Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14)
Some think that any prayer we make and every prayer we make has to be good. Just pray, any ol’ prayer’ll do. God will listen and grant your wish.
Our Gospel Lesson of the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee says, ‘it just ain’t so.’
The Pharisee goes to the temple and prays. God apparently heard his prayer but disapproves of it.
It does matter to God what you pray, what words you say, what your intentions are, the state of your heart when you pray. All these things matter.
This parable tells us there is a right and a wrong way to pray.
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 11:1-4 )
Notice, Jesus didn’t tell them, “O, it doesn’t matter how you pray.” He didn’t teach them extemporaneous prayer, He taught them how to pray, He taught them a specific prayer to say.
Jesus apparently thought there is acceptable and unacceptable prayer, there is an appropriate and an inappropriate way to pray.
God hears the prayer of the Pharisee, this very righteous man, and God is not pleased with what He heard. God does not justify the Pharisee.
Just praying any old prayer is not enough to receive God’s favor and approval.
Today’s Gospel Lesson tells us there are times at which we need to learn not only the right words to pray, but we must also learn the right attitude for prayer. There are wrong motives for prayer and wrong attitudes. The condition of one’s heart is essential for prayer. We are entering into the season of Great Lent, a time for extra prayers on our part. Great Lent is called a school for prayer. It is good for us now to develop a discipline of prayer and follow it through Lent so that God will approve of us in our prayers. Great Lent also is an entire season devoted to learning how to pray from the heart as the Publican prayed and received God’s approval and justification.
Obviously we could try to play it safe by simply and mechanically repeating the Publican’s words, but that would fail to imitate his attitude – his heart.
The hymns for this Sunday tell us to imitate the Publican’s tears. Now that requires great discipline in prayer, and a heart devoted to God, and a person who really understands the importance of repentance and humility before God. This my friends is what Great Lent is about.
We have short prayers in Orthodoxy that we repeat so often that they are easy to memorize. We have formal liturgies and prayer books which offer us words to say in prayer. They teach us acceptable formulas of prayer.
Still, it is our attitude and our hearts that must be set right before the Lord. No prayer book can teach us that. This requires sincere practice. This requires us to repent of our sins, to actively practice repentance through daily contrition as well as through the sacrament of Confession.
It requires us to take seriously the prayer we say before every communion: That God will receive as chief among sinners – the first and the worst of sinners. That too should come from our hearts.
God does not despise the sinner as is obvious in the Gospel Lesson. But He will reject the prayer which is offered wrongly as the Pharisee learned in the parable.
This is not to say that we should never pray what wells up in our hearts or that we must always use set prayers in approaching God. Let us not use faulty either or thinking in our understanding of prayer. But we are to take our prayer life seriously and take a serious look at our own hearts to judge whether we are the Publican or the Pharisee when we pray. This is also the role of confession: for each of you to take a serious look at your own prayer lives, and your hearts, in order to be able to approach God with the sincere humility, repentance and tears of the sinful Publican.