“But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Sometimes a word leaps off a page like a stag for me, focusing my attention not on the whole but on the minute. Today, it was the word “distance.”
My eyes aligned to meet it and stopped me from moving on to even one more word, a spiritual push on the brakes if you will, and I paused to sit there. Distance implied sadness which implied loss of love and heartache. It was outstretched arms and faraway countries and people who I am far from. And then my heart turned to humanity, to individuals whose names I do not know, who are far away from our Lord. They are away, suffering, afraid and with no place to go.
In times of crisis, many come to faith in God. But on their initial descent, their first instinct many times is to find a church. I imagined their fear when they could not go to one, could not talk to God, and felt trapped outside the doors. Their distance grew more palpable for me today and I could feel their angst and heartbreak. They do not have the knowledge that God is with them, Emmanuel, the healer and ruler of this universe.
The fact that the tax collector stood off at a distance is striking. That he did not even feel worthy to come into the presence of God shows his sorrow and humility. Juxtapose this with the Pharisee who the bible says “took up his position” as if he owned the place.
The Greek translation of the words that make up “took his position,” say that the phrase means “toward himself.” I found that amazing. His position was “towards himself” rather than towards God. His prayer was directed inward for his own benefit and not for the benefit of others. The Greek translation also says that his prayer, his extension was toward a goal, “with implied interaction or reciprocity.” (biblehub). Do something for me God. Make it advantageous to me God.
And what a picture this is! That the one who was righteous was closer to God physically on the altar but far away from God, while the sinner who recognized his own wretchedness stayed far away from the altar but was closer to God.
In God’s economy, the lesser is more
As we continue our Lenten journey, let us ponder these questions:
Do we sit in the closest pew of the church for the most recognition?
Are we hold up in our homes during this pandemic thanking God we are not sick, or are we using our prayer time to bring others to His love?
Which ways are our prayers directed, towards ourselves or towards humanity?
God is teaching us all a very important lesson in today’s gospel which can be found in our first reading. He desires love and not sacrifice, and knowledge of Him rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6).
Let us pray
Strip me of my pride and change my heart. Let my prayers be real and honest and offered as a gift of your love for others. As I am grounded in my faith, there are so many around this globe who do not know you and have no church to walk into. They do not know that they can simply call out your name and you are there.
Help me to transform my prayers into yours, my wants into yours, my desires into yours. Help me to implore your mercy for those that don’t know you. Encourage me to get outside myself, to offer my time and words to those that need it.
Use me as your instrument Father and be merciful to me a sinner.
In Jesus Name,