"Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth."
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
In the Bible we have a rich resource of guidance for every occasion. But it's not just knowing the words that matters. From them we might muster a nice verbal response and wrap a mantle of piety about our motives and so feel smug and self-righteous. But even the devil can quote Scripture for his purpose, as Shakespeare noted! If a little learning is a dangerous thing, a lopsided Bible scholarship can be still more perilous. Bible study becomes illusory if not accompanied by sincere conversion of morals, and humble prayer.
The certainty of God's answering our prayers was deeply embedded in Israel's tradition; and Jesus shows the same confidence. Hosea quotes the liturgical prayer: "Come, let us return to the Lord,. . . He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up." This theme of salvation on the third day occurs frequently enough in the Old Testament .. and Jesus stands within this biblical tradition by his rising from the dead "on the third day."
God certainly answers prayers, but is displeased by the mere mouthing of words. For words to become true prayer, it is not enough that they be sanctioned by tradition and used in a solemn setting. Words become prayer, says Hosea, when joined to a humble love and knowledge of God. The Pharisee and the Tax-collector have very different approaches to prayer. One spends his prayer-time listing his own virtues and achievements; and the other just asks for mercy, humbly aware of being a sinner. Jesus clearly favours the latter approach!
Two went up to the Temple to pray, but while both appeared to pray only one of them really prayed. The Pharisee offered a prayer of thanksgiving, which began, "I thank you God that I'm not like all the rest." The tax collector offered a prayer of petition, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Both used traditional formulas but only the tax collector's prayer was well directed. What distinguished the two was the attitude of heart prompting them. Which of them do we most resemble?
In the case of the Pharisee, it was an attitude of pride and of judgement of others; the tax collector's attitude was one of humility; he recognized his poverty before God. Both men who went up to the temple to pray were equally poor, spiritually poor, before God, but it was only the tax collector who recognized his poverty. We always come before God as beggars, as needy. In the Our Father Jesus teaches us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses." A prayer that originated in the Eastern church and that has been prayed by Christians down through the centuries is what is known as the Jesus prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, be merciful to me, a sinner." This prayer is often prayed to the rhythm of our breathing. It is a slightly longer version of the prayer of tax collector. It is a prayer that keeps us humble and reminds us of our poverty before God; it is a prayer that will always be answered.