To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“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.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” luke 18:9–14
Louis XIV was king of France during the golden age of French culture, 1643–1715. During his reign, he conducted many foreign conquests that added to the size and power of the French Empire. In 1704, however, Louis launched an attack on the village of Blenheim, Bavaria, and was soundly defeated by English and Austrian forces. Tens of thousands of French soldiers were killed, maimed, or taken prisoner. It was a turning point in the history of France. After that defeat, French military power in Europe steadily declined. When Louis heard about the crushing losses at Blenheim, he raised his hands to heaven and demanded, “God, how could you do this to me after all I have done for you?”
That is the arrogant prayer of a prideful, self-righteous heart. It is a prayer very much like that of the Pharisee, whom Jesus describes in Luke 18:9–14. But like the Pharisee of the Lord’s parable, you may say, “I am praying. I pray thirty minutes every morning and ten minutes every night, and I am even one of those few who faithfully meet with a midweek prayer group—yet there is still much fainting in my experience. Life is not satisfying to me. I feel I’m not really living.”
Or perhaps you are among those who must admit in all honesty that there is very little prayer in your life. For many of us it is hard to pray and easy to find something else to do. But even if you resolve to try harder to put more prayer into your life, it will not be long before you become aware, as perhaps you already are, that a greater quantity of minutes spent in prayer is not necessarily the answer.
Not More Prayer, But True Prayer
Is it possible, then, that Jesus is wrong when He says we must either pray or faint? Is prayer such an important issue? Is it possible to pray and faint at the same time? If it seems so, perhaps we need to discover more about the true nature of prayer. It may be that we need a new kind of prayer, not just more of the same kind.
True prayer is not a difficult thing. It is natural, instinctive, and comes easily. This kind of prayer is the key to God’s power and glory. True prayer is an open channel to God’s fatherly compassion and eagerness to help us.
In this parable of Jesus, which could be called “The Parable of the Two Pray-ers,” Jesus contrasts two very different men praying two very different prayers from two very different hearts. It is not enough that we simply look at the first pray-er, the Pharisee, and say, “What a proud, self-righteous man!” We must also look at the second pray-er and catch a glimpse of his heart and his motivation in prayer, for he is the Lord’s illustration of what true prayer is like.
Notice that the structure of this parable (like the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge that precedes it, as we saw in chapter 1) is one of contrasts. Our Lord teaches truth by setting it alongside error. By understanding the error of the Pharisee, we can more clearly grasp the truth and reality of the tax collector’s prayer.
Now, the Pharisee was a man of prayer—no question about that! He prayed frequently, elaborately, and at great length. His words were loud, lofty, and eloquent. But though he was dedicated to the practice of prayer, the spirit and motivation of his prayer was entirely wrong.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was not accustomed to praying. He was infrequently found in the temple courts. No doubt, his words were halting and lacking in eloquence. This business of praying was all new to him—but his prayer was exactly the right kind of prayer.
In observing the Pharisee, we learn what prayer is not. This kind of praying is not true prayer at all. It’s show biz. It’s a performance. The Pharisee’s focus is not on establishing intimate contact with an infinite God. It is on looking good, on making a good impression. He stood, Jesus said, with his arms spread and his eyes lifted up to heaven. Among the Jews, this was the prescribed posture for prayer.
“The Pharisee stood up,” Jesus said, “and prayed about himself” (18:11). Other translations render this last phrase, “and prayed with himself.” What a keen thrust that is! The Pharisee was not praying to God—he was praying to himself! No one was at the other end of the line! This prayer was a total waste of time. Many voices in this New-Age-influenced culture of ours falsely claim that the true function of prayer and meditation is to “commune with the inner person.”If so, then this Pharisee would fit right into our culture today! When so many people have bought the lie that we are our own gods, then there is no reason to reach any higher in prayer than our own selves.
This Pharisee may have been gazing toward heaven, but he was not reaching toward God—and he certainly was not touching God. Jesus makes this point very clear in His parable.
Who Is a Pharisee?
What do we learn about prayer from the example of the Pharisee? We learn that it is not truly prayer to approach God while we are impressed with our own virtues.This man stood and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (18:11–12). He was self-impressed with what he saw as his claims upon God’s attention and good favor. He believed that God deserved thanks for having made such a remarkable specimen of humanity as himself!
We laugh as we listen to his foolish prayer, but don’t we often do the same? We pray, “Lord, come and help me do this task.” In other words, “Lord, I will contribute my ability to exercise leadership, my talents for singing or speaking, and then, Lord, to top it all off, would you give me a little added boost of Spirit-power? Then you and I together will enjoy great success.” Our philosophy is frequently, “I do my best and God does the rest.” We would never exclude Him and say, “I can do it all.” We’re much more subtle than that! We simply relegate Him to a supporting role in our accomplishments. I suspect that many, if not most, Christian prayers are prayed from this position.
Sometimes the virtue we contribute to God’s program is our “humility.” Some Christians demonstrate a kind of reverse brand of Pharisaism that goes something like this: “Thank God, I am not as proud as this Pharisee is.” We make ourselves out to be utterly vile, babbling continually about our shortcomings and our sins. We say, “Lord, I am a sinner, I am a louse, I’m no good.” At some level, we think we can impress God with our show of “humility.” In reality, we have invested self-righteous, pharisaic pride in our “humility,” which is not humility at all!
The simple truth is that we have no virtues of our own to contribute, none whatsoever. We have absolutely nothing to add to God’s cause. We must forget all our talents, abilities, skills, gifts, and accomplishments. Those things all come from God, not from us.They are not our possessions, but merely on loan from Him.
Isn’t it strange how easily we identify ourselves with our virtues—and how quickly we excuse our faults? Our failures we blame on everyone else; for our successes we take full credit. How many times have we heard public figures who are caught up in scandal say, “Mistakes were made,” or, “I was a victim of poor judgment,” instead of, “I have sinned,” or, “I have committed a crime,” or, “I alone am at fault.” Unlike the humble tax collector’s confession, “Mistakes were made” is not an admission of wrongdoing, but an attempt to excuse or cover up wrongdoing, in the proud, self-righteous tradition of the Pharisee. And if we are honest with ourselves and with God, we all have to admit that we are guilty of doing the same, time after time, in our own lives.
We easily forget our own failings and faults when we compare ourselves with others. We forget our clever manipulations, our lusts and evil thoughts, our deliberate deceits, our phony sympathies, our dubious business arrangements. We are careful to remember only our virtues. How do we become so impressed with ourselves? Like this Pharisee, we look downward. When he looked down on the tax collector, he immediately felt prideful regarding his own supposed “virtue.” So he thanked the Lord that he was not like that vile, low-down tax collector.
This is the point Jesus makes in describing the Pharisee. He says in effect that when we approach God on this level, we are praying with ourselves. This is not true prayer. Our pious words, our properly phrased sentences, our completely orthodox approach is of no value whatever.We are praying out of an obsession with our own virtues.
Furthermore, Jesus says it is not prayer when we ask God’s help because of our own accomplishments. This Pharisee said he fasted twice a week—much more than was required by the law, which commanded a fast only once a year. He gave tithes of all he got; again, that was more than the law required. But the Pharisee expected God to act on his behalf because he felt God could hardly do otherwise in view of his fine record of faithful service.
It’s Not Fair!
Many years ago, an elderly missionary couple returned from Africa to retire in New York City. As their ship steamed into New York harbor, they reflected on their bleak situation: They had no pension, for they belonged to no missionary board. Their health was broken. They were defeated, discouraged, and fearful about the future. And they couldn’t help comparing their circumstances with those of a fellow passenger who also had boarded the ship in Africa—President Teddy Roosevelt, who was returning from one of his big-game hunting expeditions.
As the ship pulled into the harbor, past the great city and the Statue of Liberty, the people on the ship could hear a band playing on the dock. A huge crowd had gathered to welcome the returning president from his hunting trip in Africa. The old missionary turned and said to his wife, “Dear, something is wrong. Why should we have given our lives in faithful service for God in Africa all these years? This man comes back from a big-game hunting expedition and everybody makes a big fuss over him, but nobody gives two hoots about us.”
“Dear,” his wife replied, “you shouldn’t feel that way. Try not to be bitter about it.”
“I just can’t help it,” he replied. “It’s not right. After all, if God is running this world, why does He permit such injustice?” As the boat neared the dock, as the sound of the band and the cheering of the crowd grew louder, he became more and more depressed.
The mayor of New York City was on hand to greet the returning president, along with many other dignitaries—but no one even noticed the missionary couple. They slipped off the ship and found a cheap flat on the east side, hoping the next day to see what they could do to make a living in the city.
That night the man’s spirit just broke. He said to his wife, “I can’t take this! God is not fair! We don’t even know anyone to help us, or where to go. If God is faithful, why doesn’t He meet our need?”
“Why don’t you ask Him?” said his wife.
“All right,” said the man. “I will.” He went into the bedroom and prayed for a while. Later, when he emerged from the bedroom after talking it over with God, he seemed completely changed.
“Dear, what happened?” asked his wife. “What has come over you?”
“Well,” he said, “the Lord settled it with me. I went in and knelt beside the bed and poured out my feelings to Him. I said, ‘Lord, it’s not fair!’ I told Him how bitter I was that the president should receive this tremendous homecoming, when no one met us as we returned home. And when I finished, it seemed as though the Lord put His hand on my shoulder and simply said, ‘But you’re not home yet!’”
That’s a great truth, isn’t it? God does reward believers, but not necessarily down here. The rewards here have to do with the strengthening of the inner life, not the outer. We have no claim on God by reason of our faithful service. Serving Him is only what we should do. We have no right to come to Him in prayer and demand that He answer because we have done this, that, or another thing.
Jesus says that when we stand and list our accomplishments before God, we are not praying. Is it any wonder then that we have been fainting? Is it possible that after years of praying we must now realize we have never truly prayed?
Upside-Down Is All Right
Now let’s examine the tax collector’s prayer.
It seems at first that he does it all wrong: He stands at a distance. He doesn’t even lift up his eyes—he fails to assume the proper position of prayer. But how totally unimportant are these external issues.
The tax collector understood that what God wanted was not elegant speech or a certain posture. God was interested in the sincerity and earnestness of the tax collector’s heart. So the man came into the temple and stood with his eyes cast down. All he could do was beat his breast and say, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Someone has called the tax collector’s prayer “a holy telegram.” I like that description: A short, pithy, right-to-the-point prayer. Most of all, a true prayer, genuine and from the heart.
What do we learn about prayer from this man? Isn’t it obvious that authentic prayer, the most profound prayer, is the expression to God of our helpless need?The tax collector saw himself as the lowest form of life on earth—a miserable, helpless sinner. The original language makes it clear that he is talking about the very lowest, worst kind of sinner. This man believed he deserved nothing from God, and without God he could do absolutely nothing to help his position: “I’m a sinner, Lord, that’s all I can say; I have nothing else to add.”
The tax collector rests his entire case on the merciful character of God, nothing on his own merit. He says, in effect, “Lord, I haven’t a thing to lean on but you.” Yes, he wanted to change his ways and live a repentant, honest, holy life before God—but not to gain God’s favor. No, he wanted to change his ways as a response of gratitude and thanks to God’s mercy.
He needed God. He had to have God. And so he came in complete humility and cast himself down on God’s altar of mercy.
How did the tax collector come to this place of repentant prayer? In exactly the opposite direction as the Pharisee. The Pharisee looked down on those around him. The tax collector looked up to God. The Pharisee judged downward, comparing himself with unholy men. The tax collector judged upward, comparing himself with a holy, righteous God. The Pharisee prayed with himself. The tax collector saw no one and prayed to no one but God. He had heard the words of Scripture, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (matthew 22:37; compare mark 12:30; luke 10:27), and judged himself on that basis: “Lord, I’m a sinner! I need mercy!” And by praying that abject, humble prayer for mercy, without excuses or evasions, everything that God is suddenly became available to the tax collector.
We will never find answers to the awesome problems that afflict us individually and as a society—juvenile delinquency, rampant adultery and immorality, broken families, pornography, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, gossip and backstabbing, scandal, abuse, and on and on—until each of us casts ourselves wholly upon God and cries out, “Lord, I’m a sinner! I need mercy!”
Unfortunately, we seem to think that such a confession is “for emergency use only.” We cast ourselves upon God’s mercy only when our backs are against the wall and we have nowhere else to turn. Instead, this should be our normal, everyday basis of living—the fact that we are helpless to save ourselves, that there is no righteousness in us, that we are sinners in need of mercy, beggars deserving nothing, without excuse before God. True prayer, then, is an expression of our helplessness, an awareness of need that only God can meet.
But the tax collector’s prayer not only shows us our own inadequacy as sinful human beings—it highlights the reality of God’s complete adequacy as the righteous Lord of creation. The tax collector said, “God, be merciful to me,” and this is true prayer.
In that word merciful is hidden the entire, wonderful story of the coming of Jesus Christ, His lowly birth in Bethlehem, His amazing ministry on earth, the bloody cross, the empty tomb. In this prayer, when the tax collector begs God to be merciful, he uses a special word in the original Greek, a theological word that means “be propitiated to me.” In other words, he is saying to God, “Having had your justice satisfied, Lord, now show me your love.” And he believed that God’s mercy was his, for Jesus said that this man went back to his house justified. He was changed; he was different; he was made whole. He claimed what God had promised—and that, too, is true prayer: Trusting, taking, claiming God’s promises.
Genuine prayer is more than asking; prayer is taking. Genuine prayer is more than pleading; prayer is believing. Genuine prayer is more than words uttered; prayer is an attitude maintained.How many times we ought to be praying! Whenever there is an awareness of need, that is an opportunity to let the heart, the thought, and the voice (whatever form prayer may take) lift immediately to God and say, “God, be merciful. Lord, meet this need. My hope, my help, my everything is in you for this moment.” It doesn’t matter whether it is only tying your shoes or washing the dishes or writing a letter or writing a term paper or making a telephone call. Whenever there’s a need, that is the time for prayer. Prayer is an expression of dependence that uses God’s resources for any need in our lives.
Now, the question I ask of my own heart is this: Have I ever truly prayed? If what Jesus says is true—that prayer is the opposite of fainting—then why do I find my life so often filled with fainting, losing heart, discouragement, and defeat? The obvious answer is that I have not been truly praying, for true prayer and fainting, true prayer and defeat, cannot exist together. Have you ever prayed? Have you ever truly prayed? Has your prayer life been like that of the Pharisee or like that of the tax collector? Have you ever launched upon a life of prayer where every moment you are counting on God to meet your need? Will you, this day, begin that life?
Holy Father, help us to take these examples of prayer seriously—both the example of the Pharisee and the example of the tax collector. The stories of Jesus are not intended merely to entertain us or even to instruct us, but to change us, to set us free, to enable us to live, to turn us from weakness and emptiness and barrenness, to truth and life and joy. We ask now that we may begin to live a life of authentic prayer, of authentic fellowship with you. We have no other help, no other adequacy. You alone are fully adequate. On this we rest. In Jesus’ name, Amen.