Formations 05.08.2022: Praying or Posturing?

Luke 18:9-14

Prayer is a funny thing. Ostensibly, prayer involves communication with God. We speak to God, expressing thanksgiving, praise, and of course petitions for God’s blessings. Ideally, prayer also involves listening to what God might be saying to us.

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable that reminds us that our prayers don’t always live up to this standard. Two men go to the temple to pray. One of them, a tax collector who is painfully aware of his sins, begs God for mercy. The other sees fit to read God his spiritual résumé: He doesn’t commit any gross or obvious sins. He fasts twice a week. He tithes scrupulously. In every way, he is by far the moral superior of the tax collector—or so he declares to God!

Is this Pharisee praying to God at all? Because it sounds an awful lot like he is talking to himself, shoring up his own sense of religious entitlement at the expense of the tax collector. It’s certainly not the kind of prayer that God honors, which Jesus proceeds to tell us.

This parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector challenges us to consider the proper attitude of worship. The Pharisee “confesses” his goodness and superiority over the tax collector. For his part, however, the tax collector beats his breast in sorrow and cries out for God’s mercy.

There are still people who pray like the Pharisee. Whether they know it or not, they’re not even talking to God. They’re building a case for why, righteous as they are, they don’t need God in the first place. Jesus’ parable suggests that God is prepared to honor only genuine belief: the tax collector left the temple justified that day, but the Pharisee did not.

There are also still people who pray like the tax collector. In fact, his petition, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (v. 13), has become the basis for the Jesus Prayer, a hallmark of devotion in the Orthodox tradition. It’s not a bad place for any of us to start as we come to God in prayer.

Discussion

• What role does repentance play in authentic worship?
• How does your church model humility and repentance in its weekly worship?
• Does confessing our faults before God make it easier to confess them to one another? Explain.
• How can we acknowledge our unworthiness before God without wallowing in guilt?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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