24th October 2022

In Luke 18.9–14 Jesus tells a little story about prayer. It begins,

“Two men went to the Temple to pray…”

Am I the only one wondering if this is the beginning of a joke?

We are not introduced to an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, but rather “a Pharisee” and a “tax collector”. The Pharisee is something of a comic character. He goes to stand by himself – so that everyone notices him pray – puffs-up his chest, and proudly announces “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people… I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” O, how self-righteous he is!

But the tax collector stands off to the side, beats his chest in sorrow and prays, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”

The joke ends abruptly. Like the best comedy, the punchline catches you out and makes you think. Which of the two prayers is the one God wants to hear? (Read the story yourself for Jesus’ answer.)

When we pray, do we pray like the Pharisee or like the tax collector? It can be a good habit to begin our prayers by thanking God, but how often are those thanks for what he has done for us?

Perhaps we should begin with the tax collector’s prayer – “O God, be merciful to me”. Or as the ancient liturgy has it:

Kyrie eleison.

Christe eleison.

Kyrie eleison.

Ian Waddington