This is a passage I’ve always loved, but today it seems I’ve always missed a crucial detail.
I’ve always thought of this primarily as a passage about prayer. And it is: the whole story Jesus tells is about two people praying, only one of whom gets it right. Plus the fellow who did get it right has proved to be very influential in the history of Christian prayer — more about that later.
Today I find myself looking more closely at how Luke frames the story about prayer. Luke’s introductory comments mesh perfectly with Jesus’ concluding words — a conclusion that always seemed to me like a kind of odd twist on the topic of prayer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is the second of two weeks that the lectionary brings us into Luke 18. Last week was the story of the persistent widow who pressed her case for justice with an unjust judge. That story, Luke 18:1-8, was framed in a similar way to this (Luke’s introduction is paired with Jesus’ concluding comments) but the frame was all about prayer.
In Luke 18:9-14 the frame draws our attention not to prayer but to the question of where righteousness comes from.
He also told this parable
to some who trusted in themselves
that they were righteous
and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 NRSV)
This is going to be a parable to teach us about how we regard our own standing with God, and what our sense of where we stand leads us to think about other people.
The parable is particularly vivid: Two people go to pray in the temple. One pours out a speech about his superiority to other people, with quick notes as to his fasting and tithing. The other crumbles under the weight of his own sin, begging God for mercy.
Jesus comments that the one who asked for mercy went away “justified,” or in New Testament terms, righteous.
(This makes it an interesting pair of scenes:
- First a message about prayer illustrated by a parable of hubris and contempt.
- Second a message about hubris and contempt illustrated by a parable of prayer.)
The Message about Righteousness
Keeping in mind the framing material, there is a simple and very strong message about righteousness here. It is quite consistent with Paul’s thorough treatment of the topic.
The Pharisee made fatal errors regarding his own righteousness. First, he was arrogant, so pleased with himself that he boasted that he was better than anyone else.
God, I thank you that I am not like other people:
thieves, rogues, adulterers,
or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11 NRSV)
That’s appalling. Surely righteousness that is worth anything won’t make you a jerk.
I am reminded of an insight by one of my favorite writers on prayer, Ruth Burrows: we can judge the reality of any experience we have of God by whether it makes us more loving. The Pharisee’s prayer fails the test.
Second, and more like Paul’s teaching really, he cites the particulars of his obedience to religious practices as evidence of his righteousness:
I fast twice a week;
I give a tenth of all my income.” (Luke 18:12 NRSV)
Paul would surely note that we’ve all already sinned against God’s law. Any faithful obedience we do now can’t take our old guilt away and make us innocent again — righteous before a just and holy God.
A line describing the Pharisee in the old KJV that conveys the self-satisfied pride almost comically:
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself…” (Luke 18:11 KJV)
Modern translations have him standing by himself to pray, but I love the sense of the KJV that the guy is maybe actually praying to himself.
There’s some truth in that: when we are prideful, we are our own gods, so prayer is basically talking to ourselves.
But it is the humility of the tax collector that we should be focusing on, right? The Pharisee is fun to poke fun at, but it is the tax collector we are supposed to take as our role model.
- He’s too humble to look up to heaven.
- He confesses that he’s a sinner.
- He begs for mercy.
- He even pounds his chest in penitence.
And Jesus? Jesus is totally into it. This man, the one who outed himself as a sinner and asked for mercy,
went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Luke 10:14 NRSV)
Note the result: He was “justified.”
That’s Paul’s key word. We are righteous when we are “justified” — like forgiven and made innocent before God’s justice. It happens because of God’s grace toward the guilty. It comes to us through faith. Which leads us to the other key topic in this passage.
The Message about Prayer
So how did this tax collector, despised co-conspirator with the occupying forces of Rome, become “justified”? In Paul’s terms, it must have happened by faith. In terms of the parable, it happened by prayer.
And there is really very little difference between the two.
Calvin liked to point out that the prophet Joel said
…everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved…” (Joel 2:32 NRSV)
Calling out to God for help is prayer. And that act of calling out to God is the clear evidence that you have faith. So the tax collector shows us that he has faith — and becomes an obvious candidate for justification.
But look specifically at what the tax collector asked for:
God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke 18:13 NRSV)
He asked for mercy — for forgiveness — not based on his virtue but on his need.
Jesus could have as easily said the man got his prayer heard and answered. Here it amounts to the same thing.
This little prayer spoken by the tax collector is also hugely influential in the history of Christian prayer. It is the core of “The Jesus Prayer,”
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The Jesus Prayer is at the heart of prayer as taught in Orthodoxy — and you can find out all about it in my book Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers.
This parable about prayer, in its context of a teaching about righteousness, teaches us something of deep importance: Prayer is where it’s at, my friend.
If you develop a prayer life where you have ways to call out to God in humility and in truth, you might just find your life changed. You might find yourself going home justified.
From time to time I offer online classes on prayer, using my award-winning book Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers. If you would like me to notify you by email when the next class is open, click here and sign up. (Hint: This could be very soon if I can get my act together…)
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