Our study, found in the eighteenth chapter of Luke, follows the passage on the parable of the persistent widow. In that parable our Lord stresses the need of prayer.
He puts it very bluntly: Men must either pray or faint; there is no other choice.
If we are praying then we are not fainting and if we are fainting, then no matter how much we may think otherwise, we are not praying. The Lord puts it on an either or basis!
The question to each of our hearts is: Am I fainting? Am I losing heart? Is life dull, boring, and shallow, is it all surface and no depth? Am I unchallenged, defeated? If so, we are not praying.
What we need desperately to do is to discover the true nature of prayer. True prayer is natural, instinctive and comes easily. This kind of prayer, Jesus says, is the key to God’s power and glory.
Therefore Jesus moves right from this discussion of the need for prayer, in the parable of the persistent women, to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. This is where he teaches the nature of authentic prayer.
The Pharisee, in this little parable, was a man of prayer. He prays frequently, and with punctuality, without ever a miss. He was faithful in his prayer, but his prayer was entirely wrong.
The tax collector, on the other hand is not accustomed to praying.
He is infrequently found in the temple courts. This is all new to him but his prayer is exactly right. As we meditate on these two characters let us grasp the lessons Jesus wants to teach us:
We learn there is a form of praying which is not prayer… This man, the Pharisee, assumed the correct posture for prayer. He stood, Jesus said, with his arms spread and his eyes uplifted unto heaven. But Jesus says, that he prayed with himself! There was no one on the other line.
First, it is clear that; it is not prayer when we approach God impressed with our own qualities.
This man felt that God ought to be thanked for having made such a remarkable specimen of humanity. And if no one else will do it he will take on the task himself.
We laugh as we listen to his prayer, but do we not unconsciously reflect at times the same position? How many times we feel to help God out? Or sometimes we can do the opposite of the Pharisee and hope to impress God with our honesty and humility and modesty!
The simple truth is that we have no qualities of our own, none whatsoever. We should be praying out of utter bankruptcy, ruin, if we are honest with ourselves. We forget that these talents with which we identify ourselves, these abilities that we have for leadership, or speaking, or singing are in themselves gifts of God. Is it strange how easily we identify ourselves with our virtues and deny identity with our faults.
We forget God’s shielding grace that has saved us from some of the terrible things and find it so easy to forget our shortcomings.
Like the Pharisee we look downward from ourselves… “He stood and saw, out of the corner of his eye, this tax collector standing at a distance, and immediately it made him virtuous.” He had taken the vantage point which permitted him to look down on someone else.
It is always possible to find someone who is lower down on the scale of human morals than we are, and what a comfort they are to our hearts… This is why we love to gossip! It simply makes us feel superior.
On the other hand, Jesus said that the tax collector stands afar off, he doesn’t even lift up his eyes, he fails to assume the proper position of prayer, and he does it all wrong. ‘How totally unimportant are these externals of prayers!’
This man came into the temple and stood with his eyes cast down. He did not assume the posture of prayer; he was not even in the right place. All he could do was beat his breast and say “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
What do we learn about prayer from this man? ‘Real prayer, authentic prayer is an awareness of our helpless need.’ This man saw himself on the lowest possible level, a sinner. He believed that without God he could do absolutely nothing to help his position.
Is it not remarkable that he does not try to add anything by way of merit? He says, “Lord, I haven’t a thing to lean on but you” This man does the opposite of the Pharisee: He did not look down on someone else below him, he looked up to God. He saw no one but God; he heard nothing but the high standard of God.
Prayer therefore, is an expression of an awareness of helpless need that can only be met by God. In the tax collector we learn another thing about true prayer…. Authentic prayer is always acknowledgment of divine adequacy.
This man said, “God be merciful to me!” Our help must be in God….. This man looked for help from nowhere else.
In that word ‘be merciful’ is hidden all the wonderful story of the coming of Jesus Christ, the bloody cross, and the resurrection; as a result, he was changed, he was different, he was made whole. This man took his forgiveness.
Prayer is more than asking, prayer is taking. Prayer is more than pleading, prayer is believing. How many times each day do you have a need? How many times do you lack? That is the number of times you ought to be praying!
Even after years of Christian life we can start again and say, “Lord let me consider upon your faithfulness to me, let me count upon your willingness to be in me and work through me to make my life all that it ought to be.”
This is a summary of the sermon preached by Pastor Elio Marrocco on March 1, 2015 at New Life Christian Church in Woodbridge, Vaughan, just north of Toronto.