“He told His next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.'” Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”” Luke 18:9-14 (MSG)
As Jesus taught His listeners about prayer, His first lesson was don’t quit. Jesus wasn’t finished. As usual, Jesus wasn’t content to leave the crowd thinking all they had to do was some action—Jesus zeroed in on the heart.
Jesus told a second story filled with stark contrast and subtle similarities.
Bold and brash about his holiness and good deeds—almost like the child who reminds his parent of all the good things he’s accomplished before asking for a special privilege or blessing—the Pharisee reminds God and those in hearing range how great he is. Most likely, the Pharisee was not being hypocritical—as a religious man, he was telling the truth—he was religious. Fasting, tithing attending to strict laws of holiness was the work of the Pharisee. A Pharisees made sure all the boxes on his To Do List of Holiness were checked each day.
The Tax Collector
To understand this character, one must understand the role of the tax collector in the culture of Jesus’ day. Tax collectors were Jewish people who collected taxes from other Jewish people to pay the Roman Empire. The tax collector dealt with items other Jews considered “unclean.” Tax collectors were often dishonest, collecting more tax than the Romans required and pocketing the difference. The job of tax collector was not prestigious.
Differently the Same
Each of these characters, the brash Pharisee and the contrite tax collector had the same need—grace. Grace is not the reward for repentance. Grace is the gift a gracious God offers to all who are willing to take it. Jesus explains in pride and arrogance the Pharisee—convinced his own goodness was the point—left the gift untouched. The tax collector realizing his need—cried out for God’s mercy.
There is the lesson—understanding the need for grace. The pious, self-righteous Pharisee and the down cast, self-deprecating tax collector had the same need—a gracious savior.
That is the starting point of prayer. Every person comes to God on the same plane—needing grace. Realizing that my need for grace is the same as yours—my need is the same as the most honored, and the most despised—is the starting place of prayer.
Father, help me see myself through Your eyes—someone who is in desperate need of grace—but also someone who is deeply loved. Remind me my good deeds don’t earn grace any more than my bad deeds negate Your grace. Teach me to live a life of freedom and love in response to Your grace.