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How the tax collector’s prayer is the foundation of the Jesus Prayer

Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican c. 1643 – ar

© Carl Guderian / CC

Philip Kosloski - published on 10/23/22

The Jesus Prayer, recited by many Eastern Christians, finds its inspiration from the prayer of the tax collector.

One of the most widely recited prayers of Eastern/Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox Christians is the Jesus Prayer.

It typically consists of the following invocation: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

This popular prayer is quoted almost directly from a parable Jesus tells his disciples, comparing the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:10-14

The Jesus Prayer derived from this Bible verse is an ancient prayer that was popular among the Desert Fathers and is found in a collection of Eastern Christian spiritual writings called the Philokalia. This collection of writings dates back to the 4th century, and includes authors such as St. Anthony the Great, St. John Damascus, and St. Mark the Ascetic.

The tax collector’s prayer is seen by many as a “perfect” prayer, recognizing the reality of our sin while also asking God for his forgiveness and mercy.

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