Luke 18:9-14: “Will the Real Prayer Please Stand Up?”
“Also, He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess. And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes toward heaven, but beat on his breast, saying, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:8=9-14, NKJV).
This parable by the Lord Jesus was placed into the Scriptures by the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit to tell those who trusted in themselves and who despised others that they saw as less than worthy of God’s attention. They looked down on other people and had inner contempt for them, believing them less worthy of God’s attention because of what they believed were sins too great to be forgiven. That kind of attitude still rears its ugly head in both public and private settings, and God has never taken kindly to it or anything that people say or do to convince us otherwise.
Jesus illustrates His teaching by telling of two men who went into the temple in Jerusalem to pray. Prayer is essentially a conversation with God. We can approach Him and talk with Him on a personal level, but with an attitude of reverence and respect on our part. We can be honest with Him and pour out our feelings, questions, or praise and honor Him for just His presence and majesty alone (Exodus 3:5; Joshua 5:15; Nehemiah 8:5; Psalm 33:8, 89:7, 11:9; Daniel 8:17; Habakkuk 2:20; Hebrews 12:28).
The first person mentioned is a Pharisee. These were the religious leaders and teachers of Judea who laid great stress upon the observance of rites and ceremonies. They made a pretense of superior piety and separated themselves from the common people. They believed in the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and the existence of angels and evil spirits. They could be considered the “conservatives” of that time due to their adherence to the Scriptures, but over time they had placed more emphasis on interpretation and commentary by the rabbinic scholars than over the purity of the Word of God.
When Jesus came on the scene and began to teach, it was with the authority of Scripture alone, and the people flocked to Him, hungry to hear what God had to say, not the rehashing of traditions and religious rituals. Jesus had words to say about the attitude of the Pharisees when they were in prayer (Matt. 6:1-5). Their public displays of prayer were nothing more than trying to look pious and holy when their lives and words said otherwise. The Lord Jesus labeled them and all religious frauds as hypocrites of the worst kind (Matt. 7:5, 15, 12:10,15:7, 16:3, 22:18, 23:13, 29; 24:51; Mark 7:6; Luke 6:42, 11:44, 12:56, 13:5; John 12:6).
The Pharisee in this parable presents a “prayer” that addresses God and supposedly gives Him thanks, but there is absolutely no sign whatsoever of any reverence, respect, love, or humbleness towards Him. Instead, the Pharisee begins checking off a list of deeds, behaviors, and self-centered attitudes that he believed would keep him in God’s good graces and impress Him. He was looking to have a “gold star” put on his religious report card as a reminder of how pious he has been in keeping the right set of rules, but does not give God thanks for His grace, mercy, and wisdom to guide him in the way of holiness. His laundry list prayer shows no real love for God nor for those around him. His cruel comment on the tax collector’s presence in the temple shows nothing but contempt, and everything he rattled off to God merely bounced off the walls. We see this today as well.
The other man in the temple, the tax collector, was a pariah in Jewish society. This individual was a Jew who had decided to assist the occupying Roman Empire in the collection of taxes and other income such as tolls, levies on goods, and assorted fees. By siding with the enemy in the eyes of the Jews, this person cut himself off from family and friends and was cast out of the local synagogues and establishments. He probably had hired hands to extort money from those who crossed him financially or were behind in debt payments. Just his presence in the temple was a shock and source of disgust from other worshippers, not just the self-righteous Pharisee.
He took a risk in showing up in the house of God and could have been thrown out and told never to come back. However, he was not there to cause a scene or any trouble. He was there because his soul was in agony over the obvious wickedness and sins that his life had produced, and the thought that he had thrown away everything precious to him for the sake of money. He did not raise his head or look up to heaven but took the posture of a man desperate to have his soul redeemed and made new before God. He beat his breast, a visible sign of sorrow for sin and the cry of repentance. He does not try to justify himself, or bargain with God, or make any sort of excuse. He cries out to God for mercy because he recognizes that he is a sinner in need of salvation. There was nowhere to go except to the throne of God, who heard this poor man’s cry and took away the stain of sin from him in an act of grace and the mercy for which he asked.
He knew he did not deserve any attention from the LORD, yet that is what he received, as He gives to anyone who comes to Him seeking to be delivered from sin and wickedness (Matthew 11:28-30; John 3:16, 10:28-30, 11:25-26, 14:6; Acts 4:12, 16:31; Romans 5:6-11, 8:31-39, 10:9-10). The LORD offers forgiveness from sin, as well as true peace and eternal life in Christ for all who come to Him in faith, trusting in Him alone for salvation. Jesus declared that it was the tax collector who really prayed, while the Pharisee just bragged and was not justified in the sight of God. The Pharisee thought a lot of himself, but that is all he received. The tax collector received a new life and the satisfaction of knowing that God heard him and answered his request.
After reading this, what would you honestly say about your own prayer life? Is it something like the Pharisee who rattled off a list of accomplishments that fed his ego but really gave no glory or honor to God? Are your prayers merely a wish list that you say in a hurry as you go to work, school, or another activity? How much time do you give to the LORD in prayer? Do you view prayer as something you have got to do, like a routine? Do you seek guidance and help from God when there is an emergency or troublesome situation that you cannot solve? Do you just take the time to thank Him for saving you from your sins and for His mercy and grace?
I encourage you to stop and consider that a lot of the troubles and scrapes in which we find ourselves and that of the world around us would diminish if we would but take the time to seek the LORD and His counsel. Approach His throne now, give Him honor, and trust Him to guide and direct you until the day He returns in glory to bring us home, where we will see Him face to face and have the ultimate conversation without any interruptions. To that I say, “Yes, and Amen.” Even so, come, Lord Jesus.