The Justified Way of Praying: An Exposition of Luke 18:9-14

Luke 18:9-14

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector found in Luke 18:9-14 is Jesus’ attempt to teach a particular group a lesson. A parable is “an example by which a doctrine or precept is illustrated” (Strong 3850).  Before I begin let me dismantle a barrier that will prevent this message from getting through. Usually when we read the Bible we associate ourselves with a particular group or person, the person that is good or is being mistreated. A lot of amens are thrown out during a sermon not because the congregation is saying that what they hearing is true and is the word of God, but because they want to throw a subliminal punch at somebody that they believe is the villain in the narrative. Today I ask that you all put yourselves in the position of the Pharisee.

The parable begins in vs. 9 by stating Jesus’ motivation for speaking it. It is address to individuals with two problems: 1. Self righteousness and 2. Criminalization of others—by this I mean, placing others in the category of law breakers. In this context, it is the laws of God.

The Bible says that Jesus told the parable to “some people.” It doesn’t indicate who these persons are or their ranks in society. They may have been rich, poor, Pharisees, tax collectors, or a mixture. He uses Pharisee and tax collector in the parable, but it is important that we understand that one doesn’t have to be a church leader to possess such an attitude.

Vs. 10 establishes the setting of the parable, the individuals involved, and their reasons for being there. The story that is told is profound to a first century audience because it is taking place in the temple, a place viewed as sacred and worthy of all type of reverence, it is the place where the Jew gather with others to worship God—a God which they believe personally was involved in their establishment as a people. It is in this sacred place that Jesus’ set one person that is viewed highly and another that is hated.

If we were living with Jesus at this time, raised up under first century conditions and culture, we would have already picked a favorite as soon as he mentioned Pharisee and tax collector. The tax collector, who was viewed as working against his own people by collecting for the hated Romans, would be comparable to a Haitian working in the deportation section of immigration, deporting his own kind. The Pharisee, on the other hand, is the beloved teacher of the law, a person that would have received the same respect as a doctor or a lawyer in the Haitian community. This is an illustration of what would have gone on in the mind of the people before Vs. 11 showed up. What probably would really have caused a sort of confusion in the mind of the people is the reason behind the arrival of the tax collector at the temple. No one would have actually believed that the tax collector was someone who prays. Therefore automatically they would have dismissed the seriousness of the tax collectors’ intention. Why would someone like that be serious about prayer? Don’t we do that sometimes?

The truth is that we all do it, but so often we place ourselves in the seat of one who is poor, who is humble, who is lowly, that we forget that this is not the point. We want to feel good about ourselves so badly that we are looking for anywhere in the story that we can find justification. It’s not about us being poor, you can be poor and still be arrogant, prideful, and look at everyone as if they are evil.

Verses 11 and 12 zooms into the Pharisee’s prayer. It is one that is done in secret, meaning that it wasn’t meant to be heard by others. In the prayer, the Pharisee thanks God that he—the Pharisee—is good. The goodness that he is referring to is one that he understands in comparison with others. So confident is this Pharisee about his state of goodness that he begins to talk bad about people, claiming that he is not an extortioner, unjust, adulterer, or even as this publican—the tax collector.

Notice, he places the publican in a list of law breakers. He regards that occupation as evil, showing you the amount of hatred that they had for the tax collectors at that time. I doubt that anybody prays and say people’s names or occupation, but I do believe that sometimes we pray with hatred or dislike of people in our hearts and think that God is none the wiser. As if He doesn’t realize that the particular words that we use are really bullets aimed at someone we wish would disappear.

After saying what he is not, the second half of his prayer, in vs. 12, is a presentation of what he is. Let me be quite clear, the prayer is about bragging to God about what he doesn’t do and what he does do. Concerning what he does do, he brags about fasting and tithe.

Vs.13 begins with Jesus saying “but.” To the close reader, the appearance of the word but after such a declaration by the Pharisee indicate that something negative is about to be said or that a comparison is about to be made. In this case, it is a comparison. Vs.13 contains the prayer of the tax collector. The tax collector was a good distance away—perhaps this is suggesting that the Pharisee was somewhere near the front and the tax collector was near the back or distant from the Pharisee.

So conscious was the tax collector of his sinfulness that he wasn’t even willing to lift up his eyes to heaven. This is not to say that if you are truly sorrowful about your sins that you will be unwilling to lift your eyes to heaven. If you say that, then you miss the whole point of the parable. Some people will bow down very low to the ground, some will have their entire upper torso facing heaven pleading for God’s forgiveness. These are expressions. There are no laws, to my knowledge, that states that there is a particular way you must position yourself to pray. if one chooses to lift ones’ head to heaven, then great, if not, great, but the emphasis is a comparison between humble and lowly manner of addressing God in contrast with the Pharisee’s arrogance.

The tax collector, so burden by his condition, goes on to beat his chest. This second expression adds more emphasis to his humble state. But what ties it all together is what he says. Instead of speaking about how he is not as evil as other people, he begs for the mercy of God. Perhaps he committed less sins than the Pharisee, so maybe he could have bragged and said that he wasn’t like so and so. But that wasn’t what he was interested in, he looked at himself and saw a sinner, one who is not as he ought to be and who knows that he deserves punishment.

Generally speaking, mercy is a word that is used to encourage one who punishes to deter from his punishing act. Ideally, it is the guilty who usually ask for mercy, the innocent would plead, well, innocent. Fundamental to those who are of the Christian faith is God’s giving of mercy to those who deserve to be exterminated.

Jesus concludes the parable in vs.14 by stating the answer that the tax collector received from God what he asked for. If the man who prayed the second prayer went home justified, then the first man who prayed _________. Remember that the parable was geared towards those who thought they were righteous, but in fact weren’t because they trusted in a righteousness that they establish. Jesus reiterate the theme when he says that the tax collector was justified. He didn’t do nothing to receive justification except for presenting to God a true repentance. The proverb illustrates that when it comes to exaltation, we can’t do it. Rather, we humble ourselves in order for another to take us up. The verse doesn’t show the uplifting being done by us, but it’s being done by another. Those who go to uplift themselves will be brought down.

Since we are all Pharisees here, I guess we have a lot of changes to make, not only in our thinking of ourselves but in our views of others. No one is innocent, everyone is guilty, but today we can all ask for what the tax collector asked for, the mercy of God for sinners like us. There is no mercy for the self righteous because they can’t bring themselves to sincerely ask for it, but there is mercy for those who want to take that step today.


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