REFLECTION by Greg Sunter
This week’s gospel passage flows on directly from last week’s gospel and continues the teaching of Jesus about prayer. Whereas the preceding passage emphasised the need for persistence in prayer, this passage is about the way in which we come before God in prayer. It is the tax collector, whose simple prayer is ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner,’ who goes home at rights with God. In this simple prayer, the tax collector recognises that he is not in right relationship with God and asks for God’s mercy. This is a hallmark of the lowly and outcast in the gospel of Luke: they recognise their need and seek God’s forgiveness and mercy. The model of faith that is depicted over and over again in this gospel is the one who recognises their need for God’s loving mercy and asks for it. We are repeatedly reminded that God’s mercy, forgiveness and abundant love are constantly out-flowing towards us and all we have to do is humbly desire and welcome them.
Humility is at the heart of this parable. The Pharisee is representative of those who are assured of their own rightness but who rely on comparison with others to make themselves feel righteous and justified. The actions of this man were not limited to Pharisees alone, nor are they limited to a particular time and place. This man’s attitude of asserting his own faithfulness and religious observance by comparison with others can be easily seen in the world today. All faiths seem to be afflicted with these characters who assure themselves of their own ‘goodness’ by railing against those who are different. But, as the parable assures us, it is the humble who are exalted by God.
Living the Gospel – Competitive prayer!
For the Pharisee, his prayer is a competition. He prays aloud so that others can hear him and be impressed. Perhaps he thinks that God is as impressed as those who look up to him? His prayer is also an opportunity to make himself look good at the expense of another. Certainly, prayer is a time to celebrate with God our triumphs and successes, but above all it is an opportunity to be truly honest with God and with ourselves. The prayer of the tax collector is the most honest of prayers. This honesty is what is impressive; not the competitive showing off.
From the perspective of … The Tax Collector
Wouldn’t you know it? I thought the Temple would be quiet at this time and I snuck in the back to whisper my prayer to God. But one of the great men, a Pharisee, was there praying. He proudly declared before God his good works. Every word he spoke reminded me of how I fail time and time again to do what is right with God. I realised that I didn’t belong in that place. My prayer went out of my head and I muttered a few simple words. Why would God listen to me, a sinner?
Gospel Focus – At rights with God
We are told that the tax collector, after his simple prayer, went home ‘at rights with God’. What does it mean to be at rights with God? It is nothing more and nothing less than the entire Judeo-Christian story. The story of the Old Testament is the story of God calling the people to live in right relationship with God and with one another. The Gospels are the story of Jesus calling all people to a richer understanding of his compassionate Father so that they may once again be at rights with God. The story continues and it is our constant challenge to be at rights with God also.
© Greg Sunter