This is yet another one of Jesus’ parables which teaches us about the quality of prayer. In several other parables within the Gospel of Luke, Jesus addresses our need to prayer faithfully and unceasingly. This parable addresses whose prayers are welcomed by God and whose fall on deaf ears.
Here we have to people – a Pharisee and a tax collector.
Now, the Pharisee was held up as an example of a godly person within the culture of the day. Here was a man who followed all God’s commandments and religious restrictions and duties — after all, didn’t he pray daily in the temple, even at times when it was not required? Pharisees were members of the priestly class and highly respected in the community; they fasted twice a week and tithed their income as well as a tenth to alms. They considered themselves righteous and their prayers to God were heard only by God.
Then we have the tax collector, one of the most despised people within the Jewish or Roman community. They were charged by the sovereign government to collect the taxes from the people. But, they were not paid to do this, so in order to support their families, they would collect above what the government required so that they could feed their families. Being a tax collector essentially gave them a license to steal — and everyone knew that. No matter that this was the only way they could provide for their family.
Both of these men were in the temple praying, not because of an obligation, but because they felt the need to offer prayers to God. But this is where the similarities end.
The Pharisee was standing a distance from where everyone else was praying where everyone could see, holding himself upright and regal. He was sure that he was far better than the poor tax collector and was thanking God that he was not a rogue or thief or adulterer or even the tax collector. He extolled to God his worthiness and virtue: after all he obeyed all the laws.
I can just see him standing there, with his chest puffed up with pride and self-righteousness.
Then we have the tax collector, standing far off from the other people in the temple, particularly the Pharisee. He knew he was despised by people and wanted to be where the Pharisee would not be offended and other people would not look scornfully at him. And he so ashamed that he could not even lift his hands or eyes up to God in his prayers, as was the custom. He felt his own shame and was beating his breast at his unworthiness. He was crying out to God to be merciful to him, an unworthy sinner. You know he had to have seen the Pharisee standing there. Imagine how much more unworthy that must have made him feel.
The tax collector’s prayer was one of humility and repentance for what he had done. He could not look up because the weight of his sins laid heavy on his head. He is prayer is very short:
- “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”
He may have repeated this prayer again and again, even listing those sins he had committed.
And his prayer was answered by God.
If we pray like the Pharisee, because it is our duty or to be seen as righteous, our prayers fall on deaf ears. As happened in the Book of Job, proud men who praise themselves for their godliness and righteousness will be brought low by God. They will be rejected because they lack the humbleness to realize they need the mercy of God more than those they despise.
When we confess our sins with a completely open heart, God hears these and is reconciled to us. God favors those who ask for mercy rather than those who expect is because they have ‘earned’ it. He accepts those seeking mercy and forgiveness into communion with Him, as part of this kingdom. The greater the sin, the greater the repentance and the greater the mercy.
When we come before God in prayer, remember we are there to ask for mercy and forgiveness, not praise God that we are so righteous and deserving. Rely on that mercy of God and our prayers will be answered.
Delivered at Lindely Assisted Living Center, 28 October 2007