The parable of two men going up to the Temple to pray, given to us only in St. Luke’s Gospel, depicts two ways of life—one leading to fulfillment and peace with God, the other condemning oneself to the hell of a self-absorbed, self-centered life. Once again, Luke is a master story-teller, and in this short parable summarizes these two ways of life in a way that all of us can understand and remember. One person’s “prayer” is itself nothing but self-absorption, and is even spoken “with himself,” or, more literally, “to himself.” (What kind of human being prays “to himself”?) God does not enter into this prayer at all, because the one offering it is closed to God. How can God enter into an ego-filled consciousness, into a person whose thoughts are ever about himself? This person can love neither God nor human being, but despises others as beneath contempt, as deplorable, perhaps not even as truly human at all. This big shot, trusting in himself, has both feet squarely on earth, and his mind has not risen up into the Kingdom, into the Presence of God. He is empty, alone, self-satisfied, spiritually dead. In himself he now lives; in himself he will die. He looks impressive from the outside, but inside is all “waste and void.”
The other man does not take pride in himself or in his life. Rather, conscious of his own shortcomings and failures, humbly faces the ground—an outward expression of inner surrender. And he cries out to the one who is Love itself: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (or literally, “to me, to the sinner”). To this person, there is one who is merciful—God—and only one known sinner—I myself. This man, this sinner, not only addresses his heart and prayer to God, but is already graced by God, for it is the LORD himself who is moving this man to be conscious of his failings, and to turn to the LORD in his need. This man prays to God, with God, in God. Although he may not know it, his very words are being moved by the Creator, to lift his heart and mind into a union with God possible only to the humble—that is, to the self-emptying. Casting himself onto God, he is in reality already in the Kingdom of Heaven.
St. Luke knows this experience from the inside, because he lives, prays, writes his gospel not out of himself alone, but out of his faith-union with God. As he writes at the end of his Gospel: “Did not our hearts burn within us when he spoke to us along the way and opened to us the Scriptures?” He knows well of what he speaks, for he is focused not on himself, but on the presence of God as Christ and Spirit in his own soul, his consciousness.
What I have offered is an example of reading a spiritual text, such as a passage of a Gospel, in light of the experiences out of which the author is writing. To do otherwise, and to offer another kind of interpretation, disrespects the text and its author, and allows one to read in anything he wishes. An example of such reading would be a doctrinal interpretation (to fit with dogma), or an allegorical interpretation, as the Church Fathers often used. Others get caught in minutiae of biblical games. Remember, Christ is far greater than ourselves.