Luke introduced the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke chapter 18 by writing, “And he also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 NASB).
Luke told us the Pharisee’s prayer was not being prayed to God. He was simply showing God how good he thought he was. He said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” then he began to regale the Lord with how he was different. He said he fasted twice a week. Only one fast was required of the Jews on the Day of Atonement, but the Pharisees fasted twice each week on market day. They would put some kind of make-up on their faces to make themselves look pale and they would wear wrinkled, torn clothes to show how pious they were.
Then, the Pharisee said he paid tithes “of all that I get.” A.T. Robertson wrote, “He gave a tithe of his income, not of his property.” He did not give God anything: he paid. The tithe to the Pharisee was another means of waving his righteousness under the noses of other people.
This Pharisee reminds me of the “prosperity preachers” who wave their wealth under the noses of other people to show that God is on their side. The inference is, if God is on their side by making them prosperous, then God is on the side of everyone who is prosperous. If this is true, then Jesus and Moses would never qualify as being on God’s side because both were poor.
The Pharisee’s prayer to himself was a blatant example of self-righteousness, just as Luke said. It was the tax collector who exhibited the proper attitude of someone in prayer to God.
“But, the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’” (Luke 18:13).
Some translations of the Bible have this verse as, “God, be merciful unto me, a sinner,” but that is not what the New Testament original language said. “The sinner” is most accurate.
It may sound like we are discussing minor points here, but it is not minor. People often think that they are just one sinner among millions of sinners. Their case, therefore, is not very special. The thing that is so interesting about the tax collector is that he took responsibility for his sins, while the Pharisee would not even admit he had sinned.
The problem is that we need to do that or we may never be forgiven. King David wrote, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only I have sinned and done evil in your sight, so that you are justified when you speak and blameless when you judge” (Psalms 51:3-4).
This is the proper attitude in prayer, not like the Pharisee who tried to justify himself, but like the tax collector who admitted he was the sinner and needed help.