In today's Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus tells us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, two very different people who sent up two very different prayers. Let's revisit this familiar parable and take a closer look at it.
First off, Jesus directs this parable to a particular audience, namely, “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” He is talking to people who are overconfident, who think they can do no wrong, who are positive of their own salvation, who feel that they don't need anyone else. These people tend to feel superior to others who just don't have everything together like they themselves think they do.
Pause for a minute here, and honestly answer the following question: “Is Jesus talking to you?”
Jesus begins by setting the scene. Two people entered the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. Now the Pharisee was a religious leader. He held a strict interpretation of the Law and tried to follow its precepts to the letter, even adding further precepts and traditions as necessary to try to achieve holiness. The tax collector, on the other hand, was the lowest of the low as far as the Jews are concerned. He collaborated with the Romans to collect the prescribed taxes from his fellow Jews, and perhaps, like many other tax collectors, he padded his own pockets a bit, too. Tax collectors were forbidden to participate in public worship and were generally treated as outcasts.
These two men prayed very different prayers. Listen again to the Pharisee:
“O God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
Talk about arrogant! All the Pharisee was doing is making a list of his good qualities and his good deeds (and putting down the rest of humanity in the process). He wasn't really praying to God; he was praying to himself.
Now listen to the tax collector, who prayed standing far back in the Temple with his eyes lowered:
“O God, be merciful to me a sinner."
His prayer was simple but beautiful, humble but effective. He placed himself before God as he really was. He knew his true state, and he asked God for mercy.
Jesus is clear about which prayer is more pleasing to God. “I tell you,” He says, “the latter went home justified, not the former...” God justified the tax collector because of his humble repentance and heartfelt prayer. This man was now in a right relationship with God. God had forgiven his sin. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was not justified. He may have thought he was in good standing before God, but he wasn't because of his pride and lack of love.
Jesus ends with a lesson for all of us: “...for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Once again, pause and take a moment to honestly answer the following question: Do you pray more like the Pharisee or the tax collector?