Today Jesus gives us another parable about prayer: a parable that matches last week’s parable, also about prayer. In that parable, the Lord told the story of the unjust judge, who ignored the cry of the widow until her persistence gradually wore him down. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night… I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them” (Lk. 18:7-8). We’re supposed to pray always and not to lose heart. Prayer to God calls for persistence.
So, our parable today is also about prayer. Here the setting is not the courtroom but the Temple in Jerusalem, the paramount place of prayer. It was then, and is now, as anyone who has visited the site will know. The Temple may be no more, but Christians, Muslims, and Jews continue to make their way as pilgrims to the sacred site. For Jews, the intact western wall of the Temple remains a place of prayer, visited by people from all over the world. It’s a place of divine presence, approached with reverence and awe.
In Jesus’ day, of course, the Temple still stood, and his parable today is set within it. Two men are praying, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. “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” (Lk. 18:11-12). That’s the Pharisee. Then the tax collector: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13). One man is trying to justify himself, while the other is throwing himself on the mercy of God. It’s the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness, pride and humility.
Humility requires owning up to our own reality: we’re not as great as our publicist might insist, or as we might try to tell ourselves. Humility is a word rooted in the Latin word for “earth,” harkening back to the first Adam, made from the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we say in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. We’re humble because we have humble origins, and that’s good for us to remember. As created beings, that’s the ground we stand on.
The tax collector owns up to the reality that he is a sinner, in need of God’s help. In prayer we acknowledge this fundamental reality, that human beings are dependent on God, and have fallen short of God’s calling. Humility is built into the program of prayer, after all. If we were self-sufficient, as good as our own self-promotion would have it, then why would we be praying at all? Like the Pharisee in the story, all we would really need to do would be to recite our own accomplishments, and leave it at that.
But in prayer, we are asking for help. “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13). Not only are our powers strictly limited, but through sin we have abused the gifts that God has given us. We have fallen short continually of God’s call to us. Prayer is part of turning to God in that long progression we call “repentance.” When you’re lost, the first step back to the right path requires acknowledging the reality that you don’t know where you are. It may be humbling to say you need help, but without doing so you are unlikely to make any progress.
Humility is built into our liturgy, as well. We’ve already been reminded of the note of humility sounded in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, but that note continues throughout our worship. Sunday by Sunday we confess our sins, and receive forgiveness: as we said in our psalm this morning, “Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out” (Ps. 65:3). Or as we will pray today before receiving communion, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table”: a prayer drawn from the words of the Gospels themselves. In our Eucharist we humbly beseech God for the remission of our sins, and for his grace and heavenly benediction.
As we celebrate the sacramental rite of confirmation today, we recommit ourselves to a life of prayer and repentance, to the pattern of humility that Jesus calls us to in our Gospel today. We’re asked, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” And again, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Prayer requires humility, and so does discipleship.
In prayer, we’re in touch with reality. The promise of the Gospel is that the way of humility is the way of life, the way into the kingdom. Jesus taught us to pray, he taught us to pray with humility, and he showed us in his own life and death what humility was all about. He humbled himself to death on the cross, but God highly exalted him and raised him up. We follow in his footsteps. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk. 18:14).