Pharisee and Publican

October 29th, 2013 Posted in writing

In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the publican (i.e, tax collector, sinner) who went up to the Temple to pray. The text tells us that the Pharisee went off and prayed “by himself.” But scholars say that the phrase could be just as well translated to say that the Pharisee went off and prayed “to himself.” That would certainly fit since the Pharisee’s prayer was centered on himself and his good deeds, his words giving the impression that he considered himself and God as almost on an equal footing. Apparently he thought he didn’t have to pray for forgiveness or mercy.

The publican, on the other hand, knew these things were exactly what he needed, so he kept asking God for them. His prayer was simple, direct, and addressed to a forgiving, merciful God. And Jesus said that he went home with his prayer answered, while the Pharisee went home no closer to God than when he had entered the Temple.

What is our disposition when we come to God? Do we come full of satisfaction at our accomplishments? Does our prayer sound like a testimonial speech delivered by us in praise of ourselves? Or do we come to our God in prayer aware that we, like the publican, have not acted as we should and that only God’s mercy can get us out of the holes we have dug for ourselves and others?

Maybe the Pharisee enjoyed his prayer of self-congratulation, but the prayer of the publican had more truth in it. And, as Jesus said, truth will make us free. It is the key that opens us up to receive God’s mercy and to live as forgiven, and forgiving, people.

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