Summary: Knowing ourselves to be a sinner opens the door to salvation, whereas self-righteousness separates us from our God and our neighbor.
"A TALE OF TWO PRAYERS"
It was just another day, like all the days that came before, and two men entered the temple to pray, as men had done for centuries. One of the men was a Pharisee. He was a man, to use Mark Twain's phrase, "who was good in the worst sense of the word." The other man was a Publican- a tax collector (from the Latin word, publicanus). Tax collectors were despised in Jesus' time- in part because taxes were high and in part because the taxes were being collected for Rome. The am haaretz (people of the land) also disdained tax collectors because many of them fattened their own pockets by gouging the poor. This mixture of dishonesty, betrayal, and pain was simply too much to ignore and therefore, publicans (publicani) had few, if any, friends. The other man- the one in a long, flowing robe and with broad bands of Scripture sewed on his sleeves (phylacteries)- was a Pharisee. After Antiochus IV was defeated in the Maccabeus Revolt, a sect of Jews arose who were committed to purifying Israel from within. The men in this sect were called Pharisees and their name is derived from the Hebrew word, "prs," meaning "divide or separate." They were nationalists who believed that their salvation lied in ritual purity and commitment to the law. Thus, the Pharisees were committed to righteousness (to right behavior) and over time, their commitment to righteousness became self-righteousness. This, then, is the comparison. One of the men was hopelessly unclean. He handled foreign money as a way of making a living and his way of making a living threw him into bed with the occupiers. The other man was known FOR his cleanliness. He tithed on the smallest of things. He washed his hands and folded his hands in prayer exactly as often and in precisely the way that he had been taught. One of the men knew himself to be a "sinner." The other thought that his "works" had already made him righteous. One of the men sought forgiveness and redemption, while the other thanked God for recognizing his (the man's) good works.
In a word, one of the men knew that he needed to be saved. The other man thought that he had already saved himself, and he prayed first:
"Thank you, Lord, for not making me a sinner like this publican, or any of the others who don't believe as I do. Thank you++ for giving me such a great wit. It provides delightful moments for me each day and it gives those who are slow-witted a little joy. I am also grateful, Faithful God, that you have given me such a splendid way with words. Sometimes, I can move others to tears and action with just the turn of a phrase, and what is more, Lord, I am able to bless you with my poetry as I pray each day. I am glad that I am not tongue-tied like Leonard, or devious like Arnold. When I look at Sylvia, Lord, I thank you for the strength to overcome the temptations that engulf her, and Lord, when I consider the Biblical ignorance of all of those around me, I thank you for giving me the insight that separates me from them. Unlike most of the people in my church, even the elders, I fast twice a week- on Mondays and Thursdays- every week. Lord, as you know, I give generously, often in public to set an example for others, even though Satan seems to be holding their wallets. Enduring God, you have given me the stamina to keep on going when others just quit, and even though it is quite an effort on my part, you have blessed many people through my visits. You carried your cross, Lord, and I carry one too. Yours stood outside Jerusalem's walls and mine is here in the Quad Cities, where I struggle with non-believers just like you did. These people are crucifying me Lord, but I forgive their greed, their fears, and their ignorance. Amen."
The Pharisee (the separated one) was bold and you could have heard his prayer in the next room, but the publican was not at all confident. Indeed, he looked out of place and stood at a distance as he softly prayed:
"Lord, have mercy on me for I am a sinful man. I continue to do the things I promise myself that I will quit doing, and oftentimes, my love of self blinds me to everything else. On my good days, I share some of what I don't really need with those who are really in need, but more often, I cling to my things as if they were an extension of me. Forgiving God, my heart breaks because I do not love you with all my heart, and I haven't even considered loving my neighbor as myself. Lord, I know that you are God-I really do-but I continue to worship money, prestige, security, pleasure and especially the little god called "me." Gracious Lord, I need a realignment of values and a rearrangement of priorities. I need a Savior, Lord. I need someone to save me from my sins and from myself. I am lost, Lord, lost real badly and I need a Savior. Have mercy on me. Amen."