Luke 18 - Two Men Went To Pray
Luke 18 – July 21
Many of the parables are presentations of contrasts. Usually, the contrast is based around the actions of one person versus the actions of another. But the point that Jesus makes is never simply about the outward actions. He uses these contrasts to unveil people’s hearts. In Luke 18:9-14 we find a parable about two men who went up to pray. These two men were very different from the inside out. Let’s consider a few types of contrasts that we see here and what they teach us.
The two men are identified as a Pharisee and a tax collector (your version may say publican which simply means that he was employed by the Roman government to collect or count taxes.) In the eyes of the original listeners, Pharisees were viewed as the most moral and upright people on earth. Tax collectors were at the opposite end of the spectrum. They were known for being dishonest and were considered to be turncoats against their own people.
Verse 11 tells us that the Pharisee entered the temple and stood and prayed. The only indication of where he stood is discovered when we see the contrast with the tax collector who “stood a long way off.” A long way from what? There were dedicated areas for prayer in the temple. To oversimplify it a bit, the best places to pray were those closest to the inner chambers of the temple. The Pharisee stood and did not face the wall or the direction of the holy of holies. Instead of looking toward the direction where the presence of the Lord dwelt, he was looking out at the other people. His back was to the Lord. That is why he could look out and see the tax collector far away and call him out during his prayer. Meanwhile, the tax collector’s posture reveals his awareness of his spiritual need. He was not even able to lift his eyes which was the common posture for prayer in those days. It says that he would beat his breast, which was a common sign of regret and frustration with oneself.
An even greater contrast is found in the prayers of these two men. The Pharisee “thanked” God. What was he thankful for? For how much better he was than other men. He points out specific areas of his life that he viewed to be of moral significance. He highlighted that he was generous, going far beyond the giving requirements of the law. He highlighted that he was so “zealous” for the Lord that he fasted twice a week. What was his biggest problem? He was comparing himself to other people, like the tax collector, in order to give himself assurance of his right standing with God. He based his entire understanding of his relationship with God on what he felt he had earned through his works. The tax collector on the other hand could only say, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” He rightly understood his need for mercy, and he knew that God was the only one who could provide it. Consider, there is no indication that the tax collector was in any kind of earthly trouble. He was not at the end of his rope financially, martially, or occupationally. He is not in trouble with the law of man or facing some kind of earthly penalty for his actions. Yet, he understood that he was a sinner in need of a savior. It makes me think of the lyrics of the old hymn called ‘Come Ye Sinners.’ One line says, “Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream; all the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of Him.”
There are four sobering words that land like a nuclear warhead at the end of this passage. This parable would have totally rocked the sensibilities of the original audience when Jesus declared that the tax collector was justified “RATHER THAN THE OTHER.” Both of them walked away believing that they were in a right relationship with the Lord. However, one of them was self-deceived. The Pharisee was trusting in his own righteousness and therefore would not stand in the judgment. The tax collector humbled himself before the Lord, and on the last day the Lord will lift him up.
One of the questions that we ask people when they are pursuing membership is, “Upon what are you basing your salvation?” How would you answer that question? Would it sound like the Pharisee’s pray or the tax collector’s prayer?