Prayer is one of those mysterious actions that everyone knows about. But it is strangely elusive when it comes to being defined. There are so many aspects to prayer, both external and internal, that the heart of prayer is often best glimpsed through indirect means, such as parables. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is about prayer, and it certainly reveals something vital about it. But it is also about place and purpose; in fact, we see that prayer is very much about place and purpose. This parable, St. Luke writes, was addressed by Jesus “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” Put another way, the parable was meant for listeners in a specific place — within their souls. Those listeners had placed themselves in a position of equality with God and superiority over other people. They existed in a place called pride.
A second place is mentioned: “Two people went up to the temple area to pray ...” As Joseph Dillersberger notes in his commentary, “when both went up into the Temple, they both went up to meet the decision as to their fate, for one then went down justified, the other not.” Going up to the Temple to pray was ultimately about salvation. And it should not escape our notice that at the end of this same chapter, Jesus tells the Twelve Apostles, in private, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and everything written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled ...” (Lk 18:31). Jesus’ own journey up to Jerusalem and the temple was all about salvation — the justification of those who would hear and accept the Gospel.
The Pharisee approached prayer as a duty, and not even a duty oriented truly toward God, for after he “took up his position” he “spoke this prayer to himself.” He was not even praying to God and asking for justification, but was talking to himself while justifying himself before God. Sadly, this is a temptation for all of us, for the line between true prayer and pious preening can at times be quite thin.
Part of the shock is that many of those listening to Jesus were not bothered at all by his depiction of the Pharisee. On the contrary, the Pharisee’s fasting and tithing, which required substantial effort, would have been reckoned exemplary in every way. The Pharisee was simply doing what was expected of him, and in a good way! That being the case, Jesus’ criticism was likely startling to many listeners.
Another surprise is the positive depiction of the tax collector, who represented a group of men widely reviled for being corrupt, greedy and on the side of the hated Roman empire. But the tax collector was in a different place — both externally and inwardly — than was the Pharisee. He “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed ...” And his prayer had just one solitary purpose: to admit that he was a sinner and to cry out for mercy.
Thus, a third place is mentioned, the place of each man before God. “I tell you,” said Jesus, “the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The great danger of pride is that it keeps us from admitting that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Without humility, we cannot admit our desperate need to be saved by Christ, to be in Christ, to live through Christ.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.