What J.D. Salinger’s Franny Knew About Prayer

“Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner!”

“Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner!”

“Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner!”

franny and zooeyIt’s a surprising source, but I have J.D. Salinger to thank for introducing me to the Jesus Prayer in his book Franny and Zooey.

“Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner!”

In a simplified form, that is the prayer of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14): “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It has become known as the Jesus Prayer.

The tax collector is a model for prayer, though if this character in Jesus’ story were worshiping with us today, he’d never let us hold him up as an exemplar.

Two Guys Walk into the Temple to Pray….

Luke 18:9     To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:

Note the phrases, “confident of their own righteousness” and, “looked down on everybody else.”

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah speaks of such people:

They say, “Keep to yourself!
Don’t get near me, for I am holier than you!”
These people are like smoke in my nostrils,
like a fire that keeps burning all day long.    (Isa 65:5)

Luke 18:10     Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

Of these two men, who do the listeners think is going to be the hero? The Pharisee. Just about everyone hated tax collectors.

Oh, this is going to be good, the self-righteous listeners must have thought. Jesus is about to validate us, as he should!

Jesus isn’t out to bash Pharisees with this parable. We have to be careful about this as we read the Gospels. In fact, as one commentator points out, “The Pharisees were admired by the common folk for their piety and devotion to the Mosaic Law. Our contemporary equation of Pharisaism with hypocrisy would not have been made by a first-century Jew.”

It’s the same kind of setup as you get in the Good Samaritan parable–the religious person ends up showing us what not to do, while the real sinner becomes the example.

God Is Lucky to Have Him

Luke 18:11     The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.

Some of the listeners in the audience are saying, “Amen! Good prayer! Jesus gets it!”

This Pharisee starts his prayer out in the right way–“God, I thank you,” a typical beginning to Jewish prayers. 

But it never really was an actual thanking of God for who God is. It was a thanking of God for who the Pharisee was.

He’s at the temple praying, standing up. This is a posture that suggests he was praying for others to hear him.

Note that it says he “prayed about himself.” This is much more soliloquy than prayer. Dear God–but enough about you. Here’s who I am and what I bring to the table. He mentions God, prays to him, but God quickly becomes just a footnote in the prayer. He continuses:

Luke 18:12     “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

What a good, religious guy! No, really–he is living an exemplary life, in terms of spiritual practices.

And he might well be sincere in his fasting and tithing. His fasting twice a week was more than was required. Designating a tenth of everything to God is an Old Testament practice that many continue today when they consider financial giving to their churches.

But he’s missing the point.

The primary subject and actor in this prayer is… the one praying. Not the one he prays to.

He addresses his prayer to “God,” but after that, he thanks God for who he is not. He’s telling God what he’s doing for God, and he’s also making sure to remind God of how rotten these other people are. God, you’re lucky to have me!

This guy’s understanding of himself is interesting to me. He defines himself before God in two primary ways:

(a) who he is not (these other people) and
(b) what he has done.

The guy has identity issues. Can he only be secure in himself by putting others down? Or maybe he’s a little more sincere than that. Maybe he’s like the older brother in the Prodigal Son story–he does his duty, says his prayers, fasts, tithes… but the people around him are moral slackers. And he just can’t stand it.

He’s still missing the point. The despised tax collector, however, really does get it.

He Can’t Even Look at God

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, by Gustave Doré (1832–1883)
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, by Gustave Doré (1832–1883)

Luke 18:13     But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

With the Pharisee, the primary subject and actor in his prayer was… the one praying. The subject and primary actor in this prayer is God. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That’s it. It’s much shorter prayer than the Pharisee’s prayer.

Before he even prays, he beats his chest, a sign of lament. He did not stand where everyone could see him. The Message version says he was “slumped in the shadows.” 

Clearly he was “supposed to” be the antagonist of the story. A tax collector was in collusion with the Roman occupiers. Assuming he was Jewish, he took money from his own people to pay a foreign power, often with a kickback for himself.

He knows he’s supposed to be the antagonist in the story–he knows his sin too well. He confesses his sin to God.

An Old Testament prayer goes: “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6).

But God–and all the listeners to this story knew this–God is a God who forgives wrongdoings. He welcomes the wayward sinner home.

Jesus concludes:

Luke 18:14     “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Remember how the story started? “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.”

They were confident in their own righteousness, their own right standing, their peace with God. But, look, Jesus says, you don’t get that from yourself, so stop trying. If you hold yourself up as righteous, you’ll humbled. But if you are humble, you will be exalted–not a sort of fame or glory with other people, but if you are humble, you will be truly justified before God. You will have peace with God.

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Where We Fit in the Parable

One writer (quoting another for the first portion below) says that because we know the end of the story:

“We identify with the tax collector and feel silent gratitude that we are decent and humble rather than being self-righteous like that shameful Pharisee.” We can be like the Sunday school teacher who goes through the lesson and says at the end, “Now, children, let us bow our heads and thank God we are not like that Pharisee.”

And that’s one of our reactions reading this text, isn’t it?

Well, yeah, I’d never actually name people in my prayer and say, “God, thank you that I’m not like him or her or those people.” And maybe that’s true. Maybe we don’t explicitly pray prayers like that, certainly not out loud. 

But we might think thoughts like that. This same loathing of others that the Pharisee brings to God… we may do this in more subtle ways.

We might smugly watch the people going for long walks on a Sunday morning while we drive to church. We might watch the way a parent scolds their child and think: well, I would never do anything like that. We might work hard in the office or even here at the church, and secretly resent those who don’t seem to be as productive as we are. Or we might just look at someone with pseudo-pity and say to ourselves, “I am sure glad I don’t have to be that person.”

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is the sort of attitude, the kind of prayer that brings us into fellowship with God.

This prayer, in various forms, has inspired people ever since the tax collector prayed it. Ironically enough–the prayer of this humble man has been exalted and used by many.

What Salinger’s Franny Knew About Prayer

J.D. Salinger first wrote Franny and Zooey in the late 1950s as two separate shorts in The New Yorker magazine. Franny is a college student who is becoming disillusioned with college–not with her studies, per se, but with other college students. She thinks they’re fake, shallow, and egotistical. Her boyfriend Lane isn’t much better.

He’s a name-dropper, a complainer. He boasts in his own achievements–his good grades and his upcoming paper he’s going to publish. He’s sort of like the Pharisee in the parable.

What Franny read
What Franny read

Franny is in the middle of an existential crisis. At the recommendation of a prof, she’s been reading The Way of a Pilgrim, a 19th century Russian story about a pilgrim who wants to know how to “pray without ceasing,” as one verse says. He finally finds a spiritual advisor who tells him to repeatedly pray a version of the tax collector’s prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The idea is to make this prayer move from the lips to the heart, so that, as Salinger puts it, the prayer “becomes an automatic function in the person, right along with the heartbeat.”

Franny has been experimenting with the prayer, and at the end of the story, she faints. When she comes to, with boyfriend Lane by her side, she is mouthing the words: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Various Christian traditions suggest praying the prayer repeatedly, as the Russian pilgrim did, and as Franny tried to do.

As one devotes 5, 15, then 30 minutes to praying this prayer, different words stand out each time. Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God. I am a sinner. Mercy–Jesus has mercy on us, or shows us grace when we don’t deserve it.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Some recommend breathing in as you pray the first half of the prayer–inhale with “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” then exhale as you pray the second half–”have mercy on me, a sinner.” You internalize this prayer, so that its words become as natural to you as breathing. 

But humility is a tricky thing. Just as soon as we think we are humble, we are tempted to congratulate ourselves on our humility. Maybe not loudly, but quietly. So we cling to the message of this parable, summarized elsewhere in Scripture: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

I wonder if Salinger’s character Franny knew that: even as she saw occasion to criticize shallowness and inauthenticity around her, she clung to the prayer of humility. It moved from her lips to her heart. It became not just a prayer, but a posture. It wasn’t a formula, but her very breath.

It is Christ’s mercy, his “unmerited favor,” as some have defined it, that sets us right with God. We remind ourselves of that mercy each time we confess our sins and call on God for his aid.

“Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.” (Ps. 115:1)

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached today on Luke 18:9-14, covering the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984). See my other sermons, if you desire, here.

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