“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
These are perhaps the most important words of the spiritual life, uttered today by the repentant tax collector in the temple area. These words are so important, actually, that they form the basis of one of the most ancient acts of contrition that we have, called the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer comes out of the eastern and orthodox Church traditions, and the full version is “Lord Jesus Christ, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Everyone should memorize this prayer.
The Jesus Prayer, and our readings today, give us one of the great tools of Lent: humility. Humility is that great virtue that recognizes that I need a Savior. That because of my sins, I have no access to God, except for the fact that he loves me beyond anything I have a right to hope for. Humility recognizes that God loves us all so much that he gave everything for us, poured himself out for love of us, and desires to heal all of our sins and brokenness.
All it takes is a little repentance: realizing my sinfulness, turning back to Christ, letting him love me, and accepting his forgiveness. The prayer that manifests that kind of attitude is not the prayer of the Pharisee in the Gospel reading today: his attitude is the antithesis of what prayer needs to be. The prayer that manifests the attitude we must have is that of the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
O, that God would grant us the great gift of humility this Lenten day.