There is something in our psyche in Scotland that causes us to naturally favour the underdog in many contexts, especially sporting ones. But it is almost a principle that we want people to have a fair and balanced view of themselves in whatever sphere of life they lead. When someone is looking down on their peers and viewing them as second class citizens we know that something is wrong, or I hope we do!
Jesus wanted to address this issue of humility and wisdom and told a simple story to illustrate His point. It is found in Luke’s Gospel chapter eighteen verses nine to fourteen:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.
12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” 13 ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 14 ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 18:9-14)
It is important to understand the religious and cultural background of this story. The first hearers of the story would have been very confident of the point Jesus was making that God has no time for wretched sinners like the tax-collector who exploited his fellow Jews while collecting taxes for the Roman Army, an army of occupation in Israel.
By contrast, the Pharisees were very popular with the vast majority ofordinary people. They were local tradesmen who were based in ordinary communities alongside their peers, but who had also had a theological education prior to serving as lay-pastors or elders of the local Jewish synagogues. Apparently there were about six thousand of them in Jesus’ day. The majority of them were excellent God-honouring individuals, but not all. Some were so obsessed on keeping their own rules and regulations that they forgot what was most important of all in our relationship with God. Let us look very briefly at these two people in this story:
1.The Pharisee 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayedabout himself [or literally to himself]: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
The context was a time of prayer in the most holy place of worship for Jews, the Jerusalem Temple. The wording of what he was doing praying about himself could equally be translated to himself.
He was speaking the truth he had been a conscientious individual seeking to lead a good life. There was no doubt that he was correct that he hadn’t robbed people in the street or carried out evil acts against fellow citizens and equally likely that he had been faithful to his wife. What is more he had not been engaged in fiddling his taxes after all this man was so careful like many other Pharisees that he gave away not only a tenth of his income to charity, but did the same with the herbs in his garden (Matthew 23:23).
He even gave up some meals to engage in extra times of prayer twice a week. This is all highly commendable conduct except that prayer is not about telling God how wonderful we are, or boasting about our achievements in His holy presence.
Just imagine walking uninvited into Buckingham Palace when Queen Elizabeth II is giving out medals or certificates to citizens who have been nominated successfully. Instead of waiting your turn you walked past others in the line and stopped at the front demanding to be honoured first! In every respect such an action would be wrong. Jesus was suggesting that God would equally view such arrogance in prayer as out of place.
It is unlikely that we would pray out loud in a church service declaring ourselves better than other people present. However, human nature being what it is we can have strong temptations at times to see ourselves as better than some other people. I understand various police forces around the UK have had an alarming number of calls in recent weeks from people reporting their neighbours for violations of the lock down restrictions, for example, for taking an extra walk per day or some other similar matter!
2. The Tax Collector (Luke 18:13-14) ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner[literally the sinner ].”
This person has a different focus. He simply focusses on himself in his prayer that day asking God to forgive him for some wrong thing he has done. There are no excuses or self-justification. He admits it was him who had failed.
God knows us better than we know ourselves so we cannot hide things from Him. So it is both humbling and wise to be completely open with God when we pray. The Bible is clear that God is willing to forgive the sins of anyone who is genuinely sorry for their misconduct. How did Jesus indicate God viewed these two prayers?
14 ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
In this new week let us talk honestly and humbly with God about how we are getting on knowing that God wants to honour those that honour Him. God knows all our hearts so we cannot mislead Him. Therefore, the wisest step to take is to please Him in the choices we make and in the attitudes we display for our good and for His glory.
Our song to help us reflect on this subject is ‘Search me O God and know my heart’