Summary: Comparison of the prayers and attitudes of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14.
Luke 18:9-14 Your Attitude Is Everything 1/8/04
Two men went to church. One went to tell God how good he was; the other went to agree with God that he was hopeless without God. Do you know people like these men? Can you picture them in your mind? Into which group do you fall? For we are all like one or the other.
Jesus’ parables were generally object lessons like I tell the kids; He would see something common nearby—perhaps even point to it—and spin His parable around it. To see Pharisees praying in the temple was nothing new, but this time, there was a twist.
These men went to pray. Now certainly, they could pray anywhere, but the one--the Pharisee—was a religious man who spent much time there. You would expect to find him in church. For the other—a tax collector–these were unfamiliar surroundings. Tax collectors were notoriously dishonest, and on top of that, they were working for the enemy against their own people. They were about as welcome in church as a drug pusher is today.
They stood to pray—an accepted posture. (You could stand on your head, and God would hear you, or even lying in the belly of a great fish.) Posture is not an issue. But attitude is. Look at the Pharisee. It doesn’t say, but often they would stand with arms upstretched, looking to Heaven. He prayed ‘with himself’; ‘with’ might also be translated ‘to’-it’s the same word-, so he prayed ‘with himself’ or ‘to himself’. Although he began by addressing God, God was not involved in his prayer at all. Let’s see why.
What did he pray about? What word does he repeat five times in his verse-and-a-half prayer? Do you see it there? What was wrong with the guy? Can you see he was handicapped? He had a little ‘I’ trouble? “I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew, and I don’t run with girls who do.” I just sit and pray all day. I live just the perfect way.”
Now, most of us wouldn’t say it just like that, but sometimes we act just like that. Why do you come to church? (I’m not suggesting that you stay away!) But why do you come? Do you come to see your friends? That’s good. Do you come because you enjoy the singing? Wonderful! Do you come to give your offering? The Bible says we should. Do you come to hear from God? Do you come to worship Him? That’s where our focus should be—on Him, not on us.
But what does the Pharisee pray about? God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I thank you that I am different. I’m not a robber, an evildoer, an adulterer, or even like this tax-man. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess. The Law requires one fast a week, but I fast twice a week. I also tithe all my income. Look at me; I’m wonderful. He doesn’t quite congratulate God on how excellent His servant is, but almost.
In contrast, look at the prayer of the publican, or tax collector. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. This tax man was under great conviction of his sin. It was normal to raise your eyes to heaven in prayer, but he felt so unworthy, he could only look down, all the time beating his breast as a sign of sorrow. Now we don’t do that, but we might cry to show we’re sorry. Even while asking for forgiveness, he recognizes what he deserves. He has nothing to offer in his defence; he is a rat, and he knows it. He asks for mercy because that is the only thing he dares to ask for.
When we’re on the Christian Road for a long time, we tend to become like the Pharisee. He had grown up in the church, and it had become old hat to him. There is truth in the proverb, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” His focus had gradually fallen from Heaven, where it began, to himself. The tax-man, on the other hand, was a long way from God, and he knew it. The strange thing is that the Pharisee was even farther from God than the tax-man, but he didn’t realize it.
Consider God’s response to the two prayers: I tell you, this man-the publican-went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. God is not impressed with our evaluation of ourselves; He makes His own evaluation. And pride is the first of the seven things that God particularly hates.(Pr 6:16) For what do any of us have that was not given to us? Our very life and breath are not things we can generate on our own. The fact that we are wonderful creatures is not our own, but God’s doing. Sometimes we forget that, as the Pharisee did. Whether we like it or not, we are constantly and continuously in need of God’s grace and His power in our lives. The very Universe holds together by this same power--the power of his Word (He 1:3).