Prayers the God Hears: The Pharisee and Tax Collector
September 3, 2023

Parables to Live By

“Prayers the God Hears: The Pharisee and Tax Collector”

Luke 18:9-14

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Over the years, I’ve seen and heard quite a few prayers, and what others consider being the type of prayers that God hears.

Now, almost everybody believes in prayer. Whenever there’s a catastrophe, whether through a violent attack by someone upon others, or through a natural disaster, we immediately ask for prayer. Even medical science is crediting faith and prayers as major factors in a person’s recovery.

But is random speech skyward actually prayer, and are they the prayers God hears and answers? Interesting question, and since I’m not God, I don’t have the answer. What I know is that God is just, merciful, and gracious, and I’m sure glad He is.

Within the church, I have heard people say God only hears prayers of faith, so tell God what you want and believe He will give it. And while this sounds good, the problem is if you don’t receive what you pray for, then the assumption is your faith is lacking.

Now, quoting what I see as the heart of the first commandment of God’s top ten, God says, “I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image … you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:2-5 NKJV) 

Now, those who espouse it’s our faith that makes God move on our behalf, have, in a way, broken this first commandment, because they have made God into an image of their own making. For them, God is this sort of genie in a bottle, or He is a super vending machine. Just say a prayer, drop some money into the bucket, and out pops your prayer request.

Yet are these the prayers God hears, or have we been bowing down to a false image?

One of my least favorite aspects of prayer coming from some churches is when it makes prayer a part of a marketing campaign. I’ve seen prayer handkerchiefs or prayer cloths prayed over by pastors and evangelists and then mailed to people who need an answer from God, but with a donation attached.

The unfortunate part of all of this is how some people look upon prayer as a gimmick cooked up by religion to get more money out of people’s pockets.

Now, the last thing I want to do is to speak against prayer, or our asking God for our needs, because the Bible tells us of our need to ask, seek, and knock, and how our heavenly Father hears from heaven and provides (Matthew 7:7-11). Further, it says we have not because we neglect to ask, but it also says the reason we don’t receive is not because of our lack of faith, rather it’s because we’re asking with the wrong motives, seeking to use it on our own pleasures rather than furthering God’s kingdom (James 4:2-3).

This brings us to an important point; not everything we direct towards God is prayer. Instead, they are more of a list of wants and desires.

Dallas Willard, theologian, and author has said that just talking to God is not prayer, even though prayer is talking to God. Not all the words we direct towards God qualify as prayer, no matter how many religious words we use, and no matter how many prayer clothes we buy.

Today, in the story Jesus tells, He gives us the type of prayers God hears so we can pray more effectively. Further, I think the deadly viruses of religiosity and self infect much of our prayer life.

And what this means is our prayers are nothing more than wrongly focused appreciation combined with thinking that God somehow owes us for our belief in Him. Tell you what, chew on that while as we look at today’s story.

“Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 NKJV)

Jesus was speaking to a large group of religious leaders, those who regarded themselves as righteous before God; those who followed the Law as written by Moses, along with additional laws created by the religious leaders, so people wouldn’t transgress God’s holy law. We know these additional laws as the Talmud, which comprises two books, the Mishnah and Gemara, or the civil and ceremonial law.

We see this concept as Jesus now speaks this to those who trusted in their own righteousness while looking down on those they didn’t think measured up.

To these leaders, Jesus tells a story about two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector, going into the temple to pray. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religious life and became the focal point for not only a person’s sacrifices and tithes but also their personal prayers.

Within the temple itself, there were several focal points, the Altar of Sacrifice, where a person’s sacrifice for their sins was offered. Then inside the holy place there was the Menorah, or the seven-branched candlestick, the Table of Showbread, and the Altar of Incense, where the incense symbolized the prayers of God’s people. Inside the holy place was the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant, or the Mercy Seat of God resided. It was then in front of the Holy of Holies, or the Mercy seat of God that the Altar of Incense stood.

Today, we don’t find such a temple, and just as a point of reference, the church is not its equivalent. Today, the Temple of God doesn’t dwell upon the earth, rather; it dwells in the hearts of those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.

“Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16 NKJV)

So, when we talk about our prayer life, the temple where we offer our prayers takes place in God’s presence, or the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead who lives within every believer in Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul goes on to say in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you.” (1 Corinthians 6:19 NKJV)

And so, it is in the Temple of the Holy Spirit that resides within each one of us that we offer up our prayers to the Mercy Seat of God in Heaven.

But which prayers go up to the Lord like the incense before the Mercy Seat of God, which He hears? Now, whenever I think about this, the imagery brought out by the writer of Hebrews comes to mind.

He said, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16 NKJV)

I love the word “boldly,” because not only does it mean to have courage, but it also means with all speech. Thus, we need great courage to bring our prayers before the Lord because of the enemy’s attacks when we do.

But, before we see the type of prayers God hears, it is important to consider these two gentlemen, the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Now, in this passage of Scripture, our thoughts go to which of these two men are we? I would like to dispel the notion that Jesus is talking about two different types of individuals. That is, we are one or the other. Instead, I’d like to put forward the following proposition: that He is speaking about all of us, because there’s a little of both the Pharisee and the tax collector within us, the good and the bad, the hypocritical and the sincere.

Who is the Pharisee? Well, as we have been looking at over these parables, we make a mistake of thinking of them as the bad guys, because in those days they were the good guys. They were the pinnacle of Judaism. They were religious, committed to living an upright life, and keepers of the laws and traditions of Judaism.

Jesus even said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 NKJV)

Therefore, hearing that the prayers of the Pharisee went unheard was shocking and a real game changer.

This leads us to the other person in this story; the tax collector. In those days, they did not view tax collectors in a positive light. Instead, the Jews considered them the pond scum of society, the lowest of the low, or bottom feeders.

They were Jews who worked for the Roman Government collecting taxes to continue the Roman occupation of the land. The Jews considered them to be traitors and extortionists, because after they collected taxes for Rome, they added a handling fee for themselves.

So, most everyone considered tax collectors to be in a constant need of redemption, not like the Pharisee who the Jewish people considered righteous before God. Therefore, in the prayers of these two individuals, Jesus reveals how to pray so God not only hears and answers our prayers, but also pronounces us righteous as well.

1.  God Hears Prayers of Helplessness

Over the past generation, there has been a tendency by our government, courts, schools, and even churches agreeing with sociologists, psychologists and all other “ologists” how people need to raise their self-esteem. The theory goes that if we do nothing to make people feel bad about themselves; but instead, everything to make people feel good about themselves, then our society will be a better place for it.

Now, while this sounds great, it isn’t. The results in our country reveals crime is increasing while morality is decreasing. The overall problem with this theory is that it’s a lie. It doesn’t work, because it leaves God and the problem of sin out of its equation.

The people Jesus was speaking to, the religious leaders, their confidence came from their own perceived righteousness, and in their own innate goodness. But these were the ones Jesus said left with their prayers unheard, and they were not justified before God, or they were not made right in the eyes of God.

Notice the Pharisee thought highly of his accomplishments, how he fasted and paid his tithes, and wasn’t like others who were obvious sinners. You can just see him all high and mighty as he advanced forward towards the doorway of the holy place. Jesus gives us the impression of how everything the Pharisee did was for show. He wanted to make sure everyone could see him and hear his prayer.

The tax collector, however, approached God in fear and trembling. His feet were like stone, frozen to the floor of the Temple, not able to make a move forward as he stayed at a distance. He was in the Temple, but his heart was heavy because of his sinful condition, and he realized he had no strength and cried out in His weakness, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Pastor John Beukema said, It is the prayer prayed by the unassuming sinner, not the prayer of the presuming preener that gains anything with the Father in heaven.”

Helplessness is not a weakness when it’s before the Lord. In fact, helplessness before the Lord is a strength, not a shame; it is not the end of the world, rather, it’s the beginning of wisdom, knowledge, and spiritual growth. The prophet Isaiah brings this out.

“He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength.” (Isaiah 40:29 NKJV)

The Apostle Paul states it is only when he is in such a helpless condition that the Lord’s strength takes over. Look at what the Lord said to Paul, and Paul’s response.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness … For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9a, 10b NKJV)

It is not the prayers of the self-righteous that receive God’s undivided attention; instead, it is the prayers of those who realize their helplessness before a holy and righteous God that the Lord hears.

2. God Hears Prayers of Honesty

Most of you have seen those movies of the galley ships filled with slaves pulling oars. Well, there’s a story of a certain Duke who boarded one of those ships and went down into the galley section to speak to these men. He asked each one what offenses they committed which brought them to that awful condition, and to a man they all claimed innocence, or they blamed it on someone else. That is all but one.

This guy said, “Sir, I deserve to be here. I stole some money, and the fault is no one but my own. I am guilty.” Upon hearing this, the Duke seized him by the shoulders and shouted, “You scoundrel! How dare you sit here with all these honest men! Get out of their company at once.” And the Duke set him free while the rest of those “innocent” men continued pulling the oars.

Look again at the Pharisee’s prayer. The Pharisee said he was not like other men. But he was lying to himself and to God, because he was exactly like all men, a sinner. The Bible says all have sinned and have fallen short of God’s holy and righteous standards for life (Romans 3:23).

The Pharisee’s error was he compared himself to the wrong person. He compared himself with others, especially the tax collector who entered with him. And the Bible says when we compare ourselves to others, we err and are not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12).

Who we need to compare ourselves with is Jesus Christ, who is both holy and righteous. And when we do, then we’ll realize just how low we truly are. The prophet Isaiah saw this very thing when he stood in God’s presence.

He said, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV)

And Solomon said, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin’?” (Proverbs 20:9 NKJV)

And the answer is “No One,” because the Bible says there is no one who is righteous, no, not one person (Romans 3:10).

What we find from the Pharisee is a little confession and a lot of professions. All he was doing was talking about himself to himself because God wasn’t listening. Remember what Jesus said about the words the Pharisee spoke. He said the Pharisee “stood and prayed thus with himself.” He didn’t go to pray, rather he entered to inform God about how good he was.

The Pharisee was so near, but so very far away. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord said people like this are near to Him with their lips, but far from Him in their hearts.

“Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men.” (Isaiah 29:13 NKJV)

Therefore, we can conclude that the Pharisee was dishonest not only about his own sinful condition but also about his relationship with God. He knew of God, but not personally. If he knew God, he would know God is a jealous God and doesn’t abide any other gods before him, and for the Pharisee, he was his own god.

But the tax collector was honest about his sin. He had a deep consciousness of just how rotten he was, and in desperation he came to meet with God, knowing he had nothing to offer or boast about. All he could see were his sins and his need for forgiveness. Therefore, he cried out, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Notice his overall attitude in coming to God. He was ashamed of his sins, so he looked down. Because of his disobedience, he was so distraught he beat his chest. And in his hunger for forgiveness, he cried out to God for mercy.

Now, there’s something very interesting about this prayer. This tax collector, not the Pharisee, prayed according to God’s covenant word. In the Law of God it says, “When you are in distress, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, when you turn to the Lord your God and obey His voice (for the Lord your God is a merciful God), He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them.” (Deuteronomy 4:30-31 NKJV)

So, the second attitude of prayer is to be honest about who we are before a holy and righteous God, and to say it like it is, not to sugar coat our sins, but admit them openly and honestly.

3. God Hears Prayers of Humility

The Pharisee’s trust was not in God but in himself, in his own ability, thus making God irrelevant, if not unnecessary. As we just saw, he didn’t pray to God but to himself, and notice his prayer one last time. It is full of “I’s.” The Pharisee seems to have the same problem as Satan. When Satan rebelled against God, he used the word “I” as many times as this Pharisee.

The Bible says pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 1:18). And we see the Pharisee’s fall when he left unjustified before God.

What pride does in prayer is give us a false sense of self-sufficiency. When asked for prayer, a prideful person says, “I’m alright. There’s nothing I need prayer for.” None of us are alright. We are all sinners saved by grace, but still sinners, and the worse sort of pride is saying we have none.

One person described pride as the national religion of hell.

Jesus closes this parable, saying, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14b NKJV)

This theme of God raising the humble and taking down the prideful is a theme found throughout the Bible. In fact, pride leads the list of those things God hates the worst, as found in Proverbs 6:17. But contrast it now with Proverbs 3:34, saying, “He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.”

John Lloyd Ogilvie, Presbyterian minister and past chaplain of the U.S. Senate, said, “Humility opens the floodgates of the heart of God; it’s the basic ingredient of a prayer that God will answer.” (John Lloyd Ogilvie)

Eighteenth century evangelist, Dwight Moody, said, God sends no one away empty except those who are full of themselves.” (Dwight Moody)


 Knowing all of this, what should be our attitude when we pray to the Lord?

  • We should come to God in a spirit of humility knowing how helpless we are and that we are sinners saved only by His grace.
  • We need to be honest with God, stating our spiritual condition with hearts and spirits broken and crushed over our sins.
  • We should come to God in humility asking for His grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and not justifying ourselves or our actions.

Today, let’s put away all pride of self, and in humility bow our heads and hearts before God, admitting our helplessness, confessing our sins, and humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God to receive His grace and mercy in this our time of need.

Plastic Prayers

I’ve heard it said that people who go to church just aren’t real. Now, I don’t think that people who attend church are trying to be deceptive; they just seem fake and act like their lives are better than they really are.

The charge against the church used to be that it was ‘full of hypocrites.’ But today it is more subtle but no less indicting. Now we’re called ‘plastic and fake.’

I think much of what passes for Christianity today does seem “plastic and fake.” But the Bible is not. The pages are filled with real human characters. and it’s painfully honest about their struggles, failures, and successes.

The Psalms are like that too. Painfully honest. Here we see King David pouring out his heart to God. He doesn’t hold anything back. He doesn’t put on any masks; he doesn’t pretend. He just tells God what is on his heart and believes that God will help him sort through his questions, pain, and problems.

What about our prayers? Are they honest and authentic? Or are they plastic and fake? A lot of prayers are – especially public prayers. God knows what is in our hearts, and he delights when we lay down our masks to pour out our hearts to Him.

In the end, I believe that authentic, honest prayers make us into those men and women who are “after God’s own heart.”

And so, we need to humble ourselves and get honest with God, so that we can experience the fullness of His grace and mercy, not to mention His power and strength.

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