The Jews of long ago also had a favorite place to pray—the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus used the temple as a backdrop for a parable of prayers, the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector. As you will see, when it comes to prayer, as far as Jesus is concerned, it’s all about the heart.
Before we study this parable, please take a moment to pray and ask God to forgive you of any sin that He brings to mind and to open the eyes of your heart to hear the truth of His Holy Word.
The Prayers of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Now, please read Luke 18:9-14.
Jesus spoke this parable to whom in particular?
Jesus directed this parable at those who mistakenly trusted in their own righteousness and despised others. The word despised used in this verse means to reject or cast aside, to treat someone as if they were “naught”; a big zero. When we depend on our own righteousness to earn our way to heaven, we will end up comparing ourselves to others. In this process, someone will end up being despised; either others whom we view as less deserving or ourselves when we discover that we do not measure up to the righteousness of our friends or neighbors.
Have you ever been despised by another? I know I have and it was a very painful experience. Worse yet, I have also despised other people. In God’s kingdom every person is valuable—period. Isn‟t it wonderful that God sees us not as what we have been but as what He can make us become?
Please read Isaiah 64:6 and record what the Bible says about our own righteousness.
When I dust my furniture or clean my house, I always start with a clean towel. How silly it would be to try to wipe off my kitchen table with a filthy rag. Our own righteousness is like a “filthy rag”; it is incapable of wiping clean my sins. I believe that Jesus wanted the Pharisee to see the futility of trying to earn his way to heaven by works so he would repent and be saved.
Who went up to the temple to pray that day?
Pharisees were members of a very strict sect of Judaism who prided themselves on their ability to keep the Law. Respected and revered by most people, the Pharisees were on the top of the ladder of Hebrew society. Tax collectors, however, were at the very bottom of the social ladder. They were ranked among the worst of sinners.
We may think it odd that the Pharisee and the tax collector had to go to the temple to pray, but at that point in history, the temple was a place of worship. Devout Jews went to the temple at specific hours to pray.
The prayer of the Pharisee
Read verses 11-12 again and record all the details that you notice concerning the Pharisee’s prayer.
Here are a few things I noticed:
- His position. He did not humble himself in word or in position. In his own assumed righteousness, he boldly came and stood before the throne of God.
- His prayer It seems as if the Pharisee wasn‟t praying to God as much as he was having a conversation with himself. The NKJV reads, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself…”
- His petitions. Notice that the Pharisee did not actually ask God to provide for a single need— physical, spiritual or otherwise. He conversed with himself about all of his good deeds. He commented on his clean record, his tithing, his fasting and how he was better than other men. As mentioned by Jesus in verse 9, the Pharisee trusted completely in his own righteousness.
- His problem. The Pharisee does not confess any sin, spend any time in adoration or worship of God or pray for the needs of any other person. The problem with the Pharisee‟s prayer was that it wasn’t a prayer.
- His priority. Even while in the Presence of God, the Pharisee was completely absorbed in himself. A religion unto himself, the Pharisee had no need of a Savior to deliver him from his sins or a Father to supply his daily needs of mercy and grace.
The phrase “I thank you that I am not like other men…” caught my eye. The Pharisee of this parable believed that he was superhuman…that he did not suffer from the same terminal sin problem as every other member of the human race. Jesus, on the other hand, placed the Pharisee and the tax collector on the same plane at the beginning of verse 10, where he described them both as “two men.” Two men with a sin problem. Two men in need of the Savior.
The Prayer of the Tax Collector
Now, please read verse 13 again. Please describe the attitude and behavior of the tax collector.
He was humble and sorrowful. The tax collector in the parable did not suffer from any delusions of his righteousness; he would have read it in the eyes of his countrymen every time they shunned him on the streets of Jerusalem.
I found something interesting hidden away in the original Greek language that I had missed when reading verse 13 in English. In the NKJV, verse 13 reads:
“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven…” (emphasis mine).
In the original Greek, the word raise means “to lift up, to be lifted up with pride, to exalt one’s self.” In comparison to the Pharisee who just spent the last few minutes in the temple “exalting” himself before God, the tax collector would not “exalt” even an eye to heaven.
Verse 13 also states that the tax collector “beat his breast”; an action used by mourners in Eastern cultures. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector went to the temple to mourn over his sin and ask the Father for mercy. In asking for God to be merciful to him, the tax collector is appealing to God by faith to make propitiation (atonement by sacrifice) for his sin.
Let‟s take a moment to summarize what we’ve learned about the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Within this parable, I see many contrasts. I started a chart below comparing these two men. Please fill in the missing pieces.
Now please read Matthew 6:5-6 and record other “pharisaical” tendencies we should avoid when praying:
How should we pray according to Matthew 6:9-13?
Now please return to Luke 18.
According to verse 14, which man left the temple justified and forgiven?
What will happen to us if we refuse to humble ourselves before the Lord?
God, in His great mercy will not leave us in our pride; He will humble us.
What will happen if we humble ourselves before the Lord?
When we humble ourselves before the Lord, He will raise us to “dignity, honor, and happiness.”
What have you learned today from this study?
What does God want you to do with what you have learned?
In closing, when considering the prayers of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from the world’s point of view, we see these two men came from opposite ends of the social spectrum; one respected, one despised. I believe that by choosing these two types of people as examples, God was announcing that all have sinned and that all, from Pharisees to tax collectors, are welcomed by the blood of Christ to enter into His kingdom.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16
By Mary Kane
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All citations are from BlueletterBible:
Luke 18 (KJV) – And he spake this parable. Retrieved from https://www.blueletterbible.org/kjv/luk/18/9-14/t_conc_991013