Did you hear the one about when the tax collector and the Pharisee prayed at the temple? It may sound like a joke, but there is nothing funny about it. In this story both did some heartfelt praying, but one went home justified and the other when home further away from God than he was when he came. The story is recorded in Luke 18:9-14.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 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.’ 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.”
We humans are not wise enough to notice these important things, so that is why it is so good that Jesus could point it out to us. In keeping with His other parables, this story has an important point to make not only about prayer but also about self-righteous thinking.
Prayer is about communicating with God. So when your prayer is all about telling God what a Christian rockstar you are, you’ve got a problem. You need to get a little of yourself out of the way if you are talking to your Great, Wonderful, Beautiful God. His Holiness and Almighty Awesomeness needs to come into play at some point in prayer. Otherwise, what is the point of your prayer?
Recognizing who you are praying to will cause you to grasp how majestic He is. Acknowledging God will change your prayer focus. If you consider Who He is, you will not be bringing your petty little fasting history up to him. Rather, you will be utterly amazed that the one who made the heavens is willing to even hear your prayers—Psalm 8. Don’t get me wrong. Jesus is all for fasting and giving and living a holy life. He is not about thinking these practices make you better than the next guy. Rather than exalting yourself because you follow God, you need to humble yourself because even becoming as holy as humanly possible is not holy enough before God. We should always be amazed at the mercy and love of God for fallen human beings.
The Tax Collector was very aware of his need for the mercy of God. When he entered the temple to pray, he felt the awesome holiness of God and became ever aware of his unholiness. He cried for mercy. Jesus announced through this story that his was an effective prayer. His prayer transformed his life. He left the temple justified, while the Pharisee left just as trapped in sin as when he came.
Humility is the key to life changing prayer.