Summary: The Pharisee made a show of his prayer with his arrogance. But the tax collector understood that the heart of prayer must be humility. We have something to learn before we kneel down to pray.
There was a little boy who was kneeling by his bed with his mom to say his nighttime prayers. He began to shout to the top of his lungs, “Dear God, I’ve been real good this year so please let me get a new bicycle for my birthday.” His mom said, “Johny, God is not deaf; you don’t need to yell.” He said, “God’s not deaf, but Grandma is and she’s in the next room.”
When I was a young middle school student, one of the Christian rituals I was excited about was wearing ash on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday morning we would go to church, and the priest will make a nice cross on our foreheads with the blessed ash. I would not even wash my face all day and proudly exhibit the ash on my forehead to all my friends. In our neighborhood, and school, there were not many Christians, and obviously most of my friends who were Hindus would ask what this ash meant. Then I would proudly tell them about the season of Lent, and also that I was fasting that day. I wouldn’t be too tired because there was not much of a fasting, but I would try to look very tired. If some people did not see that you were fasting, what is the use of taking the trouble?
Well, both in my case and in the case of little Johny, the motive of the prayer was the same. It was meant to impress not God, but somebody else. If we really think about it, can we really impress God with our prayer? He surely does not need our prayer. This is why what the Pharisee did was not prayer. Jesus says that his prayer was not heard. Why? He was not a bad man. He was not lying about himself. As a devout Jew, he was actually doing all that he said. The only thing was that he was not actually praying. He was at the temple for others to see how good he was. To him it was a public performance and his behavior at the temple was just a part of the script. He probably chose what he would wear, and where he would stand, and what he would say, because there was an audience. So when he went to the temple, he walked up to the front and stood before the people in his flowing robe with the ornate prayer shawl the Pharisees wore. It was all just a part of the religious show for him. The words he prayed were not really directed toward God. He prayed to himself. He was there to be seen and to be heard by the other worshipers. Jesus warned about this kind of behavior in Matthew 6:5, “But when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners”. If he was trying to impress God, well, God was probably not all that impressed by this performance.
In contrast, the tax collector stood at a distance, in the shadows, out of the limelight. He wasn’t there for everyone else to see him. He didn’t raise his hands up or look up toward heaven so that others would know he was praying. He was there to pour his heart out to God. He came with a burden of sin that he could no longer bear. His prayer isn’t long and eloquent. It isn’t heaped up with big words and beautiful phrases. It’s seven short words – only two of them with more than one syllable. It’s short, simple, and sincere. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” You don’t need a dictionary to figure out what he is saying. It’s just the simple request of a man who sees his smallness before the greatness of God. Jesus tells us that God was pleased with this prayer.
This story is told about Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. It seems one day he visited a prison and talked with each of the inmates. There were endless tales of innocence, of misunderstood motives, and of exploitation. Finally the king stopped at the cell of a convict who remained silent. “Well,” remarked Frederick, “I suppose you are an innocent victim too?” “No, sir, I'm not,” replied the man. “I'm guilty and deserve my punishment.” Turning to the warden the king said, “Here, release this rascal before he corrupts all these fine, innocent people in here!” The man was released because he was honest and humble enough to accept his mistake. This is the attitude Jesus asks us to have when we go to pray. Not the arrogance of the Pharisee, but the humility of the sinner. In her Magnificat, Mary said, “God lifts up the lowly, but scatters the proud hearted”.