Over the past several weeks we have been studying those parables of Jesus which provide instructions for godly living. We have talked about the significance of good stewardship, of building one’s life on a strong foundation, of practicing humility in everyday life, of obedience to the Father in both word and deed, of shining the light of Jesus brightly everywhere we go, and of counting the cost of discipleship. Each of these lessons have challenged us to walk more closely to the Lord.
Today’s message covers “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican”. This is the first of 3 parables that deal with the topic of prayer. When someone prays, it is critical that they approach God with the proper attitude. The LORD will not hear or answer prayers that are offered inappropriately. An effective prayer life is of paramount importance for any believer.
This parable reminds me of the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel. God commanded these 2 brothers to bring Him a sacrifice. Cain brought an offering of fruit from his fields, while Abel brought a firstling from his flock. God accepted Abel’s offering, but rejected Cain’s. Some scholars have suggested that God was pleased with Abel’s offering because it was a blood sacrifice, but doesn’t the Mosaic Law make provisions for acceptable grain offerings as well? That said, I suspect that the real reason why God delighted in the one and refused the other had a lot to do with attitude and motivation of the giver.
Just as in the case of Old Testament sacrifices, so also our prayers are to be offered to the LORD with a proper attitude. This is the emphasis of today’s featured parable.
I. TWO MEN COME TO PRAY - Luke 18:9-10
The Bible does not provide the specific setting in which Jesus tells this parable. However, it does state that Jesus is talking to some people who “trust in themselves” and believe themselves to be righteous. Such people are called self-righteous. The self-righteous think that God will accept them on the basis of their own obedience and goodness. Their confidence rests in self, rather than in Christ.
The Bible further describes Jesus’s audience as people who view others with contempt. In other words, they look down upon other people. Self-righteous people often have an inflated opinion of themselves and tend to view others critically and judgmentally. They trust in their own religious activity as the means of salvation, and are quick to find fault in the non-religious crowd. They are arrogant, haughty, and puffed up.
Jesus begins telling “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican”. He describes 2 men who are going to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. The first man is a Pharisee. The Pharisees were a devout Jewish sect that was prominent and influential in Judea during the time of Christ. They were known for their pious posture and self-righteousness. The second man is a publican, or tax-collector. Jewish publicans collected taxes from their Jewish kin on behalf of the Roman government. As such, they were widely despised and considered to be traitors.
By comparing the prayers of these 2 men, Jesus teaches His self-righteous listeners an important and pertinent lesson. That said, His message is more broadly beneficial to everyone. It reveals the proper attitude of prayer.
II. THE PHARISEE’S PRAYER - Luke 18:11-12
The Pharisee offers his prayer while standing in the temple. One can safely assume, based upon the context of the story and what is known about the Pharisees, that he is standing in a prominent place that is visible to many others. Most likely, he stands in a confident and stately posture as he prays loudly for all to hear. Notice that he isn’t truly praying to God, but rather to himself. The purpose of this entire exercise is merely to put on a show in front of several witnesses.
The words of the Pharisee’s prayer further indicate his prideful attitude. He begins by thanking God that he is not like other types of sinful people - especially the tax-collector. His words strongly insinuate that he thinks of himself as better than or more worthy than they are. He bases this lofty opinion of himself on the frequency of his own fasting and the consistency of his tithes. The Pharisee doesn’t humble himself before God, but instead boasts about himself.
Many nominal and even false Christians offer prayers similar to that of this Pharisee. They brag about their own perceived goodness and/or cast stones at others as they pray. Some use prayer as a tool to spread gossip throughout the church. There are many ways that people misuse and even abuse prayer. This happens because of an improper attitude.
III. THE PUBLICAN’S PRAYER - Luke 18:13-14
Meanwhile, the publican is also praying elsewhere in the temple. He is some distance away, presumably in a more remote and less conspicuous location, where he prays privately. Though he stands, his head is bowed humbly and he doesn’t look up toward heaven. Instead he beats on his chest, a sign of sorrow and penitence. His position, posture, and expressions all indicate his contrition before God Almighty.
The short prayer spoken by the publican also reveals the condition of his heart. He opens by directing his request to God. He asks the LORD to have mercy on him because he is a sinner. Rather than praising himself and his own righteous deeds, this tax-collector recognizes his own wretchedness and rightly describes himself as a sinner. He does not compare himself to any other person, but rather only to God’s holiness - a standard which no one can measure up to. He humbly pleads for the LORD’s mercy.
Christians should come into God’s presence with the attitude of this publican. They should understand their own sinfulness and filthiness in light of His beauty and perfection. They should appreciate the privilege of prayer - that a holy God would even allow unworthy people to approach Him. When people pray, they should do so with a repentant and humble spirit.
Jesus concludes this parable by stating that the publican goes home justified while the Pharisee does not. To be justified means to be made righteous. In other words, the self-righteous Pharisee’s prayer is not acceptable to God but the lowly publican’s prayer is. Why the disparity? It’s simple. The publican prays with a humble and reverent heart, while the Pharisee prays with arrogance and boasting. The attitude with which we pray is just as important, if not more so, than the words we say.
After telling this story, Jesus repeats an expression that He states on multiple occasions throughout the gospels. He declares that those who exalt themselves will be humbled while those who humble themselves will be exalted. He had previously made this statement after sharing “The Parable of the Wedding Feast”, which focused upon the importance of living in humility. We studied this story earlier in this series. In “The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican” Jesus applies this same idea to our prayer life.
Are your prayers being answered? Why or why not? Are you offering them with a humble and contrite heart? Perhaps our attitude is hampering the effectiveness of our prayers...