Bible Study

The Pharisee & The Tax Collector (Luke 18: 9–14)

“Jesus’ parable of these two worshipers challenges us to consider our own prayer approach to the Almighty...” by Major Valerie Carr
Jon Anders Wiken via Adobe Stock

Prayer is a matter of approaching God with our whole selves and laying the truth of our personality, life and needs before the One Who hears us. As we continue our series on prayers of the Bible, this month we turn to a parable told by Jesus in the book of Luke. In Luke 18, Jesus tells a story about two people who went to the Temple to pray: a Pharisee and a despised tax collector (v 10). It is entirely believable that this parable is based off a true-life situation that Jesus witnessed and then retold as a lesson to His listeners. The two men come before the Lord in prayer but with very different approaches. The Pharisee separates himself and prays a prayer of thankfulness that he is not like other sinners and then lists his righteous deeds (v 11). The tax collector stands at a distance and humbly prays a simple prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner” (v 13). Jesus declares that only the tax collector left church that day justified because of his humble approach to God (v 14).

The two people praying point to the clear lesson Jesus is seeking to share about prayer through this parable: do our prayers make God an audience or an authority in our life? The Pharisee offers the example of approaching God as an audience. He lists off his own personal accomplishments in his religious life: fasting, tithing, good behavior. He wants God to know what a good follower he has been. How he has followed all the rules. How he has done exactly what is expected of him. How well behaved he is. It’s almost as if he is reminding God how lucky the Lord is to have someone like him on His side! The prayer does not seem to need God, but rather seeks to impress God.

One commentator suggests “the odds are the Pharisee is the person most of us should probably identify with in this parable. We can probably camouflage our self-righteousness better, but every day we look around and thank God that we are not like some of the people we meet. And we all make our little lists, hoping to impress [God]” (“Luke: The Gospel of Amazement”). It’s the moment we approach prayer as a chance to remind God what a good person we are, particularly when He considers everyone else and how bad we could have been. We silently let God know that we are trying our best and remind Him of the various people who are not trying their best (in our estimation) as thinly veiled prayer requests. We think of all the ways we are doing the right things, conveniently avoiding any thought or discussion of the myriad of moments when we were most definitely not doing the right thing. We tout our religious accomplishments as badges of honor that surely have earned us some kind of medal in heaven: going to church, tithing and giving to missions, wearing our uniform correctly, playing in the band/singing in the choir and bringing the good recipes to the Sunday potluck. When we approach prayer as if God is simply the audience to all our good works, we lose connection between our faith and our deeds. We run the risk of forgetting that “salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done” (Ephesians 2:9).

Jesus’ other character in this parable gives us an example of what prayer looks like that recognizes God as the authority in our life. The tax collector “dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow …” (v 13). The tax collector approaches prayer with humility and self-awareness in the presence of the Lord. In verse 13, we find his simple prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” Jesus goes on to commend the tax collector as the one who is justified before God (v 14). 

It is this characteristic of humility that Jesus points to as the primary lesson between these two prayers. Webster’s online dictionary defines humility as “freedom from pride or arrogance.” Humility in prayer is displayed when we recognize the authority and power of the God we are addressing in our prayers. It is recognizable in a prayer approach to God that mirrors the tax collector’s simple sentence: God, show me mercy, for I am not perfect. God, I need your help because I cannot manage on my own. God, I need your righteousness because all my righteous deeds “are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).

Humility in prayer is a proper perspective on our true self and a full trust in the sovereignty of the Lord. I approach God in prayer understanding that I have come into the presence of the only One Who can help my situation. Humble prayers put my accomplishments in perspective of the surpassing greatness of God. We can say with the apostle Paul: “I once thought [my good behavior, my righteousness, my Christian heritage, my abilities and gifts, etc.] were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done” (Philippians 3:7). The tax collector’s prayer reminds us to hold our accomplishments loosely as they are nothing in comparison to the mercy and forgiveness God is offering. The challenge is to bring our needs humbly in prayer to the authority who offers restoration and renewal.

Jesus’ parable of these two worshippers challenges us to consider our own prayer approach to the Almighty: Is God our audience or our authority? It can be easier and more comfortable at times to point to others and feel validated in saying, “At least I’m not that bad.” The world seems to feed an influencer culture, where I am the authority and people (including the church and God) should be so lucky to have me on their side. It is more difficult to consider that “there but for the grace of God go I.” In all our circumstances, it is only the abundant mercy that God offers through Jesus Christ that sustains us each day. It is a challenge to see our prayer as an opportunity to recognize God’s authority over the whole of my life, including my accomplishments. Through this parable, Jesus is calling us to examine our motivations in how we approach God through prayer.  

Samuel Logan Brengle, an American Salvation Army saint, is credited with writing in his journal: “If I appear great in [others’] eyes, the Lord is most graciously helping me to see how absolutely nothing I am without Him, and helping me to keep little in my own eyes.” When we seek to approach God with prayers that recognize Him as the authority in life, we can be well aware of our dependance on God’s mercy and grace to accomplish anything. Jesus’ parable of two prayers sets before us a choice to recognize God’s role in our lives and our accomplishments, and through prayer seek to keep ourselves humble as we lean on His mercy for each new day. 

Questions to ponder

  • What motivations do my prayers reflect in my approach to God?
  • How have I been like the Pharisee recently? How have I been like the tax collector?