St. Luke 18.vv.9-14
~ Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income'. 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!'. 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". ~
All would agree that Jesus was a master storyteller. His stories were so vivid and lifelike that quite often it is difficult to distinguish between story and event. Among the purposes of Jesus' stories is the eradication of wrong ideas and the implanting of new.
The story of the Pharisee and Publican praying in the Temple is a wonderful example of teaching about the efficacy of prayer.
So great was the veneration of the Temple that the Pharisee would go up at 9am, 12 noon and 3pm to pray there. The Pharisee, we are told, prayed "with himself" giving a testimonial before God of his merits, a kind of monologue. He describes how he went beyond the strict requirements of the Law. There was only one obligatory fast on Yom Kippur but he fasted on Monday and Thursday - market day (when Jerusalem was full and a good audience might see the whitened faces and dishevelled clothes of those who fasted). He also tithed beyond the Law's demand. His whole attitude was typical of the worst in Pharisaism. A certain Rabbi Simeon ben Jocai once said, "If there are only two righteous men in the world, I and my son are they; but if only one, I am he!". The attitude of the Pharisee was completely wrong for he showed no sense of need; he was self-sufficient and felt no need of God or God's mercy and forgiveness. He went to inform God how good he was.
The publican (tax collector) on the other hand, one of the despised in Jewry, was aware of his sin. He knew he was an outcast and would not even lift his eyes to heaven but cried, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner". He asks for nothing but mercy, the only thing he dared to ask for. The cry of deep need reaches God's ears. He is welcomed into God's family and new life.
No one who is proud can truly pray. The gate of heaven is so low that we can enter only on our knees. At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem one cannot enter in unless one stoops. A sculptor when depicting Jesus on the cross carved the face with the head bowed so low upon the chest that only by kneeling down and looking up can one look upon the face of the crucified.
No one who despises his fellows truly prays. We are one with the whole of sinful, suffering, sorrowing humanity.
True prayer arises from setting our lives beside the life of Christ. All the Pharisee said was probably true - a paragon of respectability, but the question should not be "how do I compare with other people?", but "how do I compare with Jesus?".
If we set our lives beside his, all we can say is, "Lord, have mercy". To confess our sins is not to tell God something he doesn't know, but humbly to acknowledge our sins before God brings pardon and peace.