Scripture has a way of throwing in clever quips that go over our heads sometimes because of familiarity. Fr. James Martin talks about this in his book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. He mentions that many of the parables and sayings of Jesus were likely humorous to their first audience. That doesn’t cheapen Christ’s words. For as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Joyce, and even Eminem tell us, “Many a true word is spoken in jest.” So what 2000 year old joke are we missing today? I think if we look to our two figures in the Gospel we will find it.
In this short and simple passage, Christ depicts a Pharisee and a tax collector going to the temple to pray. Here is what Jesus says about both, “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself… But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed” (Luke 18:11-13). Now, imagine yourself in the crowd listening to these words of Jesus. As he describes the Pharisee praying to himself, will you really be able to stop yourself from snickering? I mean it is a parable, so you aren’t really laughing at anyone, but while it is not factual, it is incredibly true, and that’s what makes is kind of funny too.
Jesus’ comments about the Pharisee aren’t knocking godly behavior. He is correcting our tendency towards self-righteousness, exhibited by the Pharisees self-prayer. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I admit that there have been times in my walk that I have definitely “prayed to myself” instead of God. One piece of incriminating evidence that I’m guilty of this self-prayer is, if when my prayer is answered, I pat myself on the back and forget to thank God.
Outside of self-righteousness, I think the temptation to pray to oneself comes out of a well-intention desire to pray the ‘right way’. I see it in our uncomfortableness to pray out loud and off the cuff while in a group. I’d like to offer another piece of proverbial wisdom, in jest, from the U.S. Navy, “K.I.S.S. – Keep it simple, stupid.” We need to remember that the tax collector’s prayer is simple; “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (18:13). If I find that my prayer isn’t to God, but is to satisfy my self-righteous ego, I need to simplify. I need to keep it simple.
“O God, be merciful to me a sinner. Humble me now, for I exalt myself, I will be humbled later.”
– Spencer Hargadon