The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” – Luke 18:11-13 ESV
Two men. Two prayers. One conclusion.
Jesus told a parable. He told a lot of parables. But this one had to do with prayer. He used two characters. One a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. In the culture of Jesus’ day, these two men were on opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. The Pharisee represented the religious elite, the spiritual superstars or their day. They were considered righteous because they were strict adherents to the Mosaic law. They were meticulous in their rule-keeping, but tended to twist the rules to fit their own agendas. Jesus was unflinching in His assessment of their religiosity. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23 ESV). These men had the average Jew fooled by their outward appearance of piety, but God knew their hearts. In fact, that was the point behind Jesus’ parable. Luke records that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV). In other words, He was telling this parable directly to the Pharisees themselves.
In His parable, Jesus juxtaposes a Pharisee, a self-righteous, religious rule keeper with someone everyone would consider a selfish, self-centered sinner: the tax collector. These people were despised in Jewish culture because they were considered pawns of the Roman government. They collected taxes on behalf of the Romans, but added fees on top to line their own pockets. They were money-hungry and greedy, taking advantage of their own people in order to make a buck.
So Jesus chose to portray one against the other, and He chose to do it by having them pray. Why? Because their prayers revealed their hearts. What they said to God opened up a window to their souls. Their prayer lives reflected the true condition of their relationship with God. By having them pray, Jesus showed what they thought about themselves and what they thought about God. Prayer has a way of doing that. When we turn our prayer lives into a time to boast about all that we’ve done for God, and expect Him to bless us for being such a blessing to Him, we miss the point. The Pharisee’s prayer was all about him. He bragged about his superior spiritual condition, especially when compared to everyone else. He was arrogant and prideful. He could have used the wisdom of Paul who said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 ESV). He looked down on others. He pridefully boasted, “I thank you that I am not like other men.” No humility. Just hubris.
But the other man, the tax collector prayed a starkly different prayer. He couldn’t even raise his head to pray. All he could say was, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He knew who he was. He wasn’t self-deceived and self-righteous. He knew he was a sinner and in need of a merciful God. His prayer reflects a solid understanding of his relationship with God. He was a sinner. God was his only hope for salvation.
Earlier in the book of Luke, there is recorded a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. They were upset that He associated with sinners. He even ate with them. A certain tax collector named Levi held a party in his home and invited his work associates to join him as he hosted Jesus and His disciples. In the room was “a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them” (Luke 5:29 ESV). The Pharisees caught wind of this party and expressed their disgust with Jesus’ poor decision making. They asked Him, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:29 ESV). And Jesus calmly replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32 ESV).
The Pharisees considered themselves righteous. They had no need of a Savior. They would never have admitted that they were sinners. In their minds, they were spiritually “well”. Their pride created a barrier between them and the very one they needed to forgive them of their sins. It seems that this kind of attitude shows up all too well in our private prayer times. Do we come to God in need of His love, grace, mercy and forgiveness? Or do we come expecting Him to somehow repay us for all the good we do for Him? Do we enter His presence in a state of humility and neediness or with pride and an attitude of expectation?
Jesus drew a very simple conclusion from His parable. He said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14 ESV). Prayer requires humility. There is no place for pride in the presence of God. Even as believers, we should never forget that there is nothing we bring to Him, other than the blood of Christ, that provides us with any worth or awards us any favor in His eyes. Like the tax collector, we should come saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Without the blood of Jesus, we would all remain sinners. Our works would still be as filthy rags. Our hope of salvation would be non-existent. We come into His presence only because of what Jesus has done on our behalf.