Summary: Friend of Sinners, Pt. 6
THE SINNER’S PRAYER (LUKE 18:9-14)
Famed Holocaust novelist Elie Wiesel tells the story of the great Rabbi Haim-Gedalia of Upshpitzin, who interceded fervently with God for an innkeeper who was notorious for his many sins.
“Very well, I forgive him,” said the Almighty. The rabbi was pleased with his success, and he began to look for sinners to defend in heaven. Only this time he could not make himself heard. The heavens were silent, and he was stumped. For his lofty ambition and effort, he did not feel closer to God or blessed by God.
Overcome with remorse, the Rabbi fasted six times for six days and asked heaven the reason for his disgrace. At the end of the week, a celestial voice told him “You were wrong to look for sinners. If God chooses to look away, you should do the same.” (Elie Wisel, The Fifth Son, quoted in Christianity Today 8/11/97)
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells of the parable of a self-righteous Pharisee who entered the temple at the same time with a self-conscious tax collector, but the manner, the content and the outcome of their prayer were different. The Pharisees were the ultra orthodox Jewish party that began about 200 B.C. as a reaction to Greek influence. They were the religious right of the time, the self-appointed legal watchdogs and a powerful political group. Tax collectors were the IRS agents of old, winners of lucrative tax licenses auctioned by Rome but losers in popular opinion polls throughout the country. They were easy targets, social outcasts and running dogs.
So, does God forgive sinners who come to Him in prayer? How should sinful man approach a holy God in prayer? Why has God given the worst sinners an opportunity to repent?
God Listens to Those Who are Helpless Before Him
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 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.’ (Lk 18: 9-13)
George Washington Carver, the brilliant inventor who made his name developing hundreds of useful agricultural products and is Time Magazine’s 20 most innovative people of the 20th century, told of his struggle to understand God when he was young.
Carver said to God, “God, tell me the mystery of the universe.” But God answered him, “That knowledge is reserved for me alone.” Carver then said, “God, tell me the mystery of the peanut.” God replied, “Well, George, that’s more nearly your size.” (Adapted, “Humility” Sermonillustrations.com)
Helplessness before God is a strength and not a shame; it is not the end of the world but the beginning of knowledge, wisdom and growth. God gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak (Isa 40:29). Paul says, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
The tax collector approached God in fear and trembling. His feet froze like lead, stone or iron. He stood there like a statue, a pole, a piece of wood, like he was bound, punished or immobilized, as if budging one inch, taking one step or shifting his feet would doom him. The thought of his flaws, failings and faults stopped him dead in his tracks. His feet were in the temple, but his heart was so heavy and his palms were so cold. So he stood from afar, away from the altar, away from the Pharisee and away from people. How far? The Greek word for “at a distance” is the distance the disciples safely kept from Jesus when he was arrested (Luke 23:49), is the divide between the rich man’s hellish residence and Lazarus’ heavenly presence (Luke 16:23) and the space the merchants wisely made between them and Babylon at her final destruction (Rev 18:10).
The tax collector’s eyes (v 13) performed as badly as his feet. He did not dare look up, look to heaven or look to the sky. Whether he looked straight, down or closed his eyes, we do not know. It is not explained what would possibly go wrong if he would raise his eyes. Would God look straight at him? Look down on him? Or worse, look inside his heart? Eye contact with the Almighty was unthinkable to him, communion with God was too much to ask of him and understanding from God for his occupation did not pass his mind. Maybe he was afraid that taxpayers, saints and angels in heaven would accuse him before God!