The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is the classic “goodie” versus “baddie” tale. The Pharisee represented the pillar of Jewish society: a religious man who knew the Law backwards and observed it in all its minute details. The tax collector was the outcast of society: he collaborated with the pagan occupying army of the Romans, overcharged people for their taxes and kept a commission of the money for himself. Yet by the end of the story Jesus reverses their roles.

The story only makes two points. The first is that it is impossible to impress God. Maybe there are Pharisees in some of our churches today. Those

who feel that they are pillars of society; they are well respected in the community; their family has always supported the parish and they live a moral existence  – unlike some of the other members of the congregation that they could name!

Why would we want to “impress” God? Could it be that we can’t actually face up to what we are really like? Could it be that we think God will only have time for us when we improve a bit?

Do we need to shape up before God will pay us any attention? Yet the reality is that God knows us even better than we know ourselves. For we can fool ourselves but we can’t fool God. And the truth is that we can only gain access to God by being totally sincere. Anything else cuts us off.

The second point of the story is that we can do absolutely nothing to earn God’s mercy. The tax collector’s body language was the complete opposite of the Pharisee’s: he beat his breast and didn’t even dare to look up. He was open about two things: he was a sinner and he needed God’s mercy. And he poured his heart out.

This total honesty before God frightens many people. That’s because they believe God acts on a “Brownie points” system and they find it hard to accept that God loves people for what they are not what they should be. God’s way of acting overturns any idea of merit, any thought of earning our salvation. God’s love and forgiveness are indiscriminate and open to anyone who asks sincerely.

Of course, if you accepted your true condition and knew that only the free gift of grace could save you, then you’d really impress God.


The story of the widow pestering the judge for justice in today’s gospel cannot fail to amuse. The poor woman (widows were on the bottom rung of society because of their economic status) must have worn the (important) judge down over time. Judges did not work in buildings; they set up their court in a tent that travelled around their region, rather like our Assizes. So every time he turned up at a new place and pitched his tent, there she was! Eventually he decided to do something just for a quiet life. And it’s her persistence in prayer that Jesus praises.

Being persistent in prayer is probably one of the greatest challenges facing us as Christians. It’s easy not to pray. We can claim we’re busy doing good and don’t have the time. We can say that we never seem to get an answer and so what’s the point? We can look back on things we asked for that never materialised and so wonder whether God is really bothered by our prayer at all.

Prayer isn’t words. Prayer is being constantly tuned into God so that we see and interpret our experiences from God’s point of view. If we can learn to appreciate God’s vantage point then we become less absorbed with our own demands for God to act in this way or that.

There is a difference between being persistent and being a pesterer. Being persistent in our prayer is a sign that we are being faithful to staying close to God. Barraging God with what we think should happen is a sign that we have probably not yet come close to wanting God’s will to reign.

Prayer is a sign that we want to become closer to God and to what God wants for his kingdom on earth. Perhaps it is not too much to say that that by praying we are expressing our desire to become like God. Yes, it is natural to tell God of our plans, our hopes and our fears. It’s natural to place others in God’s “mind” and ask for their wellbeing.

But prayer is first and foremost about our relationship with God, our closeness, our gradual coming to know God’s will and his plan for salvation.And while it is natural for us to see things in terms of the present, God’s perspective is that of eternity.



Rudyard Kipling was known to be a successful writer. A cynical US reporter found him one day and, in an attempt to embarrass him, said, ‘Mr Kipling, it has been suggested that you make as much as $100 for every word you write’. The reporter then pulled out a $100 not, handed it to Kipling and said, ‘Could you  give me a $100 word?’ Kipling folded the note, put it in his pocket and said, ‘Thanks’.

Thanks, of course, is a $100 word. But it’s worth much more than that. It’s one of the two magic words that we teach children to say, along with ‘please’. And just as a parent is disappointed when the child fails to show basic manners, so Jesus too, appears a bit disappointed when only one leper returns to say thank you for being cured.

When a person doesn’t bother to say thank you it’s usually because they do not see the need. Whatever it is that has been done for them they consider it either to be their right or something of slight importance. Of course, that is usually because they have become desensitised to what’s going on around them; they have become jaded and prone to ingratitude.

Since you got up this morning, how many times have you uttered the phrase ‘thank you’? And how many times have you thanked God so far? What do you have to be thankful for and is it worth thanking God? Surely God knows?

The actual act of acknowledging our gratitude makes us more grateful because it makes us more aware of the reasons we have to be grateful and it allows us to enjoy the benefits of our privileged positions. Yet we often fail to thank God for our health until we are in danger of losing it. We scarcely think about the amount and the choice of food that is at our fingertips until we run out. And we often are unappreciative of people who make our lives fuller.

Eucharist mean thanksgiving. It is the act by which the Church gathers to hear God’s word, to thank God for all the blessing of our life in Christ and it is the privileged moment when we call upon the Holy Spirit to make us a grateful people worthy to share the body and blood of Christ.

But it would be a pity if we waited until we were inside a church before thanking those whose debt we are in. And that includes God.



 We can sense the frustration in today’s first reading of someone who seems to be calling on God in distress and yet nothing appears to be happening. Is prayer nothing more than mouthing words that can have no real effect on our situation? Is God simply playing with us?

A good question to ask is “What do I think I am doing when I pray?” Often we are letting God know what we feel and asking him to change things to the way we want them to be. At worst we end up thinking that we are informing God, and at best we find ourselves pouring our heart out.

Pouring our heart out is no bad thing. In fact, it’s what Jesus asks us to do in prayer. We don’t actually have to use any words to do this: we can simply and silently place ourselves consciously in God’s presence. And when we do this, we may find ourselves listening to God rather than talking. God is able to penetrate our busy thick skins and communicate his word to us.

When we are aware that God wants to get through to us, we are on the first step to letting him change us. For prayer is not about changing God but about conforming ourselves to the will of God. This does not mean that we stop praying for people in need, for things to be otherwise, but it does mean that we start to ask God to mould us, to allow ourselves to be used as part of his plans. God will often turn our ideas upside down in prayer, especially by pointing out that we don’t understand the whole picture.

If we seem to pray and pray and nothing happens, then either we are doing something wrong or God couldn’t care less. It’s more likely to be the former. Prayer does work when we put our own interests second and ask God to change us.