The Saturday in the 3rd Week of Lent
March 18, 2023
I must confess that I usually rush past verses 9 and 10 to get to heart of the matter or the point of the parable which I have taken to be about the way we pray. In considering this mediation, I slowed down and took a closer look at beginning of the parable and what the people hearing the parable would have understood about what would have happened before the two men started praying.*
My vision of what occurred has been that the two men were just in the temple praying. But the language used suggests that this was not the case. “The two men went up into the temple to pray.” It is more likely that the language “went up into the temple to pray” was a reference to the daily service held at the temple. The first part of the service consisted of the sacrifice of a lamb outside the sanctuary at the great high altar. “The officiating priest would then enter the outer part of the sanctuary where he would offer incense and trim the lamps.” (Bailey at page 346.) It was at this time that those in attendance would offer their individual prayers to God. So, the individual prayers that followed were done as a part of public worship after a sacrifice had been made for the remission of sins and after the requirements of the Law had been fulfilled.
I think that the setting was not incidental to the rest of the story but sets out what happens next in the proper context. It is not a story of two men each engaged in individual prayers. The unfolding story of salvation takes place in the sacred space where the people of Israel meet their God. So, it is with us.
But entry to the sacred space and participation in the public acts of worship isn’t enough. Nor are good works, as the Pharisee shows us. Something more is needed and the tax collector shows us what that is. “English translations usually render the tax collector’s speech with the word ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’ But this text does not use the common Greek word for “mercy” which is eleeõ. Instead, the verse presents the word hilaskomai … [which] means to “make atonement”. The classical Armenian translation made in the Middle East in the fourth century reads, “O God, make atonement for me” (Bailey at page 349.) So, even after the sacrifice and the fulfillment of the Law, the tax collector still publicly cries out that what has been done is not enough given the weight of his sins and that he is utterly dependent upon God to act mercifully towards him.
So, in this season of Lenten disciplines, I am reminded not to fixate on what I am doing, but instead I am called to join in the liturgy at St. John’s, come to the altar, and cry “O God make atonement for me, a sinner”. I must again and again acknowledge my utter dependence upon God acting and wait to be found by God.
Keith S. Miller
*- Kenneth E. Baily’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes provided the factual background.