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Two men approach the Lord in the Temple and begin to pray. One is a religious man who spends his days reading the Law of Moses and interpreting what is necessary to conform to the Law. The Jews would identify him as a respected, righteous man who knows and lives according to the letter of the Law.
The second man is responsible for collecting taxes for the Roman government. By being a tax collector, he has a taint of unacceptability so that his countrymen avoid associating with him. The Jews would identify this man as a collaborator with the hated Romans. He would also have a reputation of a cheat, demanding more in payment than the actual tax.
There is a significant difference in the apparent religious quality of these men. The Pharisee is a person who many admire for his observance of the Law. A financially well-off man who could spend his days only in the study of the Scriptures without any regrets. The expectations of his prayer would demonstrate a deep devotion to God.
The tax collector, too, would be wealthy because of the money he defrauded from the Jews. He would be ostracized since he consistently was robbing the public of their income. Therefore, the Jews would find him unworthy of receiving forgiveness.
Jesus then turns the expectations of the pious and impious upside-down in this parable. The Pharisee’s prayer, after a brief acknowledgment of God, quickly turns to give himself much credit for his religious accomplishments. The Pharisee describes how he scrupulously performs the religious rites as proscribed by the Law. He identifies himself as a worthy person that the Lord should look upon with favor upon since he is pure of heart. The Pharisee considers his quality of prayer as much better than others, especially the cheating tax collector standing next to him, who is a truly sinful man.
The tax collector approaches his prayer in a much different manner. He admits he is a sinful man as he has been increasing the taxes he charges to line his pocket. The tax collector, trembling, and fearful confesses his sins. He begs forgiveness even though he recognizes he should receive no mercy because of his sinful acts.
Even their posture demonstrates a difference in respect for the Lord. The Pharisee proudly stands in the middle of the Temple as if he has the right to be in the presence of God. He places himself prominently before God, raising his head to heaven, believes he is a worthy man. The tax collector stands off to the side and in supplication, beats his breast begging for mercy. In humility, this man’s head is cast downward to the ground, lest God punishes him as deserves.
In understanding what Jesus was teaching in this parable, one can easily appreciate the haughtiness of the Pharisee as not an appropriate way to come before the Lord in prayer. The self-righteous Pharisee has little concern about any punishment from God since his sins are not comparable to the rest of humanity. His prayer focuses on himself, “I have done this. I am better than them,” all the while thinking his actions are independent of God. His prayers are like a stinking, stagnant cloud that clings to him just like his sins.
The tax collector knows he sinned, and that God knows those sins. There is no false front to this man. He does not justify the reasons for his sinful acts. His prayer becomes pleasing to God because he bows with deep humiliation, not as an equal, begging from the heart for forgiveness. This man’s prayers the rise to God like fragrant incense as the Lord absolves his sins.
As we well know, no person leads a sinless life. No one can separate him or herself from the rest of humanity by having no sin. In admitting and asking for forgiveness requires one to be humble before God. If one is incapable of such a pious act, then the person is exulting him or herself as equal before God. On the judgment day, these will then discover humility. Those who seek redemption for their transgressions from God will become holy purified by the Lord as they enter heaven.
Which role do we assume in prayer, the Pharisee, or the tax collector? If we are honest with ourselves, we sometimes portray the attitude of the Pharisee as well as the tax collector.
Do we see ourselves as being superior to others because we identify their sins but ignore ours? Do we exude the appearance of being a good Christian person in our actions of worship but then turn our faces away from those who are not quite as “pure” like us?
Pray to the Lord that we become more like the tax collector in prayer, who recognizes he completely dependent on the mercy of God?
Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, forgive me a sinner.