Constant and Considerate
After discussing the value of prayer in discipleship in Luke 18:1-8, you would think the subject would be closed. But I do not think it was for Jesus. The concept of the downtrodden and prayerful faithfulness permeates the rest of Luke 18 and it is right after teaching to “pray always” that Jesus presents one of his more famous parables,
“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.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Lk. 18:10-13).
This is a familiar passage to many. And often prayer’s crucial role in the narrative is neglected. But in context it makes sense that the prayers of the parable are worth studying. The lessons learned are not that unlike the parable of the widow but before a new aspect of importance is added. For, Jesus spoke the parable against those “who trusted in themselves” (18:9). But more importantly they were also people who “treated others with contempt.” Ultimately this is always true. Those that trust their works, theology, and experience of God more than a godly humility mistreat the downtrodden. Christian prayer and discipleship must be constant and considerate, as we shall see from this parable. And with this in mind, Jesus proceeds to contrast sharp distinctions within prayer.
Both men went up to the temple (18:10). Let me put it in modern language: they were members of the same church. One was of good standing in the church and the other the type of person that people don’t usually like. But both were together in the same building.
This makes it interesting then that the Pharisee is said to have stood “by himself” (18:11). As his prayer affirms, when it comes to God this guy is in it for himself. He is willing to praise God (All thanks goes to God!). In fact he praises God for all the good that he does. And he does a lot. He abides by the law. He goes beyond the law (his fasting). And he does not keep anything back from God (his tithe).
What then was he guilty of? Jesus tells us at the start of the parable: he trusted himself and had contempt for others. He stands by himself. He is thankful for himself. And none of his works are focused on others. His prayer is both self-focused and degrading to those who are not on his level.
In contrast, the tax collector (who is also by himself) could not lift up his eyes to God. He too prays in a self-focused manner. There is no thankfulness in his voice. He does not trust in himself. He does not degrade others. He lacks any semblance of pride. But he is the one who went home “justified” (18:14). It would be inappropriate to presume that Jesus is here referring solely to the type of soteriological justification that systematic theology is concerned with. Though it is included—it can also indicate that the worship of the man was accepted before God.
And it is this element that I’d like to stress. For the second sin in Scripture was over denigrating a brother’s acceptance before God (Gen 4) and Christ taught the failure of any worship done while there is strife before brothers (Matt 5:24). Christian discipleship and prayer can never turn in trusting in “us” (whether our theology or works) and denigrating our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Prayer as Essential to Christian Discipleship
Since prayer is essential to Christian discipleship, we should learn from this how it gets abused. For in advancement of discipleship there begins anew the opportunity to say “God, I thank you that I am not like …”
- Those who don’t study and memorize the Scriptures.
- Those who miss church service.
- Those who don’t read as many theology books.
- Those who don’t pray often.
- Those who don’t catechize their children.
- Those who don’t attend Bible Studies.
For each Sunday the Christian disciple gets to determine if they will go home justified in their worship before God. And it will be the one who returns to the realization that they have only accomplished what they should have done (Lk 17:10) that will go home justified. But if we proceed in a spirit of demeaning contempt for our brothers then we must repent of our “discipleship.”
Joshua Torrey is a New Mexico boy in an Austin, TX world. He is husband to Alaina and father to Kenzie & Judah and spends his free time studying for the edification of his household. These studies include the intricacies of hockey, football, curling, beer, and theology. You can follow him @benNuwn and read his theological musings and running commentary of the Scriptures at The Torrey Gazette.