“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” - Luke 18:10-14
Two men went up to the temple. One stands by himself to pray, the other stands far off.
What prompts each to choose where they stand?
In this parable, both men set themselves apart from others. Why? How does the Pharisee see himself? God? The others gathered? What about the tax collector? What drives them to stand apart? I wonder.
Imagine the tax collector. A Jew making his way through life working for the Roman Empire collecting taxes from his neighbors. He walks in both worlds: Jewish and Roman, seen as a traitor by many.
He needs to provide for his family. He feels the call of his faith, feels the judgment of the people at the temple. Do they recoil or avoid him as he approaches? What weighs on him as he arrives? How does he come to pray?
He slips in, longing for refreshment, seared with his own pain.
Deeply aware of his fallenness, he cries out, begging to find the grace and mercy he longs for, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
It is a scene of repentant agony and true awe before God.
This man Jesus calls justified. Vindicated. He will be exalted.
Imagine the Pharisee coming into the temple, strong of stride, head bowed, back erect. He knows the rituals of this place: when to speak, when to keep quiet. He would never beat his breast, make a scene.
His are the right people. The right prayers. He sees the others, his neighbors, but does not go to them. Instead, he sets himself apart, listing the sins of those he sees, passing judgment himself. Then, carefully, lists his own acts of fidelity, exalted!
Jesus reminds his disciples: beware who you include and who you exclude. Your list of those excluded is wrong, all wrong. Watch your pride. Be careful of what follows when you exalt yourself.
I confess I have days when I come to prayer like the Pharisee, days I come like the tax collector, and days I come like the rest of those gathered: out of habit, ritual, obedience, tradition.
Perhaps I should be asking:
How do I come to pray today? What is the condition of my heart?
How do I see myself? Others? God? How do I approach the temple?
Can I simply love?
To carry ourselves with humility, we are asked to come with eyes that recognize our own humanity in the women and men around us. To see the elements of ourselves that are unjust, extorting, adultering tax-collectors. Coming to prayer as our broken selves allows us to come to our sisters and brothers with a spirit of kindness, kinship, and care.
Imagine entering the temple and drawing close to those who have gathered. We know they are like us: huddled and holy, reaching for grace and begging for mercy.
How do we come to pray today?