24 February 2013
Everything comes together at the moment of prayer. All our theology, all our piety, all our practice meet in that time we stand before God. Prayer reveals our hearts.
It surely revealed the hearts of the Pharisee and the Publican. Both of them came to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee said, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men. I fast twice a week, and pay tithes of all I get."
Pay attention to the Pharisee's prayer. In his heart, there were three things: God, himself, and other men. He paid his tithes--and there's nothing wrong with that, it's a good thing. He fasted twice a week, just as he was supposed to do.
But all of that he did, so he could compare himself with others as he stood before God. "God, thank you that I am better than they are." He makes no request from God, he has no need of God; for him, God was there to see how good he was.
Not so the prayer of the publican. While the Pharisee stood in a prominent place, the publican hid in a corner. While the Pharisee prayed sure of his goodness, the Publican prayed sure only of his misery.
In his heart, there were only two things: God and himself. He mentions nothing that he has done. He comes to God in real need, deepest need. He doesn't manufacture his misery; he admits it.
The holy fathers teach that there are only two with whom I deal in life: myself and God. Every other human, high and low, good and bad, rich and poor--but especially the poor--are but masks God puts on, covers under which he hides himself. When I exalt myself over them, as did the Pharisee, God will humble me. When I humble myself before God--both directly and when he hides beneath my neighbor--then he exalts me.
The text tells us that the Publican went home justified, but not the Pharisee. There are some who say that being justified is a matter of being certain, of being sure in our salvation. The funny thing is, only the Pharisee was confident. The publican lived with the ongoing sense of his own need, his own unworthiness. "Be merciful to me the sinner" is his only word.
If I am to receive God's mercy, I have to be content to think of myself as in misery. If I am to receive God's forgiveness, I have to accept the fact that I am a sinner. If I want his strength, I must admit that I am weak. If I want to be raised with Christ, I must accept that I am dead without him.
That's not to say that I should wallow in my sin, rejoice in my misery, or turn my weakness or death into a substitute for the Pharisee's works, of course. The publican bemoans his condition; he doesn't brag about it. But neither does he cover it up with the fig leaves of his own actions. He admits it. He prays to be released from it. And he trusts that God will do it.
Beloved, we are once again approaching Lent. We will renew our calls to get serious about prayer, and fasting, and tithing. These things are all good, but none of them give us good standing with God. God doesn't need our prayer, our food, our money. It is for us that we fast, for us that we pray, for us that we give.
This coming week is one of those few in the calendar that we fast from fasting. The Church wants us to flee the mind of the Pharisee, and take up the prayer of the Publican. Let us learn from him, how to be right with God! Let us learn from him to humble ourselves beneath God's mighty hand, that he may exalt us in due time.