2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14
The most dangerous temptations are usually the most subtle ones. Most people have the good sense to see that murder, for example, is obviously wrong and to avoid it. But when we do not sense the danger of falling into evil at all, we are more likely to let down our guard. That is usually when we are most susceptible to spiritual corruption.
The Pharisee in today’s parable was apparently not aware of his most serious temptations. He was going into the temple to pray, and his prayers indicate that he lived an exemplary life. He was honest in his dealings with others, faithful to his wife, and obedient in fasting and tithing. His outward appearance was that of a righteous man. Probably in any time and place, most people would think that his standing before God was secure. That is obviously what the Pharisee thought.
Unfortunately, he not only thought about himself, he actually prayed to himself. When he thought that he was addressing God, he was simply praising himself for what he had accomplished. His prayer was so self-centered that it was a form of idolatry, of simply thanking himself for being so good. That there is nothing of true prayer going on here is shown when the Pharisee judges others in order to make clear his own virtue. To thank God that he is “not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” is to fall into the prideful self-righteousness that our Savior so strongly condemned throughout His ministry. It is a form of spiritual blindness that shuts our eyes to the truth about where we stand before God.
What a shocking contrast the parable gives us with the prayer of the publican, the tax collector whom the Pharisee condemned. Remember that tax collectors in that setting were Jews who worked for the occupying Roman government and made their living by charging more than was required. They were traitors and thieves, and certainly not among the righteous of Israel. This tax collector also went to the temple to pray, but in an entirely different way from the Pharisee. He had such a strong sense of his own sinfulness that “standing far off, [he] would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” This despised, wretched man truly opened his heart before the God Who is Holy, Holy, Holy. And he knew that before such a Lord, all that he could do was to call for mercy as he acknowledged the disaster that he had made of his life. That his approach to prayer is superior to that of the Pharisee is shown by Christ’s comment at the end of the parable: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Today we begin the Lenten Triodion, which means that Great Lent, the year’s most intense period of spiritual discipline, will begin in a few weeks. During the coming season of Lent, we will prepare to follow our Lord to His cross and glorious resurrection at Pascha. The kind of prayer that we need in Lent, and every day of our lives, is that of the tax collector. The kind of prayer that we must avoid in Lent, and every day of our lives, is that of the Pharisee.
If we pray like the Pharisee, we will never enter into the deep mystery of salvation through our Lord’s death and resurrection. If it were possible to make ourselves so righteous by our own actions that our prayers would be nothing more than self-congratulation as we condemned others, then we ourselves would have already conquered sin and death. Indeed, we would be gods worthy of our own worship. Whatever religion that would be, it is certainly not Orthodox Christianity. Such attitudes clearly have no place in our prayers at any time. A key lesson to learn from the bad example of the Pharisee is that we must be careful to direct prayer to God, not to ourselves. Our prayers must not be offered to a false god we have made up in our minds in order to feel better about ourselves or help us get what we want. No, the Lord is infinitely holy and “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) As God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” (Isa. 55:8) We must never make the mistake of thinking that whatever is pleasing to us is necessarily pleasing to Him.
The Pharisee made a false god in his own image who would never hold him accountable to the truth and who could never heal his soul. The tax collector did something far more challenging and quite scary, for he exposed his soul to the true God. When Isaiah had a vision of the Lord in His heavenly temple, he said “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isa. 6:5) The tax collector responded in the same way as he prayed that day, for he knew the infinite distance between God’s holiness and his own sinfulness. He was not praying to an idol of his own imagination who told him what he wanted to hear. In that moment, he allowed everything about his life to be called into question by encountering the One Who is Holy, Holy, Holy.
We should never been surprised when it is a struggle to pray, especially when our minds wander in our private prayers or in services. There is much of us that does not want to be fully exposed to the infinite holiness of the Lord. It is much easier to stay wrapped up in our own thoughts and obsessed with our preferred pastimes and daily cares than to encounter God. But to do so is to risk ending up in the same place as the Pharisee. For if we neglect genuine prayer, we are essentially telling God and ourselves that we are fine as we are. That, of course, is exactly what the Pharisee did when he gave thanks that he was so much better than his neighbors, especially the tax collector. It is a form of spiritual pride that inevitably leads to judging others, which further weakens us spiritually.
Instead of turning away from prayer because it is difficult, we must use our struggle to pray for growth in humility. When we do not want to pray, when our minds wander, and especially if we start to judge or recount the wrongs of others in our thoughts, we should cry out like the tax collector “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” as we turn our attention back to the Lord. It is really impossible to pray without humility, for to be fully present before God requires us to accept the truth that we are in constant need of the divine mercy and healing. The more fully we open our hearts to the Lord in prayer, the more we will see the absurdity of setting ourselves up as the self-righteous judges of others. Remember what He taught about taking the huge plank out of our own eye before being concerned with the tiny speck in someone else’s. (Matt. 7:3-5)
No matter how outwardly upright our lives may appear to be, the words of the Jesus Prayer always state the truth about how we stand before God: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This is a prayer to the Savior, not simply a mantra or phrase to help us become mindful or reduce stress. When we focus on those words as we open our hearts to Christ in humility, we follow the example of the tax collector in today’s parable. He knew that he deserved nothing from God except the misery and brokenness that resulted from his many sins. But by exposing himself as a sinner, with no excuses or distractions, he opened himself to the infinite mercy of the One Who died and rose again for our salvation. That is how we must learn to pray this Lent, and every day of our lives, if want to return to our homes justified, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”