Readings: Hosea 6:1-6; Psalm 50; Luke 18:9-14
A friend told me about a teacher who, in explaining the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, was horrified to hear herself saying to the children in her class, 'so let us thank God that we are not like the Pharisee'. This is the wonderful trap set by this parable. We cannot imagine the publican returning home, kicking the air in delight, and saying to himself (and perhaps to others), 'I did it. I made it. I am not like the Pharisee.' So we need to be very careful in reading this story and thinking about it.
There is a prayer that reaches heaven and there is a way of praying which, it seems, does not reach heaven. It sets obstacles to its own success. We are told that the Pharisee said his prayer 'to himself'. His prayer involves a kind of mathematics which he believes ought to justify him in the sight of God. In fact he does more than he is strictly obliged to do and so ought to be really safe and sound. It is essential to his mathematics that he should compare himself with others: this is how mathematics works, with proportions, sizes, comparisons.
But prayer does not work this way. The publican, or tax-collector, does not pray to himself, he prays to God. He is unable to raise his eyes to heaven, but his prayer is in the right direction. He is not comparing himself with others, he looks just at himself and at God, and he sees all he needs to see in that comparison. He stands in a kind of solitude before God and sees his poverty in the light of that solitude. There is a long tradition in the Bible of recognising this kind of prayer as the one that is truly effective, the prayer of the humble person, the one who is broken hearted, the person who is truly contrite for their sins. This is the prayer that pierces the clouds and reaches the throne of grace.
There is no time now to compare oneself with others, the matter is too urgent, too critical, and comparisons with others have become a luxury. If life is a contest, a struggle or 'agonia', then it is not against others that we must struggle but only with ourselves. And also with God. Prayer is the only weapon we have for the struggle with ourselves and with God, the struggle to live in the truth. George Herbert in his wonderful poem about prayer speaks of its power. It is, he says, 'Engine against the Almighty, sinner's tower, / Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear'. The prayer of the humble person pierces the clouds and reaches the throne of grace.
At this point in Lent we should, by God's grace, have found our way to this kind of praying. The sacrament of penance is a gift of Christ to the Church which allows us to confess God's mercy, to seal our repentance, and to return home justified. But that justification is not on the basis of our own performance: it is completely God's mercy and something that is ours on the basis of our hope in God.