Do I Pray? and Do I Pray in the Right Frame of Mind?
Last Sunday we looked at one of Jesus’ parables. He used it to teach his would-be disciples what kind of people he would expect them to become if they followed him. He wanted, and wants, those who are his disciples to be people of prayer. Such people will not lose heart and give up but they will keep on and on praying.
Now this week we come to another parable where once again prayer is very much to the fore. It is the parable that is known under the title of the "Pharisee and the Publican" or the "Pharisee and the Tax-Collector."
Once again Luke guides us carefully about how we should read and understand this particular parable by bracketing the telling of the story with a couple of explanatory comments.
1. Firstly, he tells us the type of people Jesus told it to. So we read right at the outset:
v.9 "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt."
2. Secondly, Luke records the moral that Jesus brings out of the story as he brings it to a close:
v.14b "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
As we look at these two verses it is clear that for Jesus what counts is not the mere fact of praying but the heart attitude of the person who does the praying. It is to this that our attention is drawn by this simple but striking story.
It is not enough to just say our prayers. More is called for than the closing of our eyes, the putting our hands together and the uttering a few words. One of our hymn-writers caught the sense of this very well put this so well. This is what John Burton wrote:
I OFTEN say my prayers,
but do I ever pray?
And do the wishes of my heart
go with the words I say?
So this morning as we look together at this simple story that Jesus told we will need to ask ourselves questions about the ways in which we pray. Is our attitude right or wrong? Is there something that we need to stop doing? Is there something we need to start to do perhaps for the very first time?
Along the way I hope that we will all find encouragement and that some of our misconceptions will be taken away – Christian discipleship while demanding is not beyond the understanding of any of us.
And so to Prayer...
Jesus’ story is about two men who one day went up to the Temple to pray.
The Temple was intended, in the divine order of things, to be a place of prayer. It was the place where God had promised to make himself known and the place was designed to occupy the central place in spiritual life of the Jewish nation. Prayer and the Temple went together – they were meant to.
While you don’t need a building in order to pray – you didn’t then and you certainly don’t now - nevertheless meeting in a place that has the right associations may help focus the mind on the business in hand.
The two men in Jesus’ story were very different from each other:
One was in a place he felt comfortable with – he probably hardly ever missed one of the appointed times of prayer. He was a Pharisee and the Pharisees were the religious experts and religion was their number one hobby.
The other man wasn’t comfortable at all. He wasn’t often in the Temple, he wasn’t the religious type you see. Worse than that, he worked as a tax collector. Now tax collectors aren’t popular at the best of times but when you work for the occupying forces... Tax-collectors kept some dodgy company too – birds of a feather and all that.
But both these very different men went to pray!
We should stop and pause to take that in! It probably doesn’t strike us but it ought to!! Men and women can talk to God and they can come – indeed must come – just as they are. You can pray, ah, but do you?
Our ability to pray, or rather the privilege we have of being able to pray, flows to us as a free gift from God. Don’t imagine for a moment that we have to earn the right to pray. We don’t earn the right to pray but receive it as a gift and simply pray. Prayer is something that puts in its first real appearance at the onset of spiritual life. Have you yet to become a Christian?
I wonder whether you know the story of the apostle Paul’s conversion. Jesus met the arch-persecutor of the church, Saul of Tarsus, who was on his way to Damascus. The meeting transformed Saul’s life. A Christian disciple named Ananias was sent by the Lord to go and help this man Saul. Ananias’s fears were partially alleviated when he was told that Saul was praying!
The only questions therefore that concern us are not whether I have this gift of prayer but: Do I use it? Do I use it well? And am I getting better at using it?
The two characters in Jesus’ parable both went to the Temple to pray but there the similarity ends between them. How differently they conducted themselves and how differently they expressed themselves in prayer! Their behaviour reveals a good deal about them. We will see too that both are not equally acceptable to God – there are right and wrong ways to pray and we need to know not only which is which but to put that into practice in our own lives too!
The Pharisee First
Looking at the Pharisee first is appropriate in more ways than one! Firstly, and most importantly, Jesus described him first. But, secondly, the Pharisee liked to think of himself as the first in line when it came to spiritual and religious qualities. So we’ll begin with him.
Let’s remind ourselves of just what Jesus said about him:
vv.11-12 "The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’"
This man in the temple immediately sets himself apart from the other folk who were there. He stands by himself – nothing wrong in itself with that – but he is really doing a bit more posturing. He’s probably gone to stand in a prominent position as near to the holiest place in the Temple he could go – after all he was such a holy man where else would such a one as he pray?!
Not only was the Pharisee standing by himself he was also praying with himself about himself. His prayer is thoroughly self-centred and it reflects sentiments which while we might at times feel similar sentiments stirring in ourselves we are too ashamed to express them ourselves.
Does this Pharisee really expect the God to be impressed with such a prayer? Had he never come across these words of Isaiah the prophet for example?
Is.57:15 "For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite."
I’m sure this man had come across such truths but hadn’t taken them on board – he was simply too full of himself and of his own achievements for that! And there are plenty of others like him in the world today who are only too ready to speak up their own qualities and triumphs vainly trusting that God will be impressed. Plenty more think this must be the way to please God.
But don’t our successes and triumphs depend upon whom we’re comparing ourselves with? And it is here that this Pharisee has got things very wrong indeed. You see the criteria he was using were horizontal and not vertical. He wasn’t comparing himself to God’s standards as revealed in the Scriptures – that would be a vertical comparison – but he wasn’t even comparing himself with the best of men! No, this man thought he could be satisfied in God’s presence and that God would be similarly satisfied just because he wasn’t as bad as the worst of men!
How proud and puffed up he was! But he doesn’t ask whether he’s up to the standard of God’s best (who are all shown to us warts and all in the Bible). But we’re less likely to do well if we compare ourselves with the best – it’s so much more comforting to compare ourselves with folk at the other end of the spectrum!
But how dangerous this is! And yet this is how millions are living their lives – that they’re pretty decent people. And they are satisfied with themselves and convince themselves that if they can think so well of themselves then God must too.
But do you notice how wrong he was in thanking God that he was not like that tax collector standing at some distance! He had no idea as he prayed with himself how foolish his thoughts were. For that tax collector whom he so readily despised was doing serious business with God. This tax collector was shortly to leave the temple in a justified state – that means that God was happy with him! And the Pharisee was glad he was not like that man!!
As the Pharisee prayed on with himself he filled his prayers with accounts of his own achievements and how good he was. I fast, I tithe – I, I, I. Fasting was good – God had ordained one day of fasting a year but this man did far more than that – 100x more. Tithing too – not just of income but of everything he got! But what about the weightier matters of the law? (Cf. Lk.11:42)
There are two things that are noticeably absent from the prayer of this Pharisee and they are desperately important. Without them no true prayer can ever take place.
There is no true sense of God at all in his praying. Oh yes, he uses the word God but there is no sense of majesty or holiness or greatness. When men had real encounters with God in the Scriptures they did not react as this man did:
How different his behaviour was to that of Isaiah when he was confronted by the LORD:
Is.6:5 "And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"
How unlike the godly Daniel who associated himself with the sins of his people and didn’t stop for a moment to compare himself favourably with the worst offenders and so excuse himself. (Dan.6)
In the NT too we find the apostle Peter struck by the divine majesty of Jesus Christ falling down utterly convicted of his own sinfulness. "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." Lk.5:8.
The second thing that is noticeable by its absence is any sense of need. The Pharisee is full of his own importance – what needs could he possibly have. He was righteous in his own eyes and as such he felt not guilt for his sin, and consequently saw no need of forgiveness - grace was not something he thought he needed. Let God give him just deserts – that was all he wanted! How blind can a man be! But are you in danger of being just as blind as he by placing your confidence in yourself and not in the grace of God in Jesus Christ?
Plenty of folk think with a similar mindset. The Pharisee acted as though you had to earn your status with God and, further, he thought that this was something that could be done – he was sure he’d done enough.
The Tax-Collector Second
If arrogant, proud, judgmental self-confidence were the hallmarks of the Pharisee the example of this tax-collector could hardly have been more different.
Unlike the Pharisee the tax-collector stood "afar off". He makes no effort to be seen by others, he makes no efforts to approach closely to the holiest places of the temple but is content once in the precincts to pray.
And how his attitude in prayer differs from that of the Pharisee! There is no pride here but only a sense of shame which is accompanied with humility. That is what we are to make of the fact that he didn’t even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. You know how a guilty person will often avoid direct eye contact and look down to the floor – well that is what this man did. Instead of raising his hands toward heaven he used them to beat his breast as a strong sign of remorse like that "woe is me" of Isaiah.
Why does he act like this?
Well he does so precisely because he is aware of God and he is also aware that he has failed and come short of this God’s standards. He is aware that he is in need: he does not have any personal qualities that he might put forward in his own defence all he is conscious of is his sin for which he earnestly seeks pardon.
The Pharisee had compared himself horizontally with others but this tax-collector doesn’t look around to try to find others who might be worse than he is instead he seems to measure himself by God’s standards alone – he has failed God and it doesn’t matter whether others have or not; what difference does the performance of others make to his own failure? The answer is none and he readily confesses his sin pleading for pardon, pleading for mercy.
Listen to just how he puts it all:
v.13 "But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’"
If he gets justice he knows he will be lost and he knows that is exactly what he deserves so he cries out for mercy. It is not that he just wants to be treated with compassion he wants his sin to be dealt with so that God’s wrath can be turned from away from him – he wants to know the smile of God’s face upon his life! To that end everyone else is shut out of view as the tax-collector prays – he actually refers to himself not as a sinner but as the sinner.
Having told this story Jesus summed it up by giving his own assessment of the relative merits of the two patterns of prayer that are illustrated.
Two men prayed in the Temple that day but only one of them left it enjoying a right status with God. Surely simple curiosity would mean that we want to know which it was!
According to Jesus it was the tax-collector who recognising the presence of God and his own condition as a sinner simply pleaded for mercy.
It’s no good trying to pretend we’re something that we’re not. If the tax collector had argued he wasn’t as bad as all that he’d have discovered too late that he was not right with God. The Pharisee could have climbed down had he realised that despite the many privileges of his position that he too was a sinner who needed forgiving. He could have left the Temple right with God under those circumstances.
You may pull the wool over the eyes of others and you may succeed in pulling the wool over your own eyes for a while but you will never do so with regards to God! He knows who you are and how much you need what he and he alone can offer you. What is more he doesn’t want us to try to reform ourselves before we can turn to him – we can come/must come now as we are.
You’ve heard the story. You’ve understood what it says. Will you take it to heart and act upon it? Don’t replace faith in Jesus with attempts at becoming somehow religious – that would be to choose the route of the Pharisee. But don’t let your sin keep you away either imagining that you’re too bad for God – that would be to refuse the lessons from the tax-collector. He was bad, yes too bad for God and he was right to turn his eyes down in shame and to beat his breast in anguish – but in pleading for mercy he found it! May that be true for all of us!