A Failure at Prayer: On the Publican and Pharisee

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Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, February 21, 2016
2 Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Is it possible to be a failure at prayer? The answer is “yes,” and today we’ll talk about two failures at prayer, depicted for us in the Gospel reading from Luke 18.

The Sunday on which we read the Gospel of the Publican and Pharisee is the beginning of the Triodion. It is on this day that this liturgical book is taken off the shelf for the first time since last year. We will be using it from today all the way through Lent and Holy Week. The word Triodion means “three odes,” and this refers to the Matins canons with three odes that are used on weekdays during this season.

Opening up this book signals the coming of Great Lent in three weeks, and the themes we meditate on during this time prepare us for this time of great spiritual effort. The usual emphasis when talking about the Publican and Pharisee is humility, and certainly we see that here. But today I would like to cover something different, and that is theme of being a failure at prayer.

Prayer is everywhere in life for Christians, and we really ramp it up during Lent. So it’s good that this theme is introduced today as we are getting ready for Lent. And in my experience, many Christians do not really think about their prayer very much. They mostly just do it. But how often do we ask whether we are doing it well? Is it possible to be a failure at prayer? Yes, it is.

So in today’s parable from Jesus, we hear about two failures at prayer—the Publican and the Pharisee. Let’s talk about our first failure at prayer, the Pharisee.

The Pharisee’s failure is really obvious. Look at how he prays. First, listen to how Jesus talks about him. The Lord says that he “prayed thus with himself.” He is standing in the temple of the Living God, and yet his prayer is “with himself.” Is he actually with God? Well, God is there, but the Pharisee is not really there with God. He is “with himself.”

Next, he begins his actual prayer by thanking God. Well, that’s fine. But then look at what he thanks God for: “I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” This is what Southerners call a “backhanded compliment.” It sounds like he’s thanking God, but he’s actually just talking smack about other people, including someone standing right there.

Next, he says, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Very nice. Good for you, pal. Look how great you are, so great that you have to tell God how great you are. I am sure that the Omniscient Lord God of the Universe is edified by this information you are giving Him.

This guy is a total failure at prayer. He does not even really approach God. He is just there “with himself.” He uses his prayer to recount other people’s sins, including someone standing right there, someone whose heart he doesn’t have a clue about. And then, to top it all off, he then brags to God about how pious he is. This is prayer only in the most technical sense. Yes, God does hear him, but He is not listening to Him. And what is there to answer in that prayer? The Pharisee is not interested in communion with God. He is interested only in himself, and what’s more, he tries to make himself look good by bringing other people down.

Okay, so let’s look at our next failure at prayer. The Lord says this about the Publican, the tax collector: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”

Now, you might be thinking, “Why is this guy a failure at prayer?” Well, here we have to use the words differently. The Pharisee is a failure at prayer. That is, he is bad at praying. But the Publican is a failure at prayer. That is, he is a failure who is praying.

Now, everyone knows the Publican is a failure. He’s got a bad reputation. Tax collectors are hated by their fellow Jews, and they are well known as liars and cheats. They are sinners. When we hear the word sinner these days, it doesn’t have a big impact on us, but in first century Palestine, to be called a sinner means that, in the eyes of the Jews, you are a loser, a law-breaker, a criminal, a failure.

So when the Publican says, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” he is calling himself all those things. He knows he is a failure. He is calling himself a failure. And he is at prayer. So while the Pharisee was a failure at prayer, the Publican is a failure at prayer. Do you hear the difference? And so we learn from these two men what we need to prepare us for Great Lent.

When we are praying during Lent or really at any other time, we cannot be like the Pharisee—we must not be like the Pharisee. Why? Because his prayer is actually harmful to him! He comes into the Temple of the Living God and blasphemes God by his so-called “prayer.” First, he is not there to be with God. He went to the Temple with another agenda. If we come here with some agenda other than to be with God, to reach out to God, to connect with God, and to be healed by God, then we are here for the wrong reason and would be far better served by staying home. Yes, God is always happy to have us here, but we are harming ourselves if we come with a counter-agenda that actually opposes God’s agenda.

And the Pharisee’s agenda is definitely counter to God’s agenda. God’s agenda is to pick us up from our brokenness and heal us, but the Pharisee’s agenda is to make himself look good. He doesn’t think he’s broken. He’s great, in fact, much better than most people, and definitely much better than that loser and failure in the back. And look how pious he is, with his tithing and his fasting! God sure is lucky to have someone like him around. He’s doing God and everyone else a favor by coming to the Temple. They should be glad he’s there!

No, no, we cannot be like that. That is a diabolical, demonic way of praying. It is the opposite of everything that it means to be a child of God. It is being a failure at prayer.

Instead, we imitate the Publican. He is a failure. And he is at prayer. He knows who he is. He knows that he has broken the commandments of God. He knows that makes him a loser and a failure and a sinner.

But he still comes to God. He still comes into the presence of God. And when he speaks to God, he is actually speaking to God. He is not praying “with himself” like the Pharisee. He is actually praying with God and to God. And he asks for mercy.

No one asks for mercy who thinks that he’s doing just fine. And if there’s one thing we ask for so many thousands of times here in the Church, it is mercy! Lord, have mercy!

If we look at ourselves not in the light of our own opinions but in the light of the perfection and love and the commandments of God, we will see that everything is not just fine. We are sinners. We are losers. We are failures. I am all those things, many times over. I confess that to you all. I know it is true. I have broken the commandments of God.

But I want mercy. I want God’s mercy on me—a sinner, a loser and a failure. My piety and my fasting and my tithing are nothing special. I am not worthy to lift up my eyes to Heaven. I am not worthy to be healed. But God has come to me, the unworthy one, and He comes with healing. He comes with love. He comes with connection, with the warmth of His true presence. He has come this way to all of us together. That is why He has gathered us here today in His holy house, why He is now preparing us for this most blessed season of Lent.

So let us not be failures at prayer. Let us do this the right way, by knowing that we are failures, and then in that attitude, coming to pray. And together we will cry again and again: Lord, have mercy!

To the merciful God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

One comment:

  1. This is a good word and I believe it is right in line with what God has been conveying to my heart. I like how this passage and message moves from failure to Mercy.

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