I was working out tonight, listening to a podcast about Romans and the idea of constantly calling on God, as opposed to just being saved once and then you’re good. The podcast compared it to a teenager on a cell phone – they are constantly talking to their friends, like we should be constantly talking to God. Well, of course this got me thinking about the content of the prayers of the Publican and the Pharisee, and what the content of their prayers says about their relationship with God.
The pharisee prays about himself, so that others can see his holiness, yes, we already agree on that. But, in looking at the content of the prayer, we see him reminding God of his own goodness. If the pharisee is checking off his to-do list as far as fasting and tithing go, then he is probably also checking off the appropriate times to pray and not praying at any other times – that’s the law after all! This is not to deepen his relationship with God, but to finish his daily checklist.
The publican, on the other hand, is praying to God, not for show. He does not need to get into all the gritty details about how or why he is a sinner, as God already knows this. The publican, we can assume since the to-do-list-checking pharisee compares himself to the publican, does not follow the rules regarding fasting and tithing, and so probably doesn’t follow the rules about the appropriate times for prayer, either. The publican, rebel that he is, probably prays whenever the mood strikes him, anytime during the day.
It’s like this: My daughter is ALWAYS talking to me, and I not only listen but also try to HEAR what she is saying. She walked into my room tonight and said, out of the blue, “Mom, will you remind me to take that bag when she is there?” I said, “Yes.” End of conversation, she went back to playing and I went back to getting ready for the gym.
If we only spoke to each other when all the rulebooks say – at dinner, with no food in our mouths, never interrupting, no elbows on the table, and never ever when someone is throwing on stinky gym clothes for sure! – then she may have had to say the following instead. “Excuse me, please, Mother. As you may or may not recall, my teacher last year was Mrs. A___. Her daughter M____ is very sick and recently had to have neurosurgery. This has caused Mrs. A___ to quit being a full-time teacher although she will be occasionally acting as substitute teacher. My teacher this year is Mrs. L___, and she will be attending a conference this week. I believe that Mrs. A___ will therefore be substituting for her in my class at least one day this week. I recently bought a little get-well gift for baby M___ and have it in a bag by my backpack. Would you please at your earliest convenience contact Mrs. L___ in order to find out which day that may be, and then please help to ensure that I remember to bring the bag for Baby M___ on that day? I would greatly appreciate your help in this matter.”
What a beautiful monologue for a 7-year-old girl! But, do you really think that my daughter could say all that without forgetting or passing out from not breathing during that monologue? In addition, if my daughter really had to remind me who her teachers are, would she really believe me if I answered with a simple “yes,” or would she feel the need to keep reminding me of all that information each night and begging each night for me to remember to help her? No! My daughter always talks to me, I always try to hear her, and so we are able to communicate in simple sentences filled with pronouns and utterly lacking in proper nouns, and to have an open and trusting parent-child relationship.
The pharisee’s eloquent prayer only serves to remind God of who he is – a stranger to God. The publican’s succinct prayer is personal and real.