Read­ing Time: 13 minutes

(Ref. Texts: Sir 35:12–14.16–19; Ps 3231; 2Tim 4:6–8.16–18; Luke 18:9–14)

Of all the causes which con­spire to blind Man’s erring judg­ment, and mis­guide the mind, what the weak head with strong bias rules, is pride, the nev­er-fail­ing vice of fools. The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; Pride and arrog­ance and the evil way. And the per­verse mouth I hate.”


This Sunday Gos­pel is still on pray­er but from a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive. If Luke 18:1–8 is on the con­stancy of pray­er, 18:9–14 emphas­izes on how to pray and on how not to pray. The implic­a­tion is that if a per­son prays accord­ingly, his or her peti­tion stands the chance of being answered, depend­ing on what God decides. But if one prays dis­reg­ard­ing the laid down prin­ciples and guidelines, then, his or her pray­ers will nev­er find favour before God. A prac­tic­al demon­stra­tion of this is the con­clu­sion of the par­able. In Luke 18:14, Jesus con­cludes the par­able by under­lin­ing that while the tax col­lect­or went home jus­ti­fied, spir­itu­ally ful­filled, the Phar­isee equally went home but unjus­ti­fied and worse than he came to the house of God. The ugly effect of pride. The reward for pride.

Why this parable?

The words in Luke 17:22–18:1–8 were addressed to the dis­ciples (cf. Luke 17:22). Hav­ing exhausted the par­able on con­stancy, Jesus decided to address a par­tic­u­lar set of the dis­ciples. That is, those con­vinced of their right­eous­ness and there­fore, des­pised every­one else (cf. Luke 18:9). While all the dis­ciples needed the teach­ing on con­stancy, some were guilty of the sin of pre­sump­tion. The same teach­ing or par­able is equally addressed to the con­tem­por­ary believ­ers, espe­cially those who think they are holier than oth­ers simply because they omit some mode of dress­ing and mak­ing-up, avoid some cer­tain foods and drinks, belong to a par­tic­u­lar group, fast, pray for 24–48 hours as if the effic­acy of pray­er depends on how long one prays, where one goes to pray, the words used and the things done dur­ing pray­er. These are all human clas­si­fic­a­tions. God is inter­ested in anoth­er thing. God cares about the heart that approaches Him in pray­er. This par­able is meant to call to order those who think God answers pray­er because of who and what we pre­tend to be. The effic­acy of pray­er does not con­sist in our extern­al mani­fest­a­tions which only serve to make impres­sion on the weak. The effic­acy of pray­er con­sists on our inner being, on the status of our heart, on who we really are in the sight of God, not who we are and what we do in the sight of human beings who can eas­ily be deceived.

The protagonists of the parable

The char­ac­ters of this par­able are the Phar­isee and the Tax Col­lect­or. As I explained in the reflec­tion for the 24th Sunday ©, the Phar­isees “were the numer­ous and most power­ful sect of the Jews, fam­ous for their cere­mo­ni­al observ­ances, appar­ent sanc­tity of life, and rigid inter­pret­ers of the Law. They fre­quently con­tra­vened the spir­it of the Torah by their tra­di­tion­al inter­pret­a­tions and pre­cepts, to which they attrib­uted equal author­ity with the Hebrew Scrip­tures (cf. Matt 5:20; 12:2; 23:14). They were in fact, the sep­ar­ated ones, hence, holy. Along with the Torah, the Phar­isees also accep­ted as inspired and author­it­at­ive all the com­mand­ments stip­u­lated in the oral tra­di­tions and pre­served by the rab­bis. Jesus con­fron­ted them sev­er­ally and con­demned their reli­gious exter­n­al­ism and form­al­ity.” On the oth­er hand, the Tax Col­lect­ors were not well loved by their fel­low Jews due to their alle­gi­ance to the Roman author­ity in terms of tax col­lec­tion. Their love was exclus­ively of those belong­ing to their class, an atti­tude con­demned by Jesus (cf. Matt 5:46–47).

Accord­ing to the par­able, the Phar­isee rep­res­ents those who rigidly observed the Torah and tra­di­tions and, who did everything pos­sible to avoid any form of con­tact with those they clas­si­fied as sin­ners. They sought for dis­tinc­tion and praise through out­ward observ­ance of extern­al rites and through out­ward piety such as cere­mo­ni­al wash­ings, fast­ing, long pray­ers, and orches­trated alms-giv­ing. Due to their neg­li­gence of genu­ine piety, they prided them­selves of their fan­cied and pre­sumed good works while they were arch agents of injustice. Con­versely, the Tax Col­lect­or or Pub­lic­an was a known sin­ner and a col­lab­or­a­tion­ist. Col­lab­or­a­tion­ist because he col­lec­ted taxes for the Romans, and due to the nature of his work, he was con­sidered a usurer and an author­ized rob­ber. As already indic­ated above, the Pub­lic­ans were asso­ci­ated with sin­ners (cf. Luke 5:30) and they had no good name in the soci­ety. These were the two people who presen­ted them­selves before God. Who they are def­in­itely con­di­tioned their pray­er and com­port­ment before the El Shad­dai (Lord/God Almighty). Who among them rep­res­ents me? Who among them rep­res­ents you? As regards our atti­tude towards God in pray­er, are you a Phar­isee or a Publican?

The content of their prayer

As men­tioned above, being a Phar­isee and a Pub­lic­an influ­enced the mod­us orandi of the prot­ag­on­ists of the par­able. The place occu­pied in the Temple and the con­tent of their pray­ers say a lot about them. The Phar­isee stood in front of the Sanc­tu­ary. But the Tax Col­lect­or at the back of the Temple. Let us begin with the Pharisee.

The Pharisee prays to God

When the Phar­isee and the Tax Col­lect­or entered the Temple to pray, Luke says the Phar­isee stood to him­self. What does it mean that the Phar­isee stood to him­self? Again, what does it mean to stand to one­self and how can a per­son stand to him­self or her­self? The Greek expres­sion says ho phar­isaios stathe­is pros eau­ton. In their efforts to render this Greek, vari­ous Eng­lish Trans­la­tions have sug­ges­ted dif­fer­ent mean­ings. Accord­ing to them, the Phar­isee “stood by him­self” (NIV); “stood and prayed thus with him­self” (KJV); “stand­ing by him­self” (NRS, ESV); “took up his pos­i­tion and spoke this pray­er to him­self” (NAB); “stood and prayed about him­self like this” (NET); “stood there and said this pray­er to him­self” (NJB); “stood and prayed to him­self” (CJB). Even the Vul­gate has it that the Phar­isee “stans haec apud se ora­bat.” Each Trans­la­tion under­lines a dif­fer­ent aspect of the Pharisee’s pray­er. Since this is a par­able, and since they went for private pray­er, it is bet­ter to trans­late ho phar­isaios stathe­is pros eau­ton as the Phar­isee stood and prayed with­in him­self. The Itali­an and the French Trans­la­tions[1] are more accur­ate on this. What then did the Phar­isee pray for?

The Phar­isee makes his thanks­giv­ing to God, which is a proud auto-exulta­tion. He star­ted by thank­ing and prais­ing God. But his reas­on for the thanks­giv­ing renders it super­flu­ous. Just reflect on each word of his so-called pray­er (cf. Luke 18:11–12). This is his pray­er: “God, I thank you that I am not like oth­er people: extor­tion­ists, unright­eous, adulter­ers, or even like this tax col­lect­or. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.” Have you noticed that what the Phar­isee came to do in the Temple was to jus­ti­fy him­self, sing his praises and con­demn oth­ers includ­ing the tax col­lect­or who happened to be in the same Temple with him. The Phar­isees have always looked down on the Pub­lic­ans and they have nev­er tol­er­ated Jesus’ asso­ci­ation with them (cf. Matt 9:10–11). Ima­gine vis­it­ing the Blessed Sac­ra­ment to pray only to hear the next per­son say­ing sim­il­ar things about you or about oth­er people. How would you react? Every pray­er should start with thanks­giv­ing. But the thanks­giv­ing of the Phar­isee has noth­ing to do with recog­niz­ing the bless­ings and good­ness of the Lord. It was thank­ing God for not mak­ing him like the oth­ers he describes as sin­ners. At times when there is an acci­dent, you someone who sur­vived the acci­dent thank­ing God that he or she is not among those that died. I do not think this is correct.

Like many of us, the Phar­isee does not know how to thank God. Because he fasts twice a week and pays his tithes in keep­ing to the law (cf. Lev 27:30–32), he feels right­eous, just and jus­ti­fied before God. What arrog­ance! While the Hebrew (Old) Test­a­ment appears to have recom­men­ded only one fast per year, prob­ably on Yom Kip­pùr (Day of Atone­ment, cf. Lev 23:26.29.32), the Phar­isees mul­ti­plied it. By advert­ising his fast, the Phar­isee proves him­self a hypo­crite and con­firms Jesus’ accus­a­tion against them. It was against such hypo­crisy and pub­lic mani­fest­a­tion of piety that Jesus warned his dis­ciples and every Chris­ti­an too (cf. Matt 6:16–18). Mere keep­ing to the stip­u­la­tions of the Law does not make one right­eous, just and jus­ti­fied before God. Instead of pray­ing and obtain­ing God’s grace and grow­ing in spir­itu­al­ity, the Phar­isee ended up com­mit­ting sin and going home empty and shattered. Instead of pray­ing, he made him­self a judge, tak­ing the place of God and clas­si­fy­ing him­self as just simply because he obeys the law. He should have con­cen­trated on his pray­er instead of prais­ing him­self and accus­ing the oth­er per­son. Jesus severely rebuked the Phar­isees for their avarice, ambi­tion, hol­low reli­ance on out­ward works, and affec­tion of piety in order to gain pop­ular­ity. The Phar­isee rep­res­ents those who jus­ti­fy them­selves before oth­ers without know­ing that God knows us bet­ter (cf. Luke 16:15). Unfor­tu­nately, many Chris­ti­ans today are vic­tims of the Pharisee’s hypo­crisy and empti­ness. They orches­trate their pre­sumed holi­ness and spir­itu­al­ity when in real­ity, they are hypo­crites, empty, unjust, heart­less, god­less and spir­itu­ally bank­rupt. God have mercy on them!

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