The Only Prayer You’ll Ever Need

TEXT: Luke 18:9–14

Not long ago, I had a chance meeting with a church friend I had not seen in several years. I’ll call him Bill. It was the first time I had spoken to Bill since he had left his wife after more than 30 years of marriage. After some superficial chit-chat, and figuring that many people probably thought he was a slimeball for doing such a thing, I asked Bill if he felt socially isolated.

“Only by Christians,” he said.

I admit that I was as tempted as anyone to shoot the wounded. But as soon as he said that, what sprang to my mind was a story from Luke’s gospel (18:9-14).

Two men went up to the temple to pray, Jesus said. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax-collector. The Pharisee—who was one of the religious leaders, a fine upstanding man—prayed like this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—not even like this tax-collector. I fast. I tithe. God, I’m good!

The tax-collector, though … Well, he stood far off. He would not even look up to heaven, but was pounding his chest and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

And Jesus said that it was the tax collector—and not the Pharisee—who went home justified … the slimeball, and not the saint. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

By contrasting the two characters in this story as polar opposites, Jesus sets in bold relief two ways of being religious—one of which is death-dealing, the other of which is life-giving.

The Pharisee was religiously righteous. The tax man was an extortionist for the Roman oppressors. The religious expert was smug, sanctimonious, and confident. The outsider was anxious, insecure and timid. The saint paraded into the temple, while the sinner stood at a distance as if his physical separation from the temple expressed his alienation from God. The righteous man stood up. The sinful man looked down.

In an act of incredible narcissism, the Pharisee prayed loudly about himself. The tax collector could barely pray at all. The Pharisee puffed out his chest in pride; the publican beat his chest in sorrow.

As in so many Jesus stories that subvert conventional wisdom, the parabolic punch line culminates with a reversal: the respectable, reputable believer—so competent and accomplished, the one who had done everything right … He was rejected! Whereas the vile sinner—contemptible, inadequate, and untrustworthy … He went home justified before God!

I know the Pharisees get a rough ride in the gospels. However, for the most part, they weren’t bad people. It would be hard to imagine a more earnest, conscientious, religious person than the Pharisee. He prayed often, he fasted regularly, and he gave generously to help the needy. His spiritual discipline was rigorous. But, in the case of this Pharisee in Jesus’ story, the man made two tragic mistakes in his religious life—one about himself, and one about other people—the combination of which is poison to authentic spirituality. Two mistakes.

First, the Pharisee looked down on everybody else. And I think that’s a temptation for most of us. Contempt for others does lurk in the human heart; at least it does in mine, bubbling up all too easily:

“Why can’t that guy get a job like everybody else?”

“Where did he get that ridiculous tattoo?”

“Thank God I’m not as narrow-minded as she is.”

Sounds like junior high, doesn’t it? We imagine that by disparaging others we validate ourselves—or that at least we may compare favorably. To disparage someone like my friend Bill as a sanctimonious hypocrite might feel good, but that’s a slippery slope that Jesus warns us to avoid.

We harm people when we disrespect them. We harm ourselves, too, when we try to boost our own egos by tearing others down.

As the Book of James (3:2) says: “All of us make many mistakes.” What we need when we stumble and fail is not moral condescension but human compassion—not humiliation but empathy, not shame but hope.

True saints have always realized this. In the seventh century, Maximos the Confessor wrote: “The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone … He knows that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress.”

The flip-side of condescension toward others is justification of yourself. This was the Pharisee’s second mistake. The Pharisee thanked God that he was “not like other people”—a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer. His religious narcissism was a form of spiritual self-justification, of which there are almost endless expressions. It’s scary to think about the many ways we try to justify ourselves before God, to others, and to our own selves.

We’ll invoke almost anything to justify ourselves—intelligence, education, wealth, achievement, athletic ability, politics, careers. A common form of self-justification invokes your postal code (“Where do you live?”), insinuating that net worth is a reliable index of self-worth. Ethical self-justification assures me that, “I am better than the next person.”

At one time or another—and to a greater or lesser degree—I’ve tried each of these versions of self-justification, and let me tell you: they don’t work! Society is relentless in demanding proofs and justifications from us, and it’s easy to take the bait, because living without self-justification makes you feel vulnerable and exposed.

But when you think about it, living without self-justification is extraordinarily liberating. As soon as you accept the fact that you are accepted—accepted by a good and loving God—you no longer have to prove yourself.

“Accept the fact that you are accepted.” But how do we get there? How do we reach that place of acceptance? Well, Jesus says that we need only seven words—the words uttered by the tax collector as he stood at a distance and stared at the ground: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The moment we speak those words and cast our unadorned selves upon God, we experience God’s love—a love without conditions or limits.

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Correctly understood, and spoken from the heart, that’s the most important prayer anyone can ever say; and—in a sense—it’s the only prayer you’ll ever need. Why? Because it proceeds from an honest appraisal of our human condition, and—more importantly—from confidence in the character of a God who welcomes the sinner as well as the saint.

A century ago, the British evangelist George Campbell Morgan commented on a line from the Book of Ephesians (2:10), which in the King James Version speaks about us being God’s “workmanship” (“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works …”). Here’s what Morgan wrote:

We are God’s workmanship. That is where the song of hope and comfort begins. I would be frightened of the first, because when I say I am his I am not talking for effect; I am talking out of my life, deeply. Even today I say I belong to him, and I am almost ashamed because I do not feel there is anything worth his possessing in me. But wait a minute—we are his workmanship! That means he is working on us. There is the suggestion in it of artistic beauty. We are his workmanship, not yet perfected, but in process. [Stanley I. Stuber and Thomas Curtis Clark, editors, Treasury of the Christian Faith, New York: Association Press, 1949; p. 472.]

The tax-collector does not plead his good works, but the mercy of God in forgiving his sin. The mercy of God, who sees not simply what the man now is, but also what he can be—what he will be, for God is working on him. And so the sinner returns home, justified before God. Justified! In other words, God reckons him to be righteous. His sins are forgiven, and he is credited with righteousness—not his own, but the righteousness which God gives him.

God knows his own intention for him, and regards him in that knowledge—the knowledge that a new creation has begun, and will progress to completion. This is, it seems to me, the essential meaning of that theological term “justification”—and it is also the heart of the Christian gospel. Thanks be to God, who sees us not only as we are, but also as we shall be, through the working of his Spirit. Hallelujah! And amen.

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