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[November 19, 2010]
--Two men went up to
the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.
The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank
you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or
even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of
all my income.” 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!"-Luke 18: 10-13
Do you know how to pray? I think I have gotten more questions about
prayer during my time with you than any other spiritual matter.
Should I ask for personal things in my prayer? If God already knows
what will happen, why pray? I feel bad praying about my problems
when there are so many people who have it so worse than me. You've
probably thought them all before, even if you haven't asked about
them. As Chapter 18 of the Gospel of Luke opens, Jesus has prayer on
his mind, and he uses this parable of a well respected Pharisee and
a despised tax collector to make a point about how we should pray.
First, we should be clear, Jesus is not affirming the goodness of
one man over the other. The Pharisee is likely faithful and
disciplined. The tax collector is likely a jerk who exploits his
countrymen for his own wealth. No, what Jesus is affirming is the
way one of them prays. And the posture of prayer is more important
than the content itself. The Pharisee comes before God already
justified in his own mind. Aware of his good points, he prays to God
as someone submitting a resume of fidelity, while giving thanks that
he is so much better off than the scoundrels of society. His posture
is that of someone who is sure of his salvation and good standing
before God. This is how not to pray.
Consider, instead, the tax collector. Aware of his sin, he comes
before God as nothing more than a penitent sinner, offering only his
repentance before God. This is the type of prayer Jesus affirms.
Does this mean that all of us are as bad as the tax collector? No.
But it does mean that, in prayer, we must always recognize the
distance which exists between us and God. No matter how faithful we
are, no matter how pious or disciplined, we live in a sin-induced
state of alienation from God. When we pray, we should always
acknowledge this separation. In so doing, we preserve and maintain
the true nature of our relationship with God; that we are all
sinners in need of forgiveness.
Prayer: Holy God, forgive me for my sins. Help me to
forgive myself, and also forgive those who I believe have wronged
me. Help me to see my own failures instead of the failures of
others. I pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
[text from file received from Phil Blackburn,
First Presbyterian Church]