God Be Merciful To Me, a Sinner
Special occasions are often special for the event they celebrate. If you grew up in a religious context, perhaps you have noticed that prayers seem to sound differently around such events. For example, does the prayer before Thanksgiving or Christmas include much more colorful language than your ordinary supper days? Sometimes they seem longer than normal. Think about your friend(s) that you hear pray on a regular basis. Do they sound differently if they pray in front of an audience? While the occasion may warrant a need/desire for change, the Person prayed to remains the same.
This brings us to Luke 18:9-14. The story compares the prayers of a Pharisee and a publican. Immediately one notices that the Pharisee’s prayer is colorful, designed to showcase self-accomplishments and boast about his righteousness. As if his good deeds were not enough, he shames the publican next to him in his prayer. It becomes clear that this prayer was designed for the public, not for Heaven.
Notice that Jesus never explicitly condemns the Pharisee’s prayer. He never says that the Pharisee prayed incorrectly. Oftentimes when we hear the word Pharisee our minds are drawn to negative thoughts – and for good reason! However, being a Pharisee did not condemn him, it was his actions that revealed his heart. Jesus told this story to people who convinced themselves that they were holy and above everyone else. That mindset can apply to anyone, not just a Pharisee. Let us not think that by not being a Pharisee we are free from the condemnation that accompanies this parable. Pride founded on a personal pedestal resting on the backs of perceived inferior people find themselves on the pointed end of this rebuke.
Contrast this with the publican’s simple prayer. His prayer has 3 parts:
- God. The prayer is directly addressed to God. While the Pharisee’s prayer is also addressed to God, it is the content of the prayer that indicates who the real audience of the prayer is for.
- Be merciful to me. This section describes the action desired by the individual praying. It also implies a belief that the addressee of this prayer has the power or the ability to take the specified action. In this case, the publican believes that God has the capacity to be merciful, and he pushes his prayer up to Heaven’s storehouse.
- A sinner. Further indicating humility, this part of the prayer acknowledges the status of the individual praying. Now some may take this to mean that we should emotionally self-inflict ourselves. However, the publican does not seek to make himself righteous in the audience of Heaven. He recognizes his condition, and asks for help. He knows he needs help, and indicates his status compared to who he prays to.
Now, not all prayers require this format, but for the child of God seeking forgiveness and mercy, humility reflects the character necessary to receive the gift. Think about your prayers from now on, are they colorful for the sake of show? Are they longer because others are listening? Are they prayed for the audience’s sake?
The Pharisee did not walk away with any consequences, however, the publican left more fulfilled and complete, because his prayer was answered.
God listens to your simple prayers. It is okay to be simple. Be genuine, and express your belief that God can indeed help you. Whether public or private, prayer is an intimate part of the Christian faith.