Scripture: He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14 ESV
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Observation: Recapping Yesterday’s Daily Focus, Jesus responds to his disciples’ question regarding where they will see the signs of the end of the age via a parable about a persistent widow who hounded the local judge for justice against her adversary. The cantankerous judge feared and respected no one, including God. Still, the widow persisted, provoking the judge to grant her justice to find relief from her relentless pleas. Jesus then explains the parable’s meaning: If an unrighteous judge responds to incessant requests, how much more so will our loving Father give justice to his elect who ongoingly cry out (pray) to him? And God will not delay in responding.
Today’s reading continues the theme of prayer. Addressing the self-righteous who hold contempt toward others, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who enter the temple to pray to God. The Pharisee smugly raises his hands to heaven and extols his high moral standing under the guise of thanksgiving. Concurrently, the tax collector stands at a distance, beats his breast, and speaks forthrightly to God, asking for mercy and confessing his sinful nature. Then, to ensure all listening understood the driving point of his parable, Jesus passionately contends that only the tax collector returned home justified before God, for those who self-promote will be humbled, but God will exalt the humble.
Takeaway: The characters of this parable portray the extremes of human dispositions. In Jesus’ day, Pharisees commonly prayed with raised hands in the temple. And given that the Pharisees were all about separating from the unsavory crowd to maintain their purity, the detail of “standing by himself” further portrays how this sect had declined to self-righteous moralism manifested in contempt for those deemed less spiritual. Contrastly, most Israelites viewed tax collectors as betrayers to Rome, and thus they occupied the bottom rung of society’s hierarchy.
Debunking this worldly construct, Jesus reveals the irony of the Pharisee’s farcical self-righteous prayer while highlighting the tax collector’s heartfelt petition that demonstrated sincerity and humility that garnered the attention of his heavenly Father. And the outcome would startle Jesus’ audience: the Pharisee, whom society would deem close to God, is far from the presence of the Lord and at risk of eternal separation. But the tax collector, whose sins are many, returns home with the shalom peace of God borne from a right relationship of faith and repentance.
Our takeaway? The same applies to us. Prayer is a gift from God, and he invites us into his Son’s throne room of grace to receive his mercy and find his grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16). So the best prayers are earnest and honest. We earnestly seek our Father confidently, knowing that the Holy Spirit bolsters our prayers to help us in our weaknesses to align with the will of God (Romans 8:26-27). And we honestly confess our sins and express our concerns knowing that our Father works all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (Romans 8:28). Indeed, when we offer to God our earnest and honest prayers, we, too, go home justified, for it aligns us with God’s will and empowers us to be more than conquerors through him who loved us and died for us. And nothing will separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus (Romans 8:37-39).
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who always prayed forthrightly to you to align with your will and thus fulfill his mission to provide the means for you to justify those who put their faith in him. And we thank you for your Holy Spirit, who guides us in prayer and intercedes when words escape us. So would you please help us to avail your gift of prayer earnestly and honestly so that we, too, might align with your will and glorify you and your Son? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling