Contained within this simple parable that Jesus tells is one of, if not the most important key to understanding prayer, if not the whole of the Christian life. Elsewhere in the Bible it is summed up like this: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.‘ In a world that is all about pushing yourself forward, working and fighting to be the best you can be, so that you can be ‘proud’ of all you have acheived – Jesus turns the tables completely and gives us a completely different set of values to live by. This parable can be so simply divided up into the 2 examples – one bad, one good – may God help us to emulate the example of the 2nd man who prayed at the temple that day.
1. The Proud Pharisee – We see the first man walking to the temple with his head held high. He was a religious man, and a pretty good one by the sounds of it – he has the self-control to fast twice a week, and gives a tenth of everything he has away – those 2 things are no mean feat, and I’m sure there’s more he could have added to his list. Because of these things it’s quite likely that people around him would have looked at him enviously – here was a guy who was sorted in religious things. I’m sure there were people who wanted to emulate him and wished that they could be like him and hold their head high also. It’s important to remember that nowhere in the gospels does Jesus say that fasting and giving tithes are wrong – in fact their good things, and aren’t the issue here – the issue is the man’s heart.
This pharisee had fallen into the trap that we all love to fall into – he really thought that the religious life he had lived was because he was a great person, and much better than anyone else around him. He thought that all the things he did, and didn’t do had earned him some kind of standing before God, without realising that in doing so he had fallen into the biggest trap of all – failure to acknowledge God as the author of everything good. Everything that this man had was a gift from God – the air he was breathing, the food he ate, and all of the strength and ability to live his life the way he did all came from God – but this man thinks that he has made it – he is better than all the rest.
There’s also a second trap that this man had fallen into, although we’re not told about it specifically, it is certain that there were things in this man’s life that he was turning a blind eye to – he wasn’t really as good as he thought he was. Jesus spoke to Pharisees of how they performed all their religious observances but neglected justice and mercy. They cared so much about the outward appearance, and the way their lives looked to everyone around them because at the end of the day, these men didn’t care at all what God thought about them – they were in reality godless people – all they cared about was the praise of the people around them, because at the core of all they did was pride.
2. The Repentant Tax-Collector – On the other side of the temple we have another man who’s attitude was completely different. Even though Tax Collectors were widely disliked people at the time and grouped in with the rest of the sinners when it came to ‘classes’ of people, I’m sure there were many who still justified themselves. I’m sure there were those who made excuses for what they did, some who didn’t think it was that bad, and some who just enjoyed cheating people out of their money – but this man was different. He had come to a place where he knew he was a sinner, he knew his life was in a mess, there was no more hiding it, and this man knew that he needed help. He wasn’t anymore into showing off in front of people and performing some kind of religious act to show them how good he could be if he tried. He wasn’t ashamed of going in front of everyone in the temple and showing he knew who he really was. And most importantly, he knew that he needed help – he knew that he needed mercy.
There was absolutely no reason that God should have heard the prayer of the Tax Collector that day – he was completely undeserving of mercy, and he knew it. But whether he really understood or not he had been brought to the only place where God will truly hear and answer our prayers – the place of humility. No human being deserves anything but judgment from God, but this story, and all through the Bible the message is this – if you will humble yourself then God will meet with you. If you’ll let go of the religious act and just be honest about who you are, then God will hear and answer your prayers.
I wonder if there was some kind of stunned silence at the end of the story as the people listening to Jesus took in the fact that he was totally contradicting everything they’d ever thought – it isn’t the religious person that God accepts, it’s the one who is humble, repentant, and willing to unashamedly cast themselves on God’s mercy and grace. May the Lord help all of us to be exactly like this Tax Collector, and humble ourselves before God and before people.