“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.’”—Luke 18:11-12 (ESV)
When you hear the “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” you can quickly brush it off as something you have moved past. The initial reaction to this parable is to say, “Well, I don’t pray like him, how could he!” And I’ll say: “Not so fast, friend.”
On close examination—I mean aside from moralising this parable and creating in it the gibberish categories of “us and them”—I have come to see how I pray like the Pharisee. You may think that this guy taught me how to pray.
I have on many occasions closed my eyes, (or humbled my eyes like my brother likes to say) and prayed: “Thank you, God, that I have life, many have died….”
Or like this: “I thank you, Father, for the provision, for the food and clothing, many don’t have them…but I do…” What my prayer essentially is this: “I thank you, Lord, that am not like other men…”
The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is that it is centred on him and how he is better than the guy in the pew across. So is mine. We, like the Pharisee, go before the throne and start bragging about how good we are in comparison to other people. Because it is boxed in prayer, we never get realise it.
Or, we may realise what we are doing, but it’s better than calling ourselves “sinners who are unworthy of anything, even the oxygen we breathe or the warmth and light given off by the sun.”
When we do this, we show how we are oblivious of the stench of death that surrounds us, it also shows how we have forgotten that the very life we live is a gift and any good thing that comes out of it is produced by God as benefit from Jesus’s work on our behalf. In short, to pray like the Pharisee is to forget the gospel which says that there is no life and justification in our goodness.
The tax collector’s prayer, however, is different. It is an attempt to find life outside of himself, in God Himself. He was humbled by his unworthiness and took it to God, and in his sin, he found justification.
May we daily be reminded of how broken we are and that the answer is found outside of us—in God alone. May God be exalted as he humbles us.
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