Two men, Jesus says in a parable, go up to the temple to pray. Almost certainly, they are not alone. People thronged the temple, especially during the times of the two daily sacrifices. The second sacrifice occurred at the ninth hour, which also was an hour of prayer and the time of several critical events in Luke and Acts. The two men have in common that they are Jewish, believers in the God of their ancestors and participants in the covenant that God had made with Israel. They have made different choices in life. One is a Pharisee; he strives diligently to follow the law diligently, and as his prayer suggests, wants everyone to know that he does it well.
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. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11). In our haste to paint all the Pharisee’s actions and words with the ultimate disapproval of Jesus, we may miss that the words of his prayer echo some of the Psalms. Psalm 17 includes these words of prayer: “Though you probe my heart and examine me at night, though you test me, you will find nothing; I have resolved that my mouth will not sin. As for the deeds of men – by the word of your lips I have kept myself from the ways of the violent. My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped” (Psalm 17:3-5). Psalm 26 also foreshadows the Pharisee’s prayer: “I do not sit with deceitful men, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I abhor the assembly of evildoers and refuse to sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence and go about your altar, O Lord, proclaiming aloud your praise and telling of all your wonderful deeds” (Ps. 26:4-7). Psalm 26, however, contains a key phrase missing from the Pharisee’s prayer: “But I lead a blameless life; redeem me and be merciful to me” (Ps 26:11).
The other man, although Jewish, has chosen to collaborate with the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. He collects taxes to support a pagan emperor’s government. Some taxpayers collected more the amount the Romans required and enriched themselves by extorting their countrymen. This man’s prayer suggests great guilt over decisions he has made. He sees himself as a sinner, and his coreligionist, the Pharisee, obviously agreed. He prays for forgiveness in the temple, however, as a member of God’s covenant people prior to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. His attitude wins the approval of Jesus. The tax collector recognizes that God owes him nothing. The phrase from Psalm 26 missing in the Pharisee’s prayer emerges in his prayer. In his shame, he cannot lift his arms or even his eyes toward heaven. “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” (Luke 18:13).
Two men pray prayers of confession. One confesses his faithfulness, and judges negatively the faithfulness of another worshiper. The other confesses his continued need for God’s mercy. Although a member of God’s covenant people, he still wants God’s forgiveness. His humility distinguishes him from the first. Jesus says 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”(Luke 18:14). Our attitude when we approach God in prayer influences his hearing of the prayer. The Pharisee may have attributed to God his ability to remain faithful when he began his prayer with thanks. When he began to compare his faithfulness as being superior to other worshipers nearby, his prayer lost its effectiveness. Yes, we should pray with attitude, but that attitude should reflect the tax collector’s attitude rather than the Pharisee’s.
Lord, we pray that our faithfulness will not decay into pride. We still need your mercy. Empower us to do your will; help us to remember that you are the source of that power. Continue to redeem us and be merciful to us. In Jesus name, Amen.