In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisees were a religious sect known for their devotion to the Old Testament law. They were known for that because they made sure everybody knew they were known for that. They wore phylacteries (small, black leather cubes containing verses) on their foreheads and their wrists; they made long prayers in public; they made it obvious when they fasted; blew trumpets when they tithed. They also lectured others on how to live the godly life and created man-made traditions around the law to make sure nobody broke it. However, for all their fanfare and blunderbuss, they didn’t really know the Lord or how to apply His Word to their own lives in a meaningful way. They even bent and broke their own traditions. For example, they had a rule that you could only walk about a mile from Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. To get around this, they would have a servant carry a bag of dirt from Jerusalem and when they reached the one-mile limit, the servant would put a clump of dirt down and the Pharisees would walk another mile. Once that was complete, the servant would put down another clump of dirt and so on until the Pharisee got to where he wanted to go. Jesus had a one-word descriptor for the Pharisees: hypocrites. (See Matthew 23.)
The publicans were tax collectors for the Roman empire. In Israel, these were Jews who collected taxes on behalf of Rome. They were considered traitors by their countrymen and were known to overcharge because as long as Rome got its cut, the Roman government didn’t care how much extra the publicans collected beyond that amount. A lot of publicans made a lot of money this way.
The parable Jesus spoke about these two classes of people was addressed to “certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” In other words, the Pharisees:
(10) Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
(11) The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
God heard the prayer of the Pharisee but the effectiveness of it did not reach beyond the walls of the temple. Why? Because the Pharisee used his prayer to exalt himself. Prayer is where we are supposed to recognize and express our neediness, and where we exalt God. As far as the Pharisee was concerned, he didn’t need God. He was okay all on his own because he wasn’t like those he was condemning in his prayers. Plus, he had a list of accomplishments he could brag on that made him a “good Christian” (Luke 18:12). So, of course, he was ultimately praying to himself. That’s who he was exalting. It is the unique talent of our fallen nature to take our most sinful characteristics and make them sound so holy.
The publican was on the other side of the room. He “would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven” (Luke 18:13). This man saw himself as God saw him and because he saw himself that way, he knew his neediness. He “smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.'” His prayers reached all the way to God Himself. Why? Because “every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14b). Jesus had a one-word descriptor for this man too: justified.
When you and I go to God in prayer, we must take the time to let God show us who we really are so that we humble ourselves before Him as the publican did. He did not sugarcoat the truth about himself and he didn’t use his prayer to condemn others and exalt his merits. He saw God as God is and himself as he was. If we aren’t doing that every time we pray, we’re just praying to ourselves.