The Old Testament passage from Sirach 35 summarizes the recurrent biblical conviction that God gives special consideration to the prayers of the oppressed and needy and of those who seem least important in society, the orphans and widows. Psalm 34 affirms that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and crushed in spirit and hears the cries of the poor. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector makes a similar point, that God hears the prayers of some very surprising persons. To appreciate this parable, we need to place the two characters in their historical and social context.
In the Gospels the Pharisees often appear as negative characters. They are the most persistent opponents of Jesus, and he often criticizes their attitudes and behavior. In English today the word Pharisee can refer to a hypocrite or a religious fraud, someone who pretends to be devout and observant but is not so in reality. In Jesus time and place, however, people would have heard the word Pharisee differently. The Pharisees were members of a prominent Jewish religious movement. Many of them were in fact devout and observant. They were also the progressives of their day, seeking to adapt the biblical laws to the demands of everyday life. They gathered regularly for prayer and study, and their meals together celebrated their communal identity and religious commitment. Of all the Jewish groups of Jesus time, Jesus was perhaps closest to them; he shared an agenda with them and sometimes agreed with them (about the resurrection of the dead, for example). Those who first heard Jesus parable would have considered the Pharisee as a positive example of learning and piety.
In Jesus time and place, the tax collector in the parable would have been regarded as the opposite of the Pharisee. Taxes were usually let out for bid. The Roman government official or the agent for Herod Antipas might specify the amount to be collected from the inhabitants of a certain area. A tax collector would then contract to pay the specified amount to the government; what he collected above that amount was his to keep. So in Jesus day tax collectors were suspect on two counts. They were suspected of dishonesty by overcharging the people and keeping excess profits for themselves. They were also suspected of being collaborators and instruments of the Roman occupiers.
These two men went up to the temple area to pray. Whose prayer was heard by God? The Pharisees prayer was not heard because he exalted himself. His prayer was so focused on himself, his superiority to the tax collector and his own spiritual accomplishments that it was hardly a prayer at all. It was more self-congratulation than prayer. By contrast, the tax collector, whatever his failings may have been, knew who God is and who he is before God. He prayed sincerely, O God, be merciful to me a sinner.
Whose prayer does God hear? If our prayer becomes an exercise in self-congratulation like that of the Pharisee, our prayer will not be heard, because it is not a prayer at all. If our prayer celebrates the justice and mercy of God, however, if it acknowledges our dependence on God, our sinfulness and our need for Gods mercy, then God will hear our prayer, because it is genuine prayer made in a spirit of humility proper to us as Gods creatures.
During this next week we will observe All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Todays selection from 2 Timothy 4 describes how a great saint, Paul the apostle, faced life and death. Paul compares his impending death first to pouring out a libation or drink offering, that is, as a sacrifice freely offered to God. Then he evokes the images of an athletic contest (I have competed well) and a race (I have finished the race) and affirms that he has kept the faith.
In the face of death, Paul remained confident and hopeful. He was convinced of the truth of the Gospel that he preached, and he believed that eternal life had already begun for him at his baptism into Jesus death and resurrection. He could disregard his condemnation by a Roman judge, because he regarded God as the only real judge and trusted that the Lord Jesus Christ would rescue him and bring him safely to his heavenly home. In life and in death, Paul provides a model for all saints and would-be saints, for all who approach God in humility and hope.