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"He told His next story to those who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people. ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: 'O God, I thank you that I am not like other people -- robbers, crooks, adulterers or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.'
"Meanwhile, the tax man, slumped in the shadows, face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, 'God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner,'
"Jesus commented, 'This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you're going to end up on your face, but if you're content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.'" Luke 18:9-14 (The Message).
Since prayer is essentially the interaction between the Father and His child, it is easy to recognise that the Pharisee in Jesus' story did not, for one moment, fit into the category of a son. His attitude and words were completely foreign to a Father/son relationship. No true son would talk to his father the way this man talked to God. He was not praying. He was preening and boasting. His prayer was an unashamed, 'Look at me, God. See how good I am. Aren't you proud of me?'
Did his 'thank you' express true gratitude? Not at all! It was his way of congratulating himself on being a self-made man. The rest of his 'eulogy' was a summary of his religious achievements - his so-called 'tsidaqahs', his acts of generosity, but they were done out of duty, to gather 'brownie points' and for self-congratulation, not from a generous and loving heart that gladly obeyed God's directives.
Who was the measure of his achievements and his judgement of everyone else? He was, of course. He did not realise that, if you measure imperfection against imperfection, you get imperfection! Since his standard was based on his own performance and not on his attitude and character, he would naturally judge himself top of the list. What he did not understand was that he was using entirely the wrong measure.
The tax man was fully aware that his life fell far short of what God required of him. He was so broken by guilt and shame that he did not even have the courage to be seen. He hid in the shadows with his eyes downcast and his face in his hands. His prayer was, 'Don't look at me, God. If you do, you might wipe me out of your sight.'
Which of these two men were accepted by God, the Pharisee who was so proud of his achievements or the tax man who was so ashamed of what he had done? Strangely enough, it was the tax man whom Jesus commended, not the Pharisee. But why? Surely what the tax man had been doing was abhorrent to God? Was he not robbing people to line his own pocket? Was he not a liar, a thief and a fraudster? How could God even listen to him, let alone accept him?
He was all of these things but he was also something else -- honest and repentant. He saw himself in the light of who God is and was so broken up that he pleaded for forgiveness and threw himself on the mercy of God. This is the heart attitude that God hears and the foundation of a renewed relationship with God as Father. You see, every wayward person is actually a son who has strayed from the Father and for whom the Father waits to return.
The Pharisee saw no need and had no desire for forgiveness. He was completely satisfied with his own standards and performance. What God thought about him was irrelevant. He was not yet a returning prodigal. He was a self-satisfied, self-righteous elder brother who had no felt need to repent. "Religion is the most difficult disease to cure because it infects with such self-righteousness that no sense of need remains."
As always, Jesus told this story for identification. Which of the two men are you?
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