Apr 16 2013 - Luke 18:1-17 – Two men at prayer
Twice a day there was a time of prayer at the temple, once at dawn and once again in the latter part of the afternoon (sometimes referred to as evening). On these two occasions a lamb was offered as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. As the smoke of sacrifice and incense ascended, the people who had come to the temple would offer up their own prayers. The sacrifice was to be the ground of their prayer – the atonement for their sin. The incense is a picture of their prayers ascending to God, sweet and acceptable to him.
When Jesus tells the parable of two men going up to the temple to pray, this is the background picture that would have been familiar to his hearers.
The Pharisee in Jesus' parable "stood by himself and prayed" (Luke 18:10). The Pharisee did not join the crowd; he thought of himself as quite separate from the common herd of people who were praying that day; "God, I thank you that I am not like other people... I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." (18:11-12). We should realise that Jesus' hearers would not have thought the Pharisee's prayer arrogant; they would have heard it as a genuine prayer of thanksgiving to God that this man had been enabled to devote himself so meticulously to his religious duties. Yet in this prayer, and in his stance apart from the crowd, he displays a scornful attitude to others.
The tax collector in Jesus' parable is, in one sense, like the Pharisee. He also stands apart from the crowd, though this time "at a distance". He also will not identify with the crowd, but this time because he does not feel worthy to be counted as one of them. All that he can say with head cast down is, "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner" (18:13).
The Israelites had been taught through the ceremonies that took place in the temple that the mercy of God was made available to sinners through sacrifice. The lamb was sacrificed in the place of the sinner and a rebellious people were reconciled to God. The tax collector dimly understood this. He stands apart from the crowd for he hardly dares to hope that mercy can be for him. Yet he pleads that it may be so, praying, in effect, "God, may I also have part in all that is going on here. May this atoning sacrifice be for me. May I be forgiven and accepted."
We can only imagine what the crowds may have made of this story so far. But now comes the punch-line as Jesus says that it is this tax collector rather than the Pharisee who goes home justified – vindicated and accepted by God.
And in this parable, Jesus points to himself. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. His sacrificial life and death are sweet and acceptable to God. Jesus came to save the lost; he came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. It is because of him that we can come before God crying, "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner" and know that our prayers are accepted. Because of him we are justified, accepted. We need no longer stand at a distance; we are embraced as part of his family.
Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:12-13)
Father God, thank you for Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Thank you that in him I have found mercy and acceptance – I am justified and embraced. Help me to live confidently to your praise and glory, and to draw others into the embrace of your indiscriminate love.