By Pamela Lewis
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke 18:9-14
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Pharisees (which means “the separated ones”) were (at least often enough) notoriously convinced of their own holiness and disdainful of those they considered to be religiously unclean. But, although a Pharisee is one of the subjects in this familiar parable, Jesus is speaking to others who are also confident of their own righteousness.
Some versions of this parable say that the Pharisee was standing in the temple praying about himself, whereas others say that he was praying with himself. It could be argued that both versions work, in that the Pharisee’s prayers are narcissistically focused on himself; and he is also standing by himself, perhaps because he does not want to associate with others, or because others feel too unworthy to stand near to him. He gives thanks only for not being like other men (all of whom are more “sinful,” including a tax collector, standing afar off), and ticks off all of the things he does which attest to what a good, law-abiding (and law-upholding) Pharisee he is.
The tax collector, resented by his society and so aware of his sinfulness that he cannot even raise his eyes heavenward, prays to God for his mercy. Whether or not the tax collector returns to his unscrupulous ways is anyone’s guess, but Jesus declares that he will be counted as righteous in contrast to the arrogant Pharisee, who sees God only as a score-keeper of good deeds and is therefore isolated from God.
Humble prayer will draw God near to us, but a haughty inner life will distance him from our petitions. “Though the Lord is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar” (Ps. 138:6). In this parable, that is as much about prayer as it is about the two men who pray, we again find ourselves in Jesus’ upside down kingdom, where the humble and exalted switch places, and where the humble receive God’s greatest gift.
Pamela A. Lewis taught French for thirty years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New Yorker, Episcopal Journal, and The Living Church.
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Today we pray for:
All Saints Episcopal Church, Jacksonville, Fla.
The Diocese of North Eastern Caribbean and Aruba (Church in the Province of the West Indies)