Little Jack Horner sat in the corner, eating his  Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb, and pulled out a plum, and said ‘What a good boy am I!’

For the second Sunday running our Gospel contains Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Last Sunday he encouraged us to be persistent in placing our needs before God. Today he speaks of the correct attitude to have when approaching God in prayer.

He tells a little story about two Jewish people – a Pharisee and a collector of taxes for the Roman government – and how they prayed. When told it would have left Pharisees furious and tax collectors consoled.

Pharisees were God fearing, conscientious, law-abiding and devout people who had distinctive practices of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and tithing. However, what annoyed Jesus was their feeling of superiority and their sense that because they were so devout in their religious observance that they deserved God’s favour. Hence, to Jesus they appeared to have little need of God other than for God to recognise their goodness.

So in the story Jesus presents the Pharisee focusing on himself, telling God how good he, the Pharisee, is. It’s a statement of pride in performing his religious and moral duties. He does not need to ask God for anything. Furthermore, his prayer is elitist and judgmental, looking down on the tax collector behind him and declaring ’Thank God I am better than him’. while the Pharisee in the story is quite right in performing his religious and moral duties..

Thus his prayer calls to mind the nursery-rhyme about the equally self-satisfied and smug Jack Horner:

…  sat in the corner, eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb, and pulled out a plum, and said ‘What a good boy am I!’

The other person in the story is a tax collector. Tax agents in first century Palestine collected taxes from fellow Jews for the Roman government. They were despised by Jews and the Pharisees, in particular, avoided them. Nevertheless, some of them were open to Jesus’ message and he welcomed them into the new community – the Kingdom of God – he was founding and he even dined with them. He appointed one, Matthew, as one of his 12 apostles.

The way this tax collector approached God in worship is how Jesus wants us to do the same. Unlike the Pharisee, we must not be puffed up but, instead, be aware of our shortcomings, not our virtues, and approach God is a spirit of humility. This attitude is encapsulated in the tax collector’s posture and simple prayer: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’.

Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector stands far off in the Temple and adopts the customary posture for prayer: arms crossed over the chest and eyes cast downward. He strikes his breast, a Middle-Eastern gesture which people use only in cases of extreme anguish. (We use the same gesture at the beginning of Mass when we make our Act of Penance.) Thus this man is fully aware of his short-comings, feeling he has no right to expect anything from God other than plead for mercy.

Jesus told the story to explain that this is how his followers must approach God – if we do so with a humble view of ourselves and an awareness of our need for God’s help, we will be ‘exalted’ i.e. be viewed acceptably (or ‘righteous’).  In the words of today’s Psalm, this  ‘pierces the clouds’.

The short prayer of the tax collector is the most perfect one that any of us can say: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’. If we do nothing else by way of prayer in the whole of our day, whispering those words randomly at any hour puts us shoulder to shoulder with the hero in the Gospel story.

The story is also a cautionary tale about how we can fall into the same trap as the Pharisee.

For instance, it’s easy to think that if we keep the laws of our religion that we are entitled to expect something from God in return. You may be aware of developments in US politics at the moment where an impeachment enquiry has begun into President Trump? It appears that he was offering military aid to the President of Ukraine if, in return, he opened an investigation into the son of another politician who will run against him in next year’s US presidential election. Trump has denied that there was a ‘quid pro quo’ i.e. that he was offering the military aid in return for a political favour.

If you’ve lived what might be called a ‘good life’ it is easy to expect that God will spare you the tragedies and disasters that commonly strike others.  With us, there can be no ‘quid pro quo’ with God … we cannot earn God’s favour, which is the opposite of what the Pharisee in the story expected. We can only say: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’.

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
27 October 2019

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