What God(s) Were the Pharisee and Tax Collector Praying to?

This post is the concluding portion of the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 18:9-14 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

Did you notice the Pharisee and the tax collector both start their prayer the same way? “God….”

They use the same word, the same way of addressing God, but you get the impression they are praying to two very different Gods.

We wonder: who must the Pharisee think God is, to be praying his way? And what does the tax collector think about the God to whom he prays?

Also, how does our own image of God shape our prayers?

For the Pharisee, there’s very little introspection. He’s critical of others and not himself. He mentions God, but it’s really only a quick appetizer before he can get to the main dish that is his own righteousness.

Maybe it’s as simple as: he’s just arrogant. His religiosity has gotten the best of him.

But imagine for a moment that the Pharisee is being sincere in his prayer. Sincerely wrong, yes, but what if he really means what he’s praying?

What kind of God would he have to have in mind to be praying like this?

It would be a God who just can’t stand all the ways we terrible humans mess everything up all the time.

It would be a God who LOVES when we get it right, and loves us more when we get it right more often.

It would be a God who doesn’t need a relational connection with us—just for us to check certain things off the list, and that’s enough.

It would be a God who wants us to jockey for position—who wants us to outdo each other in religious practices and spiritual disciplines, in fasting and giving and serving.

Then when we pray, if this is who God is, we’re just reporting back to our judge on all that we’ve done, desperately trying to find our place in God’s system of punishment and rewards.

The God of this Pharisee also seems to be a God who wants people to do it on their own. Because as the Pharisee is contrasting himself with others and listing his achievements, not once does he say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not once does he ask, “God please help me as I fast… increase my generosity so I can give cheerfully.” Never does he invite God into his faith practice.

What kind of God is that?

Maybe one we’ve believed in, from time to time. Maybe that’s a God we’ve prayed to.

Who we believe God is will shape how we pray. And that means that we can listen to our own prayers, dig a little deeper, and ask ourselves, “Who do I really believe God is?”

The French thinker Montaigne was right on the money when he said, “Oh senseless man, who cannot possibly make a worm or a flea and yet will create Gods by the dozen!”

By contrast, who is the God the tax collector believes in?

It’s a God who listens.

It’s a God you can approach—even from far off—no matter what evil you’ve done.

A God you can confess to, and who will hear you, and will forgive you.

The tax collector believes first and foremost in a God who is merciful.

This is a God to whom you can tell the blunt truth about yourself. You can talk to God about your sin, bring it right into God’s presence.

1 John 1 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

The tax collector believes in a God who receives us when we confess, arms open, just as the father did the prodigal son.

We don’t have to read our spiritual résumé to God. We don’t have to put other people down when we pray, to elevate ourselves. In fact, God’s presence calls for our humility. Prayer is not first about us, after all. Prayer is first about God.

God is so full of mercy, so ready to forgive—as the tax collector knew—that we simply can enter in, as we are, and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector is a model for us, not only in how to pray, but in how to think about God.

Of course, if we overheard the Pharisee’s prayer in real time, we’d be faced with a particularly cruel irony. We’d have to be careful not to say, “Lord, thank you that I am not like THAT arrogant Pharisee. Thank you, God, that I know who you are.”

Thomas Merton wrote:

There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious [people]. As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God.

New Seeds of Contemplation

In the end, the Pharisee’s idea of God and idea of himself were really not that different. He was so good, so giving, so upright, he didn’t even need God! He was basically his own God.

The tax collector knew he couldn’t survive another day without God’s mercy.

And whether we realize it or not—insulated as our lives can be—none of us can truly live another day without God’s mercy.

We need it, we crave it, we have to have it now, Lord Jesus, because we are sinners in need of Christ’s mercy.

3 thoughts on “What God(s) Were the Pharisee and Tax Collector Praying to?

  1. The tax collector beating on his chest and asking for God’s mercy is one of the primary images that the Orthodox Church uses for how to come to God. It is the basis of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) and the most common prayer in the Church: “Lord have mercy.”

  2. Really good insights. When I think of my kids’ generation–now in their 30s–and how many of their friends have defected from their faith (that was defective in the first place), when I think of Josh Harris’ apostasy, it seems obvious that their god was the god of this Pharisee, whose god you describe so well. “…and you will be like God…” (Genesis 3:5) May we who name the Name that is above every name walk humbly before Him today.

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