It’s easy to dismiss this Pharisee in the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14) as a bad man, but actually that’s not quite true, because a lot of the things he does are good. He tries to be kind and just and faithful, and these are all good things aren’t they? We could do the same. We too might say, “I try to pray twice a day. I try to be a good kind person” and we might well share this with God in our prayers, just like we try to share every part of our life with him; but hopefully there would be one thing about our prayers that would be different from that Pharisee.
What he has got wrong is just one thing isn’t it? Not what he does, but what he thinks about what he is doing. It’s his attitude that is wrong, and we know that because as he is praying he is comparing himself to someone else. He is not thanking God that he leads a good life, instead he is thanking God that he is “not like this tax-collector”, and in so doing condemns himself.
I think however that we should have some sympathy with this Pharisee, because surely we can be like this too. I can say of myself that I swim 4 times a week and do regular exercise to try to look after the body God has given me. And I can give thanks for the body I have been given – a rather old and flabby body it is true, but nonetheless a gift from God. Yet I am always glad if I see someone fatter than myself in the Pool, because I can then say, and find myself saying “Well at least I am not as fat as him!” Then, of course, there is my driving. How often do I look at other people and criticise their driving but rarely criticise my own!
I can say my prayers every day too and give to charity regularly, and both of these are good things to do, aren’t they? But oh how often do I find myself thinking, “Why do people have to be coaxed into giving to this charity or that, why can’t they just be generous like me? Perhaps they would be more generous if they watched the news every day, and then prayed about it, like I do?”
St Paul is doing the same kind of thing in our Reading of his Letter to Timothy (2 Tim 4:6-8.16-18). “I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith”. But Paul’s whole attitude to these achievements is very different. Far from thinking of these things as ways of comparing himself to others, he stresses that only one thing matters in the end. Not what we have done, or not done, but something very different. For he says that the reward, “the crown of righteousness” as he calls it, is something given by the Lord – and here are the significant words – “to all those who have longed for his Appearing.”
That’s a wonderful thing to think about isn’t it? That in the end, when we are face to face with God, it will not be what we have done or not done that will matter, but whether in one way or another, we have longed for him. This longing for God can surely take many forms in different people. Some of us may have a pretty well-formed faith, and our longing for God might well be described as a fairly straightforward life of prayer and praise. But actually I do not think that is what Paul means. It is all too easy for us to say the prayers and sing our songs to God on the surface, whilst not really “longing” for him. This is surely what real prayer is. Not lots of words, but a deep longing to be in touch with that great power of love and goodness that we have to believe exists in our Universe.
If we are to be true witnesses of God’s kingdom to others we must, of course, try to be good kind people, but even more we must be people with the humility to know that there is always something more, something greater, that is yet beyond us.
This means that we must always be more like the tax-collector than the Pharisee. Even when life is going well, we remain aware that God is greater, and so we call out “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy” and mean it. Hopefully we may express this by being an active practicing Christian, but we must always remember that this calling-out to God may well not be in words; but, as St Paul says in that famous passage from his Letter to the Romans, may be just in sighs. He writes, “For when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit prays within us, with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26) Yes, it is our deep longing for God, however that is expressed, that really matters.