you pray? I bet that each of us here today prays in our own, distinct way. Perhaps some of us use rote prayers like the Lord’s Prayer while others just chat with God in a casual, informal manner. I’m guessing that most of us pray thanks for blessings and ask for help from God. Perhaps some of us are praying the “Why me?” prayer that comes in desperate times. We pray for health for ourselves and others. We pray for strength to endure our trials, we pray for family and friends, we pray for the dead.
Our prayers differ so much because prayer is a deeply personal reflection of our loving relationship with God. St. Augustine said; “True, whole prayer is nothing but love.” I sure don’t pray as much or as well as I’d like to. I read once that we all think everyone else has a better prayer life than we do! I believe it!
Kathleen Norris writes; “prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine. To be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what you have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been. When a prayer is answered, it is never in a way that you expect.”
In our parable today Jesus gives us two interesting examples of people praying. He was hanging out with some people who were a bit too self-centered, too sure that everything was all about them. They were righteous and they looked down on others with contempt. He wanted to set them straight so he told them this story:
Two men approached the temple in Jerusalem. Both had walked up the steep, rocky hill to get there, both came ready to pray to the Lord. The first, a Pharisee was a good man, a holy man. He did his best to follow the teachings of the bible and his faith and thus, he lived a godly life. He was a bit proud of himself for doing such a good job of being righteous in God’s eyes. So he goes into the temple, stands front and center by himself, raises his arms, looks up to heaven and begins to pray aloud: “Oh Lord, I just want to thank you that I’m not like other people! I’m not a robber or a dishonest person. I haven’t committed adultery. I’m not even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my entire income.” Then he looked about, hoping that other worshippers may have heard about JUST how good he was.
Off in a dark corner was the other man, the tax collector. He was universally disliked by all as the taxes he collected were for the Romans, the occupying army. No one was too thrilled to be paying taxes to the Romans. He stood quietly, with his head down, and beating his breast, whispered, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus said that this sinning tax collector went home with God’s approval, but the Pharisee didn’t. The Pharisee came to the temple a righteous man and he left a righteous man. He was unchanged by his prayer. The tax collector came to the temple a sinner but went home justified, that is, “made righteous by the Lord.” He was changed by his prayer.
The prayer of the Pharisee was all about him, a list of his accomplishments and achievements. He says the word “I” five times in his short prayer. He doesn’t pray for others, he only points out their faults. I wonder what he wanted from God. Where is God in his prayer? Was he just hoping to remind God of how good he was? I hate how he defines his virtue by comparing himself to others; “I’m not like that tax collector, I’m not a thief, I’m not a dishonest person, I’m not an adulterer.” He sure slams a lot of other people to point out how good he is. They are bad, but he is good.
Meanwhile, our tax collector is the picture of humility, isn’t he? Head down, beating his breast, his only prayer is a simple one: God, have mercy on me, a sinner. He isn’t presenting a list of his achievements to God. He isn’t comparing himself to others. He is simply asking for mercy. In his humble prayer there is an openness, a place for God’s infinite grace.
I don’t know about you but I want to be like that tax collector, not that righteous Pharisee. I want to be humble, in fact, I want to be so humble that people look at me and say, “Boy, thatCorby sure is humble!” Hmmm, wait. Here is a quote from Helen Nielsen: “Humility is like underwear, essential, but indecent if it shows.” Guess I’d better tuck my humility away!
Humility is a much lauded virtue throughout the bible. The meek shall inherit the earth. We aren’t that fond of humility in America - we are a proud nation, full of proud people, proud to be Americans. We like to glorify people from humble beginnings once they make it to the top. Of course, we don’t want to get carried away with humility: I like this quote from Golda Meir: “Oh, don’t be so humble; you’re not that great!”
Let’s think about that simple, humble prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Each Sunday we pray this when we say, ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.’ Another well known way to say it is “Lord, Jesus Christ, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is known simply as ‘the Jesus prayer.’ It is famously used as a meditation, where one says it over and over, with each breath. You know how we are encouraged in first Thessalonians to ‘pray without ceasing’? Well, this is the suggested prayer.
So I’ve been praying this all week, whenever I remember. I’ve never liked saying the last part, calling myself a sinner, but this week, I’ve realized that it stops me. Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. A sinner. I have to stop and think about how I’m sinning, and unfortunately, there is always something that springs to mind that I could be doing better.
On Wednesday, at bible study, we talked about sin - how do we define it? One definition is simply that sin is distance from God. If we want to avoid sin, we have only two things we need to do: Jesus makes it simple: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second [is] like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
So if you’ve got those down, if you’re totally loving God with all your heart, soul and mind and if you completely love your neighbor (and that means everybody) as much as you love yourself, you’re good, in fact, you are without sin. Congratulations.
As for me, I need to keep praying on this: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. I will work on my prayers so that, like our tax collector, I leave lots of room for God. I know that, given the opportunity, God will pour his infinite grace and mercy on me. Amen.