He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’”
Off the back of the persistent widow parable, Jesus tells another story to encourage and challenge us in how we should pray. He describes two different people from society that the disciples would’ve been well-acquainted with. The first was a pharisee of a high religious leader and the second a tax collector, or publican. The pharisees were revered, for they were seen as closer to God and held great spiritual influence in towns and neighborhoods. The tax collectors were despised, for they were Jewish but worked for the foreign power of Rome and took more taxes than were required from the Jewish people.
At hearing a pharisee mentioned in connection with prayer, the disciples might have quickly assumed Jesus was going to revere this religious leader. To their surprise, He does the opposite. He opposes the way pharisees prayed. Jesus wasn’t saying all pharisees or religious leaders who pray are like this or that He opposes them, but He was revealing the heart of prayer and that our approach to God does matter.
This particular pharisee stands in the temple and prays from a place of comparison, a place of works. This man uses the word “I” five times in a two sentence prayer. The amount of focus on self and His own works is very clear. The “I’s” reveal his pride and lack of ‘i'dentity. Our need to justify self is always a sign that we are still needing to grow in our grace-given identity in Christ.
All of us can approach God like this pharisee, trying to feel right before Him by comparison to others or by our own works. Neither gains us access to God’s perfect presence. None of these types of asking, seeking or knocking take down the man-made barriers in our minds. In fact these approaches—that we all can fall into in our minds and emotions—create more barriers.
This approach says it is what we do that gives us access to His presence. There will always be someone more “right” than we are, and there are no amount of works that could make us right or holy enough to be in His presence.
Approach can only be by our simple reliance on the finished work of Christ. It is our right-standing in Christ that comes by grace that gives us access to His presence.
This is good news because prayer, or intimacy with God, is available to all of us now in Christ. We don’t need to be better or worse than someone else. We don’t need to have a perfect past to enter into this relationship. We just need to say yes to Christ.
Prayer is not based on “I” but “Him.” No longer I that live but Christ that lives in me.
// Pastor Josh Kelsey