A sermon by Graham Agnew
Where did we ever get the idea the parables of Jesus are quaint little stories with a simple moral message tacked onto the end? A kind of religious version of Aesop’s Fables. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, Jesus’ parables were intended to shock people….To stir them up…To challenge their world view!
There’s one recorded in Luke 18 that’s particularly provocative; we know it as the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and it contains a powerful message about prayer – in particular, the essential components of effective prayer!
Luke’s Gospel records the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector this way:
Once there were two men who went up to the Temple to pray: One was a Pharisee, the other Tax Collector. The Pharisee stood apart by himself and prayed: “I thank you God, that I am not greedy, dishonest or an adulterer – like everybody else. I thank you I am not like that tax collector over there. I fast twice a week and give you one tenth of all my income.”
But the Tax Collector stood some distance away and would not even raise his face to heaven, but beat on his breast and said: “God have pity on me, a sinner”. I tell you said Jesus, the Tax Collector and not the Pharisee was in the right with God when he went home. For everyone who makes himself great will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be made great.
So here’s a pious Pharisee and a penitent Tax Collector in the Temple, at the exact same time. The Pharisee prays in a very “holier than thou”, self-righteous manner and immediately starts comparing himself to the sinful Tax Collector, thanking God he’s not like him.
Meanwhile, the Tax Collector is lurking in the shadows, unable to even lift his head, crying out to God with heartfelt repentance and pleading for mercy.
Now the really shocking part of this story (from the perspective of the original hearers) comes in verse 14 when Jesus says: I tell you, the Tax collector and not the Pharisee was in the right with God when he went home. In other words, his prayer and only his prayer had been successful in “getting through”.
This would have stunned Jesus hearers because although we may have preconceived ideas about the worthiness and integrity of the Pharisees, because of their ongoing conflict with Jesus, the reality is they were admired and highly respected among the people of Jesus’ day as being men of deep faith and commitment to God. Some might say they had the masses fooled and it took the penetrating, divine scrutiny of Jesus to expose their hypocrisy. Nevertheless, as a group, they were respected – whereas the tax collectors (as we know from the story of Zacchaeus), were universally despised by everyone, because of their blatant corruption and rip-off tactics against the common people.
So a modern equivalent of Jesus’ story might be where a highly respected Bishop and a public servant convicted of ripping off money from the public purse, go to a city cathedral to pray. The prayers of the disgraced public servant get through to God, but those of the Godly Bishop just bounce off the high ceilings. That would certainly shock everyone and we’d wonder how can that be? Well, that’s how the people of Jesus day would have reacted – in total dismay and bewilderment.
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector was told by Jesus with the view to helping people understand the nature of true prayer. The two characters in the story throw light on this important subject.
First, the Pharisee and it seems he had two basic problems. The first had to do with his attempts to connect with God. Oh, he thought he was connecting….thought God would be thrilled how good and righteous he had been… how much better he was compared to others. But sadly, the Bible says “He stood apart by himself and prayed” – in fact some ancient manuscripts render this verse: “He stood up and prayed TO himself!”
Prayer can be like that – or at least that’s how things can appear. Sometimes our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling and our attempts to connect with God feel like we’re talking to ourselves. If that’s you (and it certainly has been me on occasions), be encouraged; we’re in good company. The writer of Psalm 77 struggled in this area and in Verse 2 of his Psalm he writes: “All night long I lift my hands in prayer but I cannot find comfort”.
And in Psalm 22, Verses 1 and 2; “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? I’ve cried desperately for help but still it does not come. During the day I call to you my God, but you do not answer; I call at night but get no rest”. Many of you will recognize that last passage as the one Jesus quoted while hanging from the cross.
In contrast, the Tax Collector strongly connected with God and we’ll get to him in a moment.
The other problem for the Pharisee was in the area of comparison – comparing himself with others – that’s what he was doing! Rather than measure his life against the righteousness of God and what He requires, this man had lowered the bar dramatically and was prepared to do a superficial comparison with someone who just happened to be close by and was clearly going through a horrible patch in his life.
Of course, Salvation (that is, being made right with God) is not about being good; it’s about a relationship – it’s about the transformation of our hearts. So here’s a guy who, to be fair, was the product of a religious system which had drifted a long form David’s Psalm 51 (“Create in me a clean heart Oh God and renew within me a right spirit”). Religion had become a matter of adherence to a complex set of rules and regulations. Consequently, the Pharisee’s prayer takes on the form of a self-assessment – a kind of moral report card for presentation to the great Judge.
In contrast, the Tax Collector seems to exhibit traits which Jesus considers vital for effective prayer life. He’s the one who emerges clearly as gaining God’s favour and forgiveness and the most striking characteristic of his prayer is raw honesty! Verse 13: “God be merciful to me, a sinner… Have pity on me”.
During the ministry of Jesus many people cried out to Him in desperation and raw honesty was at the heart of their plea. In each case Jesus responded with great eagerness and compassion, leaving no doubts at all this is one of the elements required if we want our prayers to connect.
The other aspect to the Tax Collector’s prayer which doubtless contributed to its effectiveness was his awareness of his own inadequacy… his own sinfulness….his own guilt. There’s no pretence here, no attempt to hide the gravity of his failure. In fact there’s tremendous vulnerability and a very real sense of surrender to God’s mercy.
Of course, these are vital components to effective prayer and to a healthy and meaningful relationship with God through Jesus. Jesus believed this to be so, to the point where he saw fit to tell this story, which would have been very confronting for the people of His day. But like many of Jesus’ stories, we do well to note certain things, lest we get a distorted view of what He’s really trying to say.
For example, in our prayers we must avoid confusing boldness with arrogance. I mean, the Bible tells us to approach our Heavenly Father with boldness, with confidence and with the absolute certainty of being heard. Hebrews 10:19 says: “We have complete freedom to go into the most Holy Place by a means of the death of Jesus; He has opened for us a new and living way…” But that’s a far cry from the self-opinionated, self-centred arrogance exhibited by the Pharisee.
Something else: we must avoid confusing petition with piety – in other words, we’re meant to ask or petition for things in our prayers; the Bible makes that very clear: Matthew 7 Verse 7: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” And Philippians 4 verse 6: “Don’t worry about anything, but in all your prayers ask God for what you need, always asking Him with a thankful heart”. But nowhere is there any indication that boasting about how good or righteous we are will, in any way, influence the outcome of these prayers. That’s where the Pharisee got it wrong big time! No, it’s a humble and penitent heart that God requires, but we must avoid confusing humility with self-denigration.
I sometimes talk to people who are convinced they have reached a point that is beyond God’s grace and forgiveness. In extreme cases they believe God is actually punishing them for their sins… withholding answers to prayer, all because of their unworthiness. To think in this way is to negate the very core of the Gospel message because we’re told in Romans 5:8 it was while we were still sinners that
Christ died for us and in First Peter 3 verse 18: “Christ dies for our sins once and for all – a good man on behalf of sinners, in order to lead us to God”. Yes, here’s a parable from Jesus which makes a couple of very dramatic and pertinent points about the nature of effective prayer. It’s a story that effectively cuts across some of the preconceived ideas we have about having to be at a certain “standard” of spirituality or holiness before God can take our prayers seriously. In fact, the story highlights, it’s only when we are vulnerable to the point of recognizing our need of Him, that He can begin to do some of His best redemptive and restorative work in our lives.
I don’t want to be too harsh on this Pharisee but you get the feeling he‘s prayed this prayer before. It was his prayer template if you like:
“I fast twice a week……..”
“I pay my tithes….”
“I’m better than others…”
There’s not a lot of heart disclosure here and it’s a bit too liturgical, too predictable for my liking. You know, God is not so much interested in the form as He is in the formation of our spiritual maturity as we journey with Him. Our prayers are not meant to impress God, as much as they are to press into Him – and draw deeply on the grace, forgiveness, power and strength available.
Dear God, help us to be honest and open at all times when praying to you, in the knowledge this is the kind of prayer that will always connect with you…Amen.