Summary: Comparison of the prayers and attitudes of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14.
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.