Pray Humbly

Luke 18:9-14

Last week we heard about the persistent widow, who by constantly praying and badgering an unjust judge, got the justice she deserved. And we were reminded that because of God’s love for us we can pray for justice in our own lives and it will be delivered.

Today we heard another scripture that was about prayer – two different kinds of prayer:

     prayer from a person who knows he is a sinner and really wants to repent
     prayer by a proclaimed righteous person who is all show and no substance.

This is yet another one of many of Jesus’ parables teaching 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 is a parable about the difference between self-righteousness and humility. It addresses whose prayers are welcomed by God and whose fall on deaf ears.

Here we have to people – a Pharisee and a tax collector.

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 that their prayers were the only ones heard by God. Pharisees were held up within the culture of the day as an example of godly people. 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? But, we must not totally misjudge the self-righteous Pharisee. We can learn something from his prayer because he recognized how blessed he was. He cited what righteous things he has done:

I fast, even beyond what the Law asks. I give tithes, not just a tenth of my agricultural products, but of all my resources. (Luke 18:12)

So the Pharisee was a good person, trying to live according to the teachings of the scriptures. However, there is one problem with that Pharisee, even though he was praying in a totally acceptable way. The Pharisees seemed to think that he is the reason for all the good things that have happened for him – he did not acknowledge that God had much to do with it.

Then we have the tax collector, one of the most despised people within the Jewish or Roman community. They were charged by the occupying Roman government with collecting taxes from the people; they also respresented a conquering government – an early example of ‘taxation without representation’. The tax collectors were not paid to collect the taxes, so they would collect more than 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. It didn’t matter that this was the only way they could provide for their family, they were despised by all.

The humble tax collector did not delude himself into thinking he was righteous. He sought mercy, full of self-condemnation. He stood apart from the rest of the people because he considered himself unworthy to associate with them. He would not even look up.

We find both of these men 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 so that everyone there could see him, holding himself upright and regal, probably so that his litany of virtues could be heard by other worshipers and by the tax collector. The Pharisee’s prayer kept the focus on himself. It was “I” this and “I” that. He was sure that he was far better than the poor tax collector and thanked God that he was not a rogue or thief or adulterer or even the tax collector. He reminded God of his worthiness and virtues.

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. 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 was 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. His prayer was very short:

God, be merciful to me, a sinner (Luke 18:13)

And again,

Lord, have mercy on me a sinner. (Luke 18:13)

And again,

God, be merciful to me, a sinner (Luke 18:13)

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. They will be rejected because they lack the humbleness to realize we need the mercy of God.

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 it because they have ‘earned’ it. He accepts those seeking mercy and forgiveness into communion with Him, as part of His 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.

Our Heavenly Father promises that when we turn our thoughts to Him, when we return to Him, He will have mercy on us. That is the promise that touched the sorrow-filled heart of a despised tax collector and led him to crying out,

Lord, have mercy on me a sinner. (Luke 18:13)

And he was not turned away. His request was answered.

Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church On Capitol Square, Columbus, OH October 27, 2013

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