Summary: God helps those who are helpless.

A Prayer God Will Answer

Luke 18:9-14

Rev. Brian Bill


This has been quite a week in our world. It started with the uneasy situation in Iran to the news about “Jon minus Kate,” and then on to the deaths of Ed McMahon, Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Commentators and pundits are weighing in with words of tribute and much of what is being said about these stars does not exactly line up with Scripture. Michael Jackson’s music is being played nonstop as a way to relive the memories and many are suggesting that these superstars are now performing, acting and singing up in heaven. Just because they were famous, does that somehow mean that they deserve to be there?

Over the years I’ve collected common cultural sayings that people believe have their basis in the Bible. I’ve mentioned some of these before but I’ve also added a few new ones.

* “He (or she) is now in a much better place.” To which I ask, “How do you know that?” I know that to be true for Larry Johnson who went to be with the Lord early Saturday morning. I know because he was born again, converted in his late 30’s.

* “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Sorry, moms, but this verse is not in the Bible.

* “God wants you to be healthy and wealthy.” This certainly sounds good to us Americans and is propagated from many pulpits and popularized by TV preachers but it is not found in the Bible.

* “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I hear this saying a lot but I can’t find chapter and verse for this one either. God does promise that He will provide a way out when we’re tempted in 1 Corinthians 10:13, but He never says that He’ll shield us from struggles. In fact, sometimes we can’t bear things on our own, precisely because God wants us to run to Him. Our family has been experiencing this as my mom just finished her last chemo on Thursday and our young niece is going through an awful time with cancer. The Apostle Paul often was overwhelmed according to 2 Corinthians 1:8-9: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”

* “Money is the root of all evil.” Actually, the Bible says in 1 Timothy 6:10 that the “…Love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…”

* “God wants you to be happy.” I hear this one all the time. It’s often used for justification to get out of something that is right or to start doing something that is wrong. God never says he wants us to be “happy.” His heart is for us to be “holy” as stated in 1 Peter 1:15: “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.” Recently someone correctly pointed out that “happy” and “blessed” can mean the same thing. In that sense, God does want us to be happy, though happiness really comes out of holiness.

* “God helps those who help themselves.” This one is commonly quoted but it’s not only extra-biblical, it’s also unbiblical. In fact, Jeremiah 17:5 says, “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD” and Proverbs 28:26 states: “He who trusts in himself is a fool…”

Actually, God helps those who are helpless. That leads right into our passage for today as we continue in our summer series called, “Practical Parables.” Please turn to Luke 18:9-14 where we’ll discover this parable’s purpose, we’ll look at two different people, study their prayers, contemplate a paradox and conclude with some principles that we can apply today.

The Purpose of the Parable

We’re left with no doubt as to the purpose of this parable. Look at Luke 18:9: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.” The phrase “to some” is a broad term that literally means, “whoever the ones” who trust in themselves. Jesus is directing this story to those who think their sins smell better than other people’s and who look down on those who sin differently than they do.

When we write out our sin list, we usually include the sins of others and omit our own. Yesterday when I was reading the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:4 jumped out at me again: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” The phrase, “look down” means “to despise with contempt” and “to treat as nothing.” They were obnoxiously self-righteous and looked at everyone else as nobodies.

The Message paraphrase reads this way: “He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people.” It’s right at this point that we all see ourselves in the story. Most of us compare ourselves to others and say something like, “I know I’m not perfect, but I’m sure better than that other guy at work.” Pride causes us to think too highly of ourselves as we become harsh with those we think fall below our standards. When we compare ourselves with others it’s easy to start condemning them.

This became apparent this week once again in the world of politics, when the governor of South Carolina admitted to adultery with a woman in Argentina. This same man, when serving in the House of Representatives over 10 years ago, castigated President Bill Clinton citing “moral legitimacy” as the reason behind his vote for impeachment. As the Associated Press reported this week, this governor “has taken a swan dive from the moral high ground.”

Even as I tell that story, it’s easy for many of us to now become critical and judgmental about what he has done. It’s tasty to talk about others, isn’t it? In a commentary posted on, Peter Bregman writes these words: “We also love to be outraged. We love sentences that start with, ‘Could you believe…’ or ‘How could he…” It’s just too easy to become a hypocrite, to have one standard for people we like and another for people we don’t, to judge one person and to excuse another when basically they both did the same thing.” (, 6/25/09).

Just to make sure that this parable applies to each of us, let me ask a few questions.

* Do you ever look at people who don’t go to church and think you’re better than they are?

* Do you ever look at people from a different political party than you are and think you’re superior?

* Do you ever look down on someone because they’re young? Because they’re old?

* Do you ever scoff at someone who uses drugs or breaks the law?

* Do you make jokes about homosexuals or people of another race or religion?

C.S. Lewis once said, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and of course, as long as you are looking down, you can’t see…above you.”

The People in the Parable

Verse 10 tells us that two different people “went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” The temple was Israel’s most holy site and people would often go there to praise and to pray. Jesus introduces us to two people who could not have been more different from each other. In Jewish society the Pharisee was the cream that rises to the top while the tax collector was like scum found on the surface of a putrid pond.

1. The Pharisee. In order to correctly understand this parable, we must consider how Pharisees were regarded in that culture. While we look down on them because of their hypocrisy and legalism, they were the guys with the white hats, the ultimate “good guys.” There were only a few thousand of them at a time and they were known for their careful observance of the Torah, which are the first five books of the Old Testament. They also followed the Mishnah, which explained how to obey the Torah. There might be several chapters in the Mishnah devoted to just one verse in the Torah. On top of that, they followed the Talmud, which was a commentary on the Mishnah!

2. The tax collector. In contrast to the Pharisees, tax collectors were considered the low lives of society. Hired by the pagan Romans, they would charge exorbitant taxes and keep most of the money for themselves. They were not allowed to give testimony in court because their word was considered worthless. In this story, he would have been considered the villain, or the wearer of the black hat.

The Pharisee is the most religious, respected and revered man while the tax collector is the most despised, disrespected and despicable individual around. A religious man was to do three things if he accidentally touched a tax collector.

* Spit instantly, to express his disgust for touching him.

* Then he would go home and burn his clothes.

* Finally he would take a scalding bath to purify himself.

The Prayers in the Parable

These two men were at the opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. Their prayers were the exact opposite as well.

1. A Prayer about Me. God’s name is used just once while there are five references to “himself” or “I” in the Pharisee’s prayer. Check out verses 11-12: “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.’” The phrase “stood up” means that he “took his stand.” One commentator suggests that he stood in the center of the court so the sunshine would make him even more visible. His posture was self-promoting and his prayer was selfish.

Notice that he’s praying “about himself.” Some versions say that he is praying “to” himself. He’s really praying something like this: “God, I thank you that I’m so marvelous!” He’s essentially giving a soliloquy to his own soul; like an exaggerated eulogy about himself. He gives God no honor and makes no request of Him because he believes he’s already better than everybody else. In Isaiah 65:5, God weighs in on those who say, “Keep away; don’t come near for I am too sacred for you.” Here’s what God thinks of people like that: “Such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day.”

Girolamo Savonarola was one of the great preachers of the fifteenth century. He preached in the great cathedral of Florence, Italy, which contained a magnificent marble statue of Mary. One day he noticed an elderly woman praying before this statue and then realized it was her habit to come every day and bow before it. One day the preacher remarked to an elderly priest who had been serving in the cathedral for many years, “Look how devoted and earnest this woman is. Every day she comes and offers prayers to this statue. What a marvelous act of faith!” To which the priest replied, “Do not be deceived by what you see. Many years ago when the sculptor needed a model to pose for this statue he hired a beautiful young woman to sit for him. This devout worshiper you see here everyday is that young woman. She is worshiping who she used to be.”

This Pharisee is all about himself and so he lists the vices that he avoids – he is not a robber or an evildoer, has not been unfaithful to his wife, and is certainly not a traitor or a cheat like the tax collector. Referring to him as “this” tax collector shows how much disdain he has for him. According to the Mishnah, there was a delegation of Jews who were responsible to rid the Temple of anyone who was unclean and clear them out through the eastern gate. Perhaps this Pharisee was wondering why this terrible tax collector had not been ushered out by the bouncers.

After recounting how self-righteous he is by avoiding these vices, the Pharisee then spells out a couple religious virtues that he’s really proud of. He wants everyone to be aware of his religious resume.

* He fasts twice a week. He’s going way beyond the one day of fasting that the Law prescribes on the Day of Atonement. It was common for Pharisees to fast on Mondays and Thursdays because they believed Moses went up to Mount Sinai on a Monday and came down 40 days later on a Thursday. But there’s another more nefarious reason because Mondays and Thursdays were big market days and they could make a big show to the big crowds.

* He gives a tenth of all he gets. He not only gives a tithe on what he earns, he also gives 10% of the gifts he receives. Matthew 23:23 says that many even tithed their “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.”

He’s self-righteous because he’s proud of what he doesn’t do and he’s religious because he’s proud of what he does do. One pastor offers this paraphrase: “O Lord it’s hard to be humble when I see how rotten others are compared to me. Thank you Lord that I’m not like those people, you know, people who steal, who do bad things, who cheat on their spouses or even like that guy over there who is a huge sinner. Yes, Lord, I’m one of the very, very few who go without food or water two days a week and I give you a ton of money. Yes God, thank you that I am not like these other people.”

This reminds me of the old Mac Davis song: “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror ‘cuz I get better looking each day.”

2. A Prayer for Mercy. The tax collector didn’t list his merits but instead longed for mercy in verse 13: “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.’” Let’s ponder his prayer.

* His position. While the Pharisee was probably standing as close to the holy place as possible so everyone could see him, the tax collector is on the outer edge. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase says that he “slumped in the shadows.” He was afraid to approach the Almighty because he knew he was unworthy.

* His posture. He not only stood far away, he was unwilling to lift up his eyes because he was filled with guilt and shame. This attitude is captured in Ezra 9:6: “O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” Job said something similar in Job 42:6: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

* His passion. To beat one’s breast was the outward sign of an inward pain in one’s soul. It also shows that he’s locating his depravity as coming from his own heart. Using his fists he hammers his unholy heart rapidly and repeatedly. This reminds me of what Jesus said in Matthew 15:18-19: “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

* His plea. His prayer contains only seven words. After addressing the Majesty, he begs for mercy. In the Greek, he calls himself “the” sinner because he’s not comparing himself with anyone else. In his eyes, he’s the worst sinner there is. David prayed something similar in Psalm 51:1, 4: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love…Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” MacArthur writes: “This is an unequivocal confession of his extreme and supreme sinfulness.” He gives no excuses, no explanations and no reasons. The phrase “have mercy” literally means to “be propitiated towards me.” This big word simply means to be satisfied. The only way God would be satisfied with this sinner would be if God chose to be merciful.

I’ve enjoyed watching the Walldogs do their work on the walls in downtown Pontiac this weekend. On Thursday you could see sketches and some color splashed up on the walls. More was added on Friday and by Saturday they were complete. It was hard to see everything at the beginning but with time the murals became magnificent. I’m not much of an artist but let me see if I can paint a picture of what propitiation means. If I communicate it correctly you will see the beauty of God’s masterpiece of mercy.

The word for, “have mercy on me” is the verb form of the noun which means, “Mercy Seat,” which was the lid on the Ark of the Covenant. It’s as if the sinner is saying, “God, be mercy-seated to me.” The Ark contained the 10 Commandments which signified how we have broken God’s law. Two golden cherubim were on top of the Mercy Seat and their wings spread over it and in the space where the wings almost touched was where the Presence of God dwelt with His people. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, a goat was slaughtered and his blood was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat. When God looked down he saw the blood of the sacrificial substitute that covered the sins of His people. 1 John 2:2 says: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

This tax collector is saying, “God be propitious to me; please apply the atonement to me. Be merciful to me not on the basis of what I have done but on the basis of the blood shed by the substitute.” One man gushed with pride, the other oozed poverty. One felt religiously rich, the other knew he was spiritually bankrupt. One man was impressed with his own accomplishments; the other was depressed by his failures. One boasted, the other begged.

The Paradox in the Parable

As Jesus loves to do, He uses this story to surprise His audience with this shocking summary in verse 14: “I tell you 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.” God helps those who are helpless.

This was an outrageous reversal to the ears of the religious. It would have made them gasp. The word “justified” means to be acquitted from any charges and to be accepted by God as righteous. And this is a completed condition, a permanent declaration of being made right.

Job 9:1 asks the question: “But how can a mortal be righteous before God?” Let me boil it down. There are only two options. Either you can make yourself right before God or you can’t. Either you help yourself or you admit that you are helpless. Either you satisfy God’s righteous standards or you cling to a substitute who has done it for you. John MacArthur rightly argues that there are only two religions in the world – the religion of human achievement or the religion of divine accomplishment. The Pharisee is self-righteous and seeks no mercy, no forgiveness, and no grace. The tax collector knows he is the object of contempt, guilty, unclean and unwanted. He knows God is just and so he seeks mercy and goes home justified.

The great “prince of preachers” Charles Haddon Spurgeon used to tell the story of a duke who boarded a galley ship and went below to talk with the criminals manning the oars. He asked several of them what their offenses were. Almost every man claimed he was innocent, blaming someone else or accusing the judge of taking a bribe. One young fellow, however, replied, “Sir, I deserve to be here. I stole some money. No one is at fault but me. I’m guilty.” Upon hearing this, the duke shouted, “You scoundrel, you! What are you doing here with all these honest men? Get out of their company at once!” The duke ordered that this prisoner be released. He was set free, while the rest were left to tug at the oars. The key to this prisoner’s freedom was his admission of guilt. That’s also true in salvation. Until a person is willing to admit, “I am a sinner in need of salvation,” he cannot experience freedom from guilt and condemnation. (Source: “Our Daily Bread,”

Entrance into God’s kingdom depends not on our merits, but on God’s mercy. God’s justice is satisfied by the Savior’s death on our behalf, His blood blots out our sins, providing our justification.

Let’s finish by looking at some things we can learn from this lesson.

Principles from the Parable

1. Humble yourself now or God will do it for you. Proverbs 3:34 says, “He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble.” I want you to know that I am more like the self-righteous Pharisee than I am the broken and tender tax collector. Sometimes I need to be brought up short to help me remember that I get things wrong sometimes. This week after a very poor parenting decision, I asked two of our daughters to forgive me for dropping the ball. I also asked forgiveness from Beth.

Someone has said that the only person God sends away empty is the person full of himself. Charles Spurgeon once said, “Our imaginary goodness is more hard to conquer than our actual sin.” I fall into the thinking that I can do things on my own when I can’t do anything apart from Christ. I trust my heart more than I should and discover pride and ugliness when I look inside. Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” What about you? Can you admit your individual arrogance before the Almighty? James 4:10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”

The English preacher and martyr John Bradford, when watching criminals being led out for execution, said: “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.”

2. Consider beginning your prayers with confession. I appreciate the reminder found in Psalm 66:18: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” While the ACTS acronym is a useful outline for prayer – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication; perhaps this one is better because it starts with confession: CHAT – Confess, Honor, Ask and Thank. Here’s a segment from the prayer email that Vera sent out this week: “Plead for God’s forgiveness for ever misspoken word you have ever uttered. Ask the Lord for help to use your tongue for healing and grace. O Lord, help me to choose my words carefully and express my thoughts admirably. May I learn to speak words that affirm, encourage, and edify others.”

Speaking of prayer, can I ask you again to attend our monthly time of prayer that is held the first Sunday of the month from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.? I was out of town last month and I will be gone again this next Sunday but I heard that only three people showed up to pray. Friends, we can do better than that, can’t we?

3. Don’t go home without being justified. There are two attitudes that keep people from coming to Christ: “I don’t need Him because I’m basically a good person” or “He won’t have me because of how bad I’ve been.” I urge you to go home justified today. You can have immediate salvation…right now. Admit your sin and accept the Savior as your substitute. You don’t have to do anything. Thomas Barnardo, who established orphanages once came upon a young boy on the streets. The boy pleaded with him, “I need help and I need it bad.” Barnardo replied, “I don’t know you at all. What can you offer?” The little boy looked down at what he was wearing and said, “I thought these rags would be enough.” Barnardo picked him up and said, “They are son, they are! and took him home.

You don’t have to clean up your act and start doing a bunch of religious rituals. You don’t have to perform penance or seek out a sacrament. The mercy of God comes to those who least deserve it. Have you been sleeping around? You can be saved today. Have you used drugs this week? You can be forgiven right now. Have you lied? You can have eternal life this instant. Are you far away from God? Reach out and receive Jesus and you can be instantly declared righteous.

Many years ago a man conned his way into the orchestra of the Emperor of China, though he could not play an instrument or read music. Whenever the group practiced or performed, he would just hold his flute against his lips, pretending to play, but not making a sound. For years he received a good salary and enjoyed a comfortable living. Then one day the Emperor requested a solo from each musician. The flautist got very nervous and so he pretended to be sick, but the royal physician wasn’t fooled. On the day of his solo performance, the imposter ingested poison and killed himself.

That’s where we get the old expression, “He refused to face the music.”

Friend, it’s time to face the music by asking God for mercy…

A Stained Glass Masquerade

Is there anyone who fails? Is there anyone who falls? It’s time to stop the masquerade and ask for mercy. Jesus said in Luke 5:32, “I’ve not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” I have some great news for you today. You can go home justified. Or you can go home self-satisfied. What will it be?

Isaiah 57:15: “For this is what the high and lofty One says - he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” You can have the Lord live with you today. You can go home justified. Right now. Immediately.

If you’re ready to do that right now, then pray this prayer with me: “God, have mercy on me, the sinner. I have failed and fallen so many times. My sins have broken your laws and your heart. I plead with you now to forgive me and by faith I receive the Substitute, the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior. Please apply what He did on the cross to my account so that I can be free and forgiven. Help me to live for you for the rest of my life. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.”