The parable in today's Gospel (Luke 18:9-14) sheds some light on our attitude in offering prayers to God.
The Pharisee, a righteous man in the eyes of the community, and a tax collector, a self-confessed wicked and sinful man, go to the Temple to offer their prayers to God.
We learn a lot about these men from their prayers. The key word for the Pharisee was "I". He thanked God, but actually his thoughts were on himself. He cited his righteous traits and recalled that in tithing and fasting he had done more than the law required. He was a patriot and an upright man, and probably chairman of the Forefathers Day Society and the Temple charity fund. That, in fact, was the burden of his prayer -- he had done so much so well.
This self-righteous man seemed to regard the Kingdom of God as a corporation in which he had earned a considerable block of stock. He was also proud of himself for not being sinful as other men are sinful. In his prayers the Pharisee told God that he knew he deserved the good things he received because he fasted regularly, went to the Temple at the right time, paid his pledge, and did all the things required of a good member of the worship community. He was proud of who he was and what he did.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was a man who knew his place and station in life -- he worked for the Romans. He took money from his fellow countrymen and gave it to the hated foreigners and did this for one reason only -- to make a profit. His country had been taken over by the Romans and as a tax collector, he was able to enjoy a comfortable life style, unlike most of his countrymen.
When the tax collector approached the Temple, he stood before God and said, "God be merciful to me a sinner."
He did not try to construct an alibi about his work, but rather he beat his breast and offered a cry of humility rather than a prayer of so called proper length and style. He pled with God to cleanse a soul that was dark and sinful. The prayer of the tax collector was accepted by God because of his honest confession of who and what he was.
What the tax collector did was exactly what Paul did -- realize that the God we worship is a God who accepts sinners. That means that the Good News of the Gospel is that God accepts us all, so that when we say, "God have mercy on me a sinner," and we really plan to amend our life, we are included among God's children.
This is wonderful news, but hard for us to believe at all times. We often become like the Pharisee and start reciting all that we have done and are doing so that we feel justified in what and who we are.
We need to be humble in our prayers, but not proud of our humility. We need to be careful that we do not demand answers to all our problems as a special benefit and a reward for our exemplary way of life. It is always best to allow God's will "to be done" rather than our own.
Both men in the Gospel story prayed to God. Faith requires prayer and the prayer that we need to practice is best when it is humble, sincere, and persistent.
As for our humility, if we take seriously that God is the creator of the total existence of everything, it becomes a little easier to bend our knee and bow our head in reverence. God did not take already existing matter and simply superimpose order. Nothing but God existed at all, and by a sheer act of God's will, there was brought into being both order and matter. As John 1:3 tells us, "all things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being."
Who are we to come before such power with a list of our own accomplishments and expect to be elevated in the sight of God?
Bernard of Clairvaux in his book, "The Steps of Humility," said: (1) Pursue truth of God and you come to contemplation; (2) Pursue truth of neighbor and you come to compassion; (3) Pursue truth of self and you come to humility. If we do likewise, our prayers become more real. Amen.