What a beautiful prayer it could have been. If only he stopped there! It would have been more than enough. Gratitude is a wonderful way to come in the presence of one’s God. And really, there is no need of too many words to express gratitude. Often, in the gospel, Jesus spoke about the beauty of using less words when praying.
But no, he had to continue. And his prayer of gratitude transforms into a eulogy of self. It becomes a show, where God is only a spectator who has to put up with his ramblings. It even gets worse: I am not like all the rest … in particular, I am not like him back there! It’s all about his self-righteous self, putting down and judging everybody else. And the center and focus of his so-called prayer becomes himself: I am like this and I am like that, and I do this and I do that.
This was the prayer of the Pharisee. As a Pharisee his main concern in life is to make sure that he obeys all the laws, sometimes even going beyond what is really required by the law, just to make sure! It is all about what he does with his own efforts. When you think about it, there is no need of God's action in his life. He can do it, and he is doing it. That is what he comes to tell God in his prayer.
The sinner’s prayer is very different. It is a simple abandonment of oneself into God’s merciful arms. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” So simple, powerful and effective. He is very aware of his sinfulness, of his misery. He is aware that a good life is only possible with God’s grace. He is aware that without God he is nothing.
The tax-collector’s prayer is praised by Jesus. Eventually, it became one of the most famous and used prayers throughout the centuries. The monastic Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers used it as early as the fifth century, invoking Jesus’ mercy by repeating in the form of a litany phrases like, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner”. It’s the prayer of one who is humble, of one whose trust is completely in God’s mercy. Speaking about this prayer, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “When the holy name is repeated often by a humbly attentive heart, the prayer is not lost by heaping up empty phrases, but holds fast to the word and "brings forth fruit with patience." This prayer is possible "at all times" because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus.”
As we continue to journey with Jesus throughout the gospel of Luke, it would be a good idea during this week to listen to the way we pray. How do I come in God’s presence? Where is the focus of my thoughts during my prayer-time? Am I concerned to prove how good I am, or do I express my need of God’s continuous mercy in my life? Where do I see myself more in the picture painted to us by Jesus in today’s parable: close to the pharisee or at the back of the temple with the tax-collector, humbly asking God’s mercy?