“I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
–Luke 18:14 (NLT)
The Bible provides us with a view of the publican, or tax collector. We all need to consider this parable because if we’re not careful, we can relegate the pharisees to ancient history. I believe, however, that this story often becomes so familiar to us that we forget to apply it to our everyday lives. So let’s take a fresh look at it, and then I would like to offer some thoughts.
9 “Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: 10 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
(Luke 18:9-14, NLT)
Notice that the Pharisee didn’t ask God for mercy, as the publican did. Also, while Jesus was clearly speaking about justification, I believe He would have us see a principle here. Like the pharisees, we can all come to the Lord in the garb of self-importance, which leads to pride.
But pride is a deadly sin, and none of us take it seriously enough. Pride is subtle, and it can sneak up on us. In essence, pride says, “God, I can take it from here in my own strength.” While we may say that out of one side of our mouths, we often couch it in pious language, and therein lies the danger.
Look at the way the pharisee started his prayer, invoking the name of God. Now look at many of us who call ourselves Christians, and I think you will have to agree that things haven’t changed very much. For example, say that God has chosen to give me a gift to use for His glory. But after a while, I forget that the Lord gave me that gift. Then I only become arrogant.
Here, the snake-like nature of pride rears its ugly head in another way. It says, “God, I sort of need you, but let me help you out.”
That is one reason why the Bible speaks of self-examination in so many places. To examine ourselves requires spending time in God’s presence, so that He can speak to each of us.
But now, let’s turn our attention to the tax collector. He would have been very wealthy, because he exploited his fellow Jews while collecting taxes for the Roman government. All Jews hated publicans, since they were always engaged in what were considered to be treasonous activities.
Ask yourself how God saw the publican. Next time you’re feeling worthless, ask yourself how God sees you. While He wants each of us to come to Him in humility, this does not equate to worthlessness. Rather, the question we should ask ourselves is, “Where is our worth found?”
Lastly in this section, Jesus addresses the subject of prayer. In the book of Hebrews, we see that we are to come boldly before His throne, and biblical humility does not contradict this.
Imagine that you got a chance to speak with the president. While getting in to see him would require great humility, you could speak with boldness if he felt passionate about the subject you were addressing.
While God’s door is always open, you and I usually take an audience with the King of the universe far too lightly. In order for biblical prayer to be the amazing weapon God designed it to be, we need to put on God’s armor, instead of putting on the garb of self-righteousness. We may be tempted to pray with pride and arrogance as the pharisee did, but instead we are called to pray humbly and boldly, following the publican’s lead.
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