Living Lessons 9

Parable of the Two Men in the Temple

“Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14 NLT

The opening words to Luke 18 is the critical finishing piece to the purpose behind the rest of the chapter. It reads, “One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up.” Luke 18:1 NLT

Prayer, though one of the most important pieces of the spiritual journey, may also be one of the most misunderstood. Is prayer about saying the right words to get whatever I want? If I pray enough, with enough faith, will God grant me the requests of my heart? Is prayer talking? Listening? Both? Neither? What is prayer?

In Luke 18, Jesus begins by sharing a parable with the disciples about the persistent widow and the harsh judge. But the audience and focus shifts when Jesus tells another parable after this one. The second parable, found in Luke 18: 9-14, is told to, “Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else...” Luke 18:9 NLT

In context, it would seem that this parable is told to the Pharisees in the room, those that believed salvation came by their own merits (the Hebrew understanding of righteousness related more to “God’s saving acts,” which of course is granted not earned, than it did to one’s own moral standards and activity).
The two characters in the parable, the Pharisees and the Publican (or tax collector depending on your version), both go to the temple to pray, most likely at a time that was common to do so. After introduced, the parable then contrasts the way in which these characters pray to God.
We’re told the Pharisee stood by himself, or stood apart, from others. This was probably a common stance for a Pharisees who is especially aware of avoiding anyone who was unclean. They didn’t want the unclean riffraff in the temple to bump up against them in prayer, or touch them in passing and thus defile them. So they would have found a place to stand and pray, and praying out loud would offer them a chance to give those around them some unsolicited advice.

I’m sure we’ve all been given unsolicited advise before. Sometimes, pastors give that advice in a prayer at the end of the sermon when they forgot to say something, so the closing prayer is really one more point from the sermon. And sometimes, when the pastor wants to rain down some condemnation, he or she may do it in a prayer because, well, really who can judge a prayer, right? After all, that is a conversation between them and God.

Whatever the case, the Pharisees’ prayer was clearly more about themselves, than it was about God. It was more about piety, than intimacy; appearances than authenticity.

Then we come to the publican, or tax collector. This is a person who already feels as if they are an outsider in this house of worship. After all, tax collectors were seen as people who betrayed their own people to serve the Roman government. He would have walked into that space with people glaring at him with piercing eyes, condemnation written all over their faces.
The tax collector stood at a distance too, though maybe not by choice. He couldn’t even look up, he just beat his chest in sorrow.

According to Kenneth E. Bailey in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, he says that in this time never beat their chest; women may have on occasion. The only other place in Scripture where people beat their chest was at the crucifixion of Jesus (Luke 23: 48). So this is an extraordinary physical response. This man was reacting incredible angst, viscerally. The only words he could get out were, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Jesus said the sinner (i.e. the tax collector) went home justified, not the Pharisee, and then he spoke to the importance of humility. It seems the contrast is clear. The Pharisee didn’t really think he needed God, the Publican new He didn’t have a chance without God. Which one are you?

God not only wants us to realize our need for Him, but to share all of ourselves with all of Him because that’s what intimacy is. And since our first parent’s doubted in Him in the garden, He has been trying to prove to us exactly how much He loves us, how approachable He is, and how we wants to carry us though this life until the day He returns to take us unto Himself.

I’ll close with these words from Dane Ortlund, pastor and author, who writes this about prayer...
“God’s forgiving, redeeming, restoring touch reaches down into the darkest crevices of our souls, those places where we are most ashamed, most defeated. More than this: those crevices of sin are themselves the places where Christ loves us the most. His heart willingly goes there. His heart is most strongly drawn there. He knows us to the uttermost, and he saves us to the uttermost, because his heart is drawn out to us to the uttermost. We cannot sin our way out of his tender care . . .”

If you are beating your chest today, crying out because you recognize you can’t live another moment with Him, know how much He’s done for you, how much He loves you, and that He is with you now, and always, giving you His uttermost.

By Paddy McCoy


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