This is such an interesting story the author of Luke had Jesus tell. People who heard him tell the story could imagine a Pharisee praying like the one in the story. They tended to think they were better than others. And the tax-collector? Well, they weren't held in high esteem so his confession made perfect sense as well. I think there are some things we can glean from this story to help guide us in our own prayer life.
First, it's important for us to remember that the self-righteous Pharisees were in the audience Jesus spoke to that day. Pharisees were highly regarded in most circles in Jesus' day, and rightly so in many ways because they did do a lot of good. Tax-collectors on the other hand were known for the despicable ways they fleeced the common citizens on behalf of the Roman government.
Now, both of these guys went to the temple to pray. That’s what devout people did in those days – they went to the temple to pray – at 9:00 a.m., noon and 3:00 p.m. Jesus’ only point here probably was that they were both being devout by setting aside a time and a place for their praying. The guideline for our praying is that it is important for each of us to determine an appropriate place and time for us to pray. For some of us it may be in the church sanctuary or chapel. For others of us it may be a favorite room or chair in our homes. For still others of us it may be while we’re walking on a favorite path or while working out at a local gym. We can be in prayer anywhere and anytime but it needs to be when and where we can communicate with God without being distracted. The question we need to ask ourselves is: "Where can real communication between God and me happen?"
The second thing I think it’s important to notice in the parable is that while both men were in the temple, one was in the front of the temple looking up to heaven while praying with himself about himself, while the other was in the rear with his head bowed and his eyes closed and his fists beating against his chest as he sought God’s mercy for the way he was living his life. The position we assume when we pray isn’t really what’s important – except, except, as it reminds us what our condition is that brings us to the time of sharing with God. It doesn’t matter whether we stand, sit, kneel, walk or lie down when we pray. What matters is the attitude or spirit with which we enter a time of prayer, and what it is we share with God during our time of praying.
Which brings us to a third learning we can glean from this parable. The contrast Jesus offers between the Pharisee and the tax-collector suggests that when we approach God in prayer it should be while recognizing the lowliness of who we are. This one sometimes creates controversy when Christians get together to consider such things. There are some who use this passage to emphasize the importance of our confessing our flawed condition - our sinful nature and sinfulness. Others argue that emphasizing we should constantly have on our minds our sinful tendencies and attitudes contributes to the development of low self-esteem, a lack of confidence, an overactive guilt complex, is questionable theology, etc. While they may agree with the concern for an over active sense of pride about who we are and what we do, they also want to be sure we don't forget that God heals us of self-doubt, low self-esteem, and acts with grace about who we are.
I will admit to you I think it's a matter of emphasis and there's value in the conversation and the theology undergirded both positions. It is our need for God’s mercy, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness that must motivate our going to God. It’s not to report to God on how good we’ve been as if our good deeds provide us the right of access to God. Rather, it’s to admit that despite our best effort we recognize our human frailties – we recognize our selfishness, our greediness, our shortcomings. We must take to God our greatest need – which is for God’s mercy, understanding, grace, forgiveness. AND, we must accept the grace and healing God provides.
Which is the final thing about prayer that I would want to offer you. And, I think, is the primary message of the parable. If we go to God seeking God’s mercy, good things will happen. Something powerful happens to us when we pray the way the tax-collector prayed. Something powerful happens to us when we admit that we’re not cutting it – that we know we’re not living as we should. And, what happens is, we’re made whole, justified. God grants grace, relationship renewal, mercy to those of us who face ourselves and admit our humanness – our inability to be good and to do good on our own. God lets us know that our relationship is made whole because of our recognition of our condition and God’s grace.
Amen. Peace be with you and remember our God is a God of grace.
(The sermon this was rewritten from is fairly old and was written before I posted on the internet and thus carefully footnoted. I am sure some of the above ideas were from other sources but decided to share and confess the situation rather than leave the text uncommented on.)