Focal Passage: Luke 18:9-14
On Sunday evenings before Training Union some of us junior boys would hang out in an upstairs classroom at church.
One summer afternoon a family was having a cookout in their yard across the street. Several of us stuck our heads out the window, somebody counted to three, and we all shouted together, “Why aren’t you in church?”
We could have been poster boys for today’s parable.
This is the first of four lessons on prayer, starting with the Sinner’s Prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
Actually, the parable is not strictly about prayer. It’s about self-righteousness and humility (v. 9,14). But one sure way to demonstrate either quality is by the way we pray.
It’s a mistake to picture all Pharisees as wicked. They didn’t set out to become prideful and arrogant.
They really wanted to please God. But some of them were just too good at it, at least in their own eyes.
In his biography of Southwestern Seminary professor W.T. Conner, Stewart A. Newman recalls Dr. Conner being asked if overly pious and self-righteous people would get into heaven. His answer? “If they don’t overshoot it.”
Take the man in our parable. The result of his scrupulous adherence to the Jewish law, as well as to the additional rules and interpretations designed to enforce and amplify that law, was his attitude of spiritual superiority. He trusted in his own goodness and looked down on others (v. 9), and his attitude was reflected in his prayer (v. 11-12). For him, prayer was showing off. Some translations (KJV, RSV) say he “prayed thus with himself.”
God, if He was listening at all, was not impressed.
It’s clear who Jesus likes in this story: the one nobody else does. Why? “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17). Remember the old hymn, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy? “All the fitness He requireth is to feel your need of Him.”
Unable to trust in his own goodness, the tax collector could only cast himself on God’s mercy.
But the Pharisee didn’t need any help, from God or anybody else. Both men got what they prayed for. Prayer can open the door to God’s grace, or slam the door in God’s face.
We boys knew we had done wrong. As soon as we yelled out the church window, we ducked out of sight. Fifty years later I still remember it. Even we good religious folk need to be forgiven, and often. So let us pray.