Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Pharisee and the Publican: A Tale of Two Prayers

Today's Gospel Reading, as we now come upon our preparation for Lent, is the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Tax Collector), Luke 18:9-14.

We are told that the two men went up to the Temple "to pray."

Now, prayer is ultimately any communication Man directs toward God.

But basically, true prayers boil down to one of two things. There are prayers where we thank or praise God and there are also prayers where we ask God for things.

1) Prayers of Thanksgiving and Praise. I can say, "I thank you, Lord, for all your goodness to me." And I have just prayed. I can say, "I praise you, God, that I am wonderfully made." And I have prayed.

And this is exactly what the Pharisee did. He prayed, "I thank you, God, that I am not like these other men--extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector."

I'm going to suggest that, despite how this prayer might sound arrogant, it's not really all that terrible a thing to pray. It is a sad and unfortunate fact that those raised in poverty or other disadvantage do tend toward crimes, sins, and vices more so than others. That is not to excuse crime, sin, or vice, but it certainly means I can reasonably thank God for the blessings of the stable and loving environment in which I was nurtured as a child. That's all the Pharisee was really doing. It's the same thought expressed in the famous quote by John Bradford, when seeing a group of prisoners led to execution, "There but for the grace of God go I."

He closes his prayer with the news that he fasts twice a week and tithes. These are good things. The Orthodox Church commends fasting twice a week to us. And every Church would love their people to donate more. Two percent would be fantastic. Tithing would be a dream.

2) Now we come to the Publican. He offers a prayer of the second type. He asks God for something. "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

And then we immediately learn that only the Publican went home justified. And by justified, it means forgiven, brought into correct relationship with God.

What exactly did the Pharisee do wrong? I'm suggesting that his prayer was not really wrong at all. But when he told God about his fasting and tithing, he wasn't praying. Fine as they are, God already knew those things.

So why did the Pharisee not receive forgiveness?

For the simple fact that he never asked for it.

This week, the Church forbids us to fast, lest we imitate the Pharisee. And let us more importantly imitate the Publican and be ever ready to repent of our sins and ask God for mercy, trusting in his faithfulness to forgive.

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