Part of today’s Gospel has had a whole life of its own for centuries now. The prayer of the tax collector, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” has been transformed into what is now known as the “Jesus Prayer:” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This prayer is especially popular with Orthodox Christians. It’s popular as a prayer method today for the same reason that the tax collector’s prayer stands out in the Gospel: it’s focused on humility, our need for God’s mercy and our common humanity, as opposed to the Pharisee’s prayer, which is focused on himself and how he stands out from others.
The Pharisee is special, but we’re all special. We’re all in this together. A plaque on a Paris hospital reads, “We are the dying taking care of the dying.”
The Jesus prayer, meant to be repeated often, reinforces these truths. Over time, the words of the Jesus prayer may work its way into our hearts and our habits, and we begin to live it. If the Pharisee is so self-referencing in his prayer, it’s likely he’s even more so in his daily life. If we can practice humility and the need for God’s mercy in our prayer, so too there’s a better chance to do so more concretely in daily life.
We can also live the prayer by acting in support of our common humanity and interdependence. This World Mission Sunday is a good and well-timed opportunity, for example, to help others around the world to have the same kind of access to the Gospel that we do here in the United States.
We live the prayer by also not perpetuating all the judging and division in our world today. As the 7th century Saint Maximus the Confessor once said, “The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone. He knows that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Indeed.