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January 23 – A Tale of Two Prayers

You can divide society in many ways. I’ve seen people do that. They want to pit the rich against the poor; skin color against skin color; “my” primary language against “your” primary language; male against female and I could go on. It’s easy to put people in groups and attach a label to them. It makes it easier to be against them, or for them. If a person is one of “them” we can easily hate them no matter what other qualities they have, but if they are one of “us” then they are automatically part of the club and we love having them around. As I say that, though, I am reminded of some people who were followers of Christ that weren’t particularly pleasant to be around and some atheists that were perfectly delightful.

In the days of Jesus, the Jews had many ways to divide people also. One of the biggest ways was the division between the Pharisees and everyone else. That division grew stronger when you talked about #TeamPharisee vs. #TeamTaxCollector. When the discussion got going, even the common people tweeted about being for #TeamPharisee. No one wanted to support the tax collectors. Then Jesus spoke. “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Luke 18:11-13)

Most of the people listening to this parable probably identified with the Pharisee. Perhaps they were muttering under their breath about the audacity of a tax collector daring to go into the Temple to pray. “Don’t they have walls to keep people like that out?” must have been on the minds of a few people. As Jesus recounted the prayer of the Pharisee, they may have been a bit uncomfortable, even as the agreed with him. He wasn’t like most people. He was more holy. And the comments about his religious practices – so true. Who else fasted and gave like that? They heard the story of the Pharisee and probably thought that he was a great example of what someone who loves God would be like. Only Jesus told a story with a twist. As he described the tax collector’s prayer they may have been mollified by the fact that the tax collector knew he wasn’t worthy to look up to heaven. They agreed that he was a sinner, but couldn’t fathom the idea that God might have mercy on one like him. The twist came as Jesus said that the tax collector was the one who was justified before God.

Those of us who have grown up on the story will smile and laugh at the truth that Jesus presented. The ego of the Pharisee was contrasted with the humility of the tax collector. The result was that in this battle of Pharisee vs. Tax Collector, Jesus declared the tax collector the winner. And while we recognize this truth in this story, how often do we act like the Pharisee. Ever see someone in church and wonder why they were there? I see people post things that sound pious and I wonder how they dared to post it after I’ve seen the content of some of their other posts. We see the guy on the side of the road holding up a sign asking for help and we remind God that we never got ourselves into that position. We take pride and comfort in voting for the “right” person, whether they won or lost, and make fun of or attack those who voted for the “wrong” one. In fact, folks, none of those justify us before God. Jesus reminds us that the key for the tax collector was his humility. He recognized his need for God and prayed for His mercy not because he deserved it, but because He trusted God. Walk in humility today and recognize the value of others: even if they are “them.”

Oh Lord, I am also a sinner who needs Your mercy. Forgive my sin. Help me to show others Your love.

Daily Devotion by Bob James


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