Summary: Jesus shows two very different prayer styles, and in so doing, reveals two very different heart styles. One will enter the kingdom of heaven; one won't. Our prayer life should reflect humility throughout.
A Prayer God Hears
Last week we looked at a parable where Jesus taught us to be persistent in our prayers: pray always, never give up, and above all, keep the faith! Today, in the very next passage in the Bible, Jesus makes a different point: he really points to the very crux of our salvation. The more you believe you deserve heaven, the less chance you’re ever going to see it. Because the truth of the matter is, no one deserves heaven. No one deserves salvation. No one deserves a relationship with a holy God who knows no sin. We have all rebelled and fallen short of the glory of God, all of us. The Apostle John reminds us that if we say we have no sin, we’re just lying (1 John 1:8)! And how could a holy and righteous God ever tolerate sin in his presence? That’s why we need a Savior, a power outside of ourselves.
To show us an answer, Jesus introduces two characters: a Pharisee and a tax collector. A Pharisee in Jesus’ time would be like a famous pastor or seminary professor today: we would look at that person as very holy, very righteous, really smart about the Bible. And the tax collector? A Jewish listener would consider such a person a traitor and a crook. Because Jewish tax collectors collected for the conquering Roman Empire, and cushioned their collections against their own countrymen to make more money.
Jesus’ story contrasts two different prayer styles, but also two different heart styles. It shows us two things NOT to do and two things TO do. First, in your prayer life...
When it comes to your prayer life, guard against comparing yourself to someone else. Listen to this guy in verse 11:
11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector...”
You can feel this Pharisee looking down his nose at the tax collector standing near him. “God, I’m glad I’m not as bad as that scumbag. Aren’t you?” It’s like he thinks God should be grateful that the Pharisee is on his team! The problem with comparisons is you can always find someone who is doing worse than you—which can lead to pride—and you can always find someone who is doing better than you—which can lead to depression. Neither is helpful. If you want to compare yourself to someone, compare yourself to Jesus. He is the only human to ever live who never sinned. When you compare yourself to Jesus, you will know you need a Savior. So guard against comparisons, and guard against....
By citations, I’m talking about a long list of all your accomplishments. Luke tells us in verse 9 that Jesus was addressing some folks who were “confident of their own righteousness.” How did they know they were such sharp cookies? Because they frequently told themselves so! They like to run through their citations. Listen to this guy in verse 12:
12 “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
Did you know in verses 11 and 12, this guy uses the personal pronoun “I” four times? “I do this, I do that.” The Jewish Bible only required fasting one day a year, on Yom Kippur. Jewish people might fast on other occasions, but this guy proudly stated that he fasted twice a week. And not only that, he tithed on EVERYTHING. Most Jews would tithe on their income. If they gained ten new sheep in the herd, they would give one to the Temple. But Pharisees...they would tithe even on things they bought in the market and the herbs they grew in their garden, because they didn’t want to miss a thing!
And here’s the thing: at some point they began to forget why they did good things like tithing and fasting. They got to the point where they didn’t do these things to honor God; they did them to bring attention to themselves. Putting down others and bragging about their own accomplishments made them feel better about themselves. We can understand that. But that kind of behavior doesn’t impress God, who sees our hearts. It doesn’t just matter WHAT you do, it also matters WHY you do it. God sees the inner motivation. So...
In your prayers, do two things. First,
1. Approach God with reverence
Look at the tax collector in the story. Verse 13 says,
13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven...
His stature, his very posture communicated humility instead of arrogance. While the Pharisee probably gazed upward to a heaven he would never reach, the tax collector gazed downward to a hell he would never reach. He was saved through his humility. When you approach God, approach God humbly. He is not the heavenly slot machine you hope will win you the jackpot. He’s not even Santa in the sky, overlooking the naughty and rewarding the nice. Because we said there’s no one who is nice all the time. Approach God with reverence. God is God and you’re not. God is great, and you’re not. God is good all the time, and you’re not, at least not all the time. Approach God with awe. And then,