A Tale of Two Prayers
A preacher and a taxi driver both died and went to heaven. St.
Peter was at the Pearly gates waiting for them. 'Come with me',
said St. Peter to the taxi driver. The taxi driver did as he was
told and followed St. Peter to a mansion. It had anything you
could imagine, from a bowling alley to an Olympic sized pool.
'Wow, thank you!' said the taxi driver.
Next, St. Peter led the preacher to a rugged old shack with a
bunk bed and a little old television set. 'Wait, I think you are a
little mixed up', said the preacher. 'Shouldn't I be the one who
gets the mansion? After all I was head of a congregation, went
to church every day, and preached God's word.'
'Yes, that's true,' said St. Peter, Tut during your sermons
people slept. When the taxi driver drove, everyone prayed.'
It would seem that this preacher had more than a few lessons
to learn about humility. It would also seem that such was the
case for the Pharisee in our lesson this morning. Today's
reading from Luke brings us the Parable of the Pharisee and the
This is, in essence, a parable about prayer.... And a story about
two very different prayers.
What is it about these two prayers that still speaks so directly
to our hearts today — 2000 years after the parable was first
spoken? With apologies to Charles Dickens, let's take a closer
look at this "tale of two prayers", to see what it might teach us
after so many years.
This parable follows another parable the persistent widow
where Jesus teaches us to be persistent in our prayers. Today's
story gives us more information on what those persistent
prayers should look like.
When I read this parable again, preparing for this message, the
first thing that I thought about was humility. And the next thing
I knew, Mac Davis was crooning in my head:
"Oh Lord it's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every
way. I can't wait to look in the mirror, 'cause I get better lookin'
each day. To know me is to love me, I must be a hell of a man,
Oh Lord it's hard to be humble, but I'm doing the best that I
Without question, we're often surrounded by people that could
use a lesson in humility. Some of them might be our friends,
some are invariably people in positions of authority, some are
even running to be President of the United States. The scary
thing is, if we are truly honest, it also just might be us, too.
The first to enter our tale of two prayers is the Pharisee. Who
were the Pharisees? Today, we have a prejudice against the
Pharisees. We've heard so many stories about them that we
immediately cast them as the bad guy. But that's not the way
they were seen when Jesus spoke about them.
And it's important that we see them as honored members of
the Jewish community if we are to fully understand this
parable. The Pharisees were well respected and honored
members of their community. They were lay people, not
priests. They were dedicated to studying and diligently
following the laws laid down by God.
Our Pharisee knew the laws of the Torah, and followed these
laws very carefully. He wanted to make sure God knew of his
righteousness. Of course, he didn't sin like others did — robbers,
evildoers, adulterers. He was so righteous that he even went
beyond the requirements of the law. The law only required one
fast a year. He fasted TWICE a week. The law only required a
tithe on certain parts of one's income. He tithed on ALL he
received. In his eyes, he was the best of the best; a credit to
God and deserving of a place in the kingdom.
Our other player in this tale is the tax collector. There was no
doubt in the minds of those listening to Jesus at the time, that
this was the bad guy in the story. A tax collector worked for
Rome. A tax collector would have been perceived by the
community as the worst of the worst of Jewish citizenry,
perhaps even lower. Tax collectors, in the Scriptures, were Jews
who worked for the ruling Roman authorities. They were
considered both extortionists and traitors. They were
extortionists because they were notoriously noted for collecting
more taxes than was owed and pocketing the difference. They
were considered traitors because they served the occupying
power of Rome.
So, as the parable opens we're supposed to view the Pharisee
as the good guy, at least compared to the tax collector, who is
our perennial "bad guy". There are many obvious differences
between these two men; but the biggest difference between
the Pharisee and the tax collector was the object of their
The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself, including his
great piety, his going beyond the law, his great adoration for
God. The tax collector, however, prayed simply to seek God.
The Pharisee addressed his prayer to God, but talked about
himself. He loved himself, prayed about himself, and thought
about himself with great pride.
Now, let's not be too harsh with the idea of pride, per say.
Everything does have a place, pride included. It can be healthy,
and necessary, in moderation. Pride in a job well done. Pride in
a child who does well in school. No, it's misplaced pride that
we're talking about here. Pride that becomes arrogance.
Misplaced pride that leads to statements like: "Wow, his
clothes are pretty ragged. He should take more pride in
himself." Misplaced pride that leads us to place ourselves
above other people. Misplaced pride that leads to arrogant
slogans like "Make America Great Again".
Pride makes us spiritually blind to sin. Our egos are so inflated
that we sometimes do not see our own shortcomings. It's not
that we can't see them, it's just that we choose not to. And it
follows that if we convince ourselves we have no sin, then we'll
never seek God for forgiveness.
Pride leads to down-nose looking. When pride infects our
vision, we start to look to look down our nose at other people.
We ignore their needs, their struggles, mock their requests; at
the same time believing that we're better than they are.
The Christian writer C.S. Lewis called pride "the great sin."
In his book, Mere Christianity, Lewis said,
"According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost
evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all
that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride
that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice:
it is the complete anti-God state of mind... it is Pride which has
been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family
since the world began."
Lewis is not simply giving us his private opinion but
summarizing the thinking of great saints through the ages.
Augustine and Aquinas both taught that pride was the root of
You can hear the pride in the Pharisee's prayer: "Thank you
that I'm not like other people." This prayer offered by the
Pharisee accomplishes nothing. He's not seeking God's will, nor
is he honoring God's presence in his life. Pride causes us to
chase after goals God has not set. Pride leads us to try to satisfy
our own egos.
Pride is always more concerned about what people think than
about what God thinks.
Psalm 138:6 says, "Though the Lord is on high, he looks upon
the lowly, but the proud He knows from afar."
Proverbs 16:5 says, "The Lord detests all the proud of heart."
James 4:6 & 1 Peter 5:5 both say, "God opposes the proud but
gives grace to the humble."
Imaging the Pharisee standing there & thinking, "How do I
look? Is my robe all right? Do I look pious enough? Maybe I
should fold my hands?" He has this great religious aura and he
prays with this powerful voice that sounds so holy. And
everybody goes, "Wow, he is really religious."
But God wants us to be real with Him: He doesn't want us to
pretend to be something we're not. He wants us to be
authentic. He wants us to admit that we have doubts and
questions. John the Baptist did; Thomas did; so why not just be
real with God? He can deal with your doubts and questions.
He's a big God.
Let's look at the "bad guy" in our parable:
"But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up
to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be
merciful to me, a sinner.' I tell you, this man went down to his
home justified rather than the other."
Did you hear it? It's barely audible to the ear. His prayer doesn't
sound like much. But don't mistake very few words for very
little meaning. This short, seven-word prayer.
"God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
No fancy words, no pious chest pounding, no artificial religious
preservatives here. Just an open, honest, plea from a man who
was probably very wealthy otherwise. And he is the one who
goes home justified. Why? Because he prayed the right way?
No. Because God accepted his prayer. Because God never turns
away a broken, humble heart.
A proud lawyer asked a farmer once: "Why don't you hold your
head up in the world? I bow my head before neither God nor
man." The farmer replied: "Do you see that field of wheat?
Only the heads of wheat that are empty stand upright. The
well-filled ones bow low.
Both men prayed; but both men didn't approach God the same
way. The Pharisee and his prayer were entirely self-centered;
he prayed with and about himself, he repeated "I" four times.
We can address our words to God, but actually be praying to
ourselves, because our focus is on ourselves, not on God.
Praying with Pride makes "MY will be done" not "Thy will be
done", and that's a pretty big difference, isn't it?
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector guides us to
the place of prayer where we can meet God: That way begins
with, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."