Today, Orthodox Christians begin the pre-Lenten season with the observance of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The reading from the gospel today recounts one of the many parables that Jesus used to teach his flock. This parable is one of my personal favorites because it speaks directly to what God wants to hear from us and in particular holds out hope for guys like myself.
In the parable, the Pharisee proudly stands up and boasts of his spiritual accomplishments, he prays, he fasts, he tithes. Indeed, he did all the things required by Jewish Law. The publican or tax collector however, probably did none of those things. His life was far from a shining example of virtue. All he had to say for himself is "God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Jesus teaches that this is precisely what God wanted to hear, and because of this heartfelt prayer, the Publican found favor with God, not the Pharisee
His prayer sounds very similar to "The Jesus Prayer" which goes like this: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner." My father taught it to me a long time ago and I don't know why it got stuck in my mind, but it did. Funny thing it always seems to pop up without fail especially when I feel my life is totally out of my control, when my mind goes blank and when I am scared. For example, I was once a passenger on a helicopter taking ground fire. There was a sudden thud and the aircraft began doing things that I didn't think it could do as the pilot began taking evasive action. I had no idea what was happening. I was sure we were going down. I wasn't able to do anything other than sit there, hold on for dear life and recite the Jesus Prayer. It was the first time, yet not the last, that I felt totally powerless, surrounded by a palpable fear while staring into the abyss and the Jesus Prayer has always been at my side ever since. Monks use the Jesus Prayer throughout their day as they go about their work, often using a prayer rope with knots,very much like a rosary. The Jesus Prayer is a tool for all, meant for use by all.
Luckily for us, it is quite clear that God really looks at what is in our heart and soul. A contrite and humble heart makes us receptive to metanoia or repentance. Without humility there can be no change in our lives and without change we can never get closer to God. As the words of the hymn sung on this day remind us "Whoever lives like the Pharisee lives far away from the Church."