Robert Murray M’Cheyne said this about prayer: “What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is, and no more.” Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) shows us the true character of two men – what they are, and no more – through their respective prayers in the temple.
The Pharisee reveals himself to be proud and self-righteous. In his “prayer” (if you can even call it that!), like a peacock showing off his beautiful colors to an adoring crowd, the Pharisee proclaims his wonderful righteousness in the hearing of God and others. He is not a sinner like other men, but he is a good and godly man. And he is no doubt sure that by his exemplary piety he has earned a place in God’s heaven.
The tax collector’s prayer reveals the heart of a radically different character. He is contrite, humble, repentant, and broken by his sin and unrighteousness. Not daring to come too close to God (“standing far off,” v. 13), or even to lift up his eyes to God’s holy habitation above, he acknowledges his sin and prays for mercy. Because of its brevity, his prayer has been called a “holy telegram.” It’s short but says all that needs to be said: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v.13).
The prayers of these two men expose their hearts before us, and before a holy God (though God knew their hearts before they uttered a word). The one trusts in himself that he is righteous, but he returns home condemned for his pride. The other knows he is a sinner and casts himself on the mercy of God, and he goes back home justified by God. The upright Pharisee, the paragon of righteousness in that society, is bound for hell. The immoral but repentant tax collector, despised by his fellow Jews for his greed and corruption, is bound for heaven. Truly the last shall be first, and the first last.
At the end of the parable Jesus says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (v.14). The “everyone” includes Jesus himself. He humbled himself by becoming man and taking upon himself the guilt and sin of his people, going so low as to die the shameful and cursed death of the cross. But God exalted him, first by raising him from the dead and then by setting him at his right hand and giving him all authority and power to rule as Lord. This same Jesus receives to himself all who confess their sin before him, repent, and come to him in faith.
These two men in the parable represent two different approaches to God. One approach is to work your way to heaven, trusting in your own goodness and good works. That way leads to destruction. The other approach is humbly to seek forgiveness and mercy in Jesus Christ. That way leads to glory.
What approach are you taking?
Soli Deo Gloria!