Pursuing the Humility of the Gospel: Part 5

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Do You Pray Like a Tax Collector?

A Look at the Humble Prayer of the Publican

In Part 4 we discovered where and how the tax collector stood while praying to God.  His location and state of mind were clearly reflections of how he thought about himself...and more importantly, how he thought about God.   

While he beat his chest the text says he was begging for mercy. In this post I want to observe what he prayed, and as we do so engage your heart in serious examination. There are three crucial things to notice about the content of his prayer.  And I want to phrase them all in the form of questions, starting with this one first.

First, do you live according to God's mercy? 

"Be merciful to me, a sinner!"

The one thing that the Publican asked for was mercy.  This was the only thing he asked for because he knew it was the only thing he could ask for.What else will ask for before a judge when you stand condemned, a guilty man? Will the guilty ask the judge for any favors? Will he ask the judge to cut him a break or go easy on him? The guilty man is a condemned man and he has no more rights. He is stripped of them all and placed in confinement.

The Publican knew that. He knew that he was dealing with the God of the Universe, the Almighty Judge who according to Exodus 34:7 would by no means clear the guilty. With only the certain expectation of death and punishment and destruction looming in his mind, this Publican begged God for one thing and one thing only – mercy. This is because he would also have known the verse that came before verse 7 in Exodus 34. There Moses proclaims, 

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in
steadfast love and faithfulness.” 

He would have remembered David’s cry in Psalm 103:8, 

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

One scholar commented that, “The prayer is a humble call for forgiveness. The term for mercy (hilaskomai) is associated with the concept of a request for atonement” (The NET Bible, p. 1861, n. 26).

Where was this Publican standing? That’s right!  At the temple! Remember that even though he felt his conscience condemned, and even though he was in despair, he was not so deep in his despair that he did not come to the temple at all, nor pray at all. He did both.  

And when he arrived at the Temple, what do you suppose he saw? What went on at the temple on almost a daily basis? That’s right!  Sacrifices for sin!  So this tax collector is looking on the site where forgiveness of sin is reflected everyday in animal sacrifices, and he simply asks God for the real thing! The publican is asking God to satisfy His own anger against the publican’s sin. 

He is begging God, “Please do not be angry with me anymore! Please stop your wrath! Please do something to hold back the destruction I so rightfully deserve. I have no right to even ask this, but I fee lcompelled to do it anyway!”  Could this be a greater picture of what God requires of us today? The author of Hebrews writes that we too are to draw near to the presence of God. 

“So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God.
There we will receive his mercy,
and we will find grace to help us when in need.” 

Although we feel our guilt, we must remember with the Publican that our God is the “Father of all mercies and God of all comfort” as Paul said of Him in 2 Corinthians 1:3. Knowing this about our God, we can, therefore, come fearfully yet also boldly because we know that this God will give us mercy if we ask for it. This is His very nature. 

Now what exactly is mercy? I define mercy for my kids as “God not giving you what you deserve.” This is different from grace which I define as “getting from God what you don’t deserve.” One theologian defined mercy as, “God’s goodness toward those in misery and distress” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 200). 

The tax collector was in deep mental distress and despair, as we’ve already seen. His conscience was tormenting him because of his sin. So he wasn’t even asking for grace here. All he knew he would get was all that he dared ask for - just mercy. He knew he deserved nothing else at all. So he did what David did in 2 Samuel 24:14. When surrounded by the consequences of his own sinful actions, he prayed, 

“I am in great distress;
let us fall into the hand of the Lord
for his mercy is great…” 

That’s just what the publican did. And when the two blind men heard Jesus was passing by, they cried out to Him to see their plight and rescue them. They cried out, 

“Have mercy on us, Son of David” (Matt. 9:27). 

The publican did the same thing.  He wanted God to look on his awful plight and simply have mercy by healing his sin-sick soul.  You deserve hell, but He doesn’t give it to you. You have no rights as a sinner. You were condemned to die eternally where you would be confined in hell. But God satisfied His own anger against you. And He did it simply because...you asked for it! 

What is more glorious than receiving the greatest gift ever offered to any human being than mercy – a permanent stay of execution – to a condemned criminal just for the asking!  I think Christians don’t understand that all they should ever expect from God is mercy. Oh, yes there are glorious rights and privileges that are theirs in Christ. But mercy is the only conduit through which it all comes. 

Therefore,the mercy of God is that attribute that we exalt so highly, so loudly, so boldly, so confidently. Without it, we would have no other blessings. The publican realized that, which his why he is begging for it here. He knew that in getting mercy, he would also receive the restored fellowship and company of God Himself! So our prayer must be, “Give us mercy, O God, for that is al lwe can ask! Give us mercy, O God, that in Your love we may bask!”

In the end, the publican was actually smarter than the Pharisee. The tax collector was not a teacher of the Scriptures, ye he knew the OT better than the Pharisee, for he prayed according to it, asking for the only kind of righteousness that it taught – the kind that came from God’s mercy, from the steadfast love of the Lord. The kind of daily mindset that shows you are smarter than others is the kind of mindset that lives with an acute and constant awareness of your need for God’s mercy. You are smarter than the smartest preacher, scholar, and theologian when you live in with a constant sense of need for God's mercy. 

Second, do you think about your own sin more than you do other  people's sins? 

"Be merciful to me, a sinner!"

The Pharisee may have been looking over at the tax collector while praying to God.  But the tax collector thought nothing of the Pharisee, nor of his other tax collector friends (none of this, “so and so needs to read this post!” kind of thing going on here).  He was asking for mercy for one person, and one person only – himself. It was not because that’s the only person he cared for or because he was looking out for number one! No, he asks for himself because that was in fact the most important thing for him to do. If he himself did not get God’s mercy, nothing else really mattered. 

Application: Concerning your life, you too must stop being concerned with everybody else, like the Pharisee, and start being concerned with your own heart, your own life, your own sin, your own relationship with God. Stop being concerned about what you want to accomplish in life, who you want to be, where you want to go. None of that matters at all if you end up in hell.  

And stop being concerned with whether or not your husband is going to get saved, or start acting godly, or whether your wife will get right with God and start being a godly woman. None of that even matters if you yourself are not right with God.  This tax collector thought only of himself, his condition, his sinfulness, his unrighteousness, his plight, his need of mercy. Is that the way you think? 

You might be thinking to yourself, “But I’m a Christian, I am right with God, and so can't I think about others’ problems now?” No, not at all.  Did you forget you were still a fallen creature? Did you forget that your holiness is more important to God than your concern about the holiness of others?  True, we must help others be more godly and bear their burdens, but how can we help them if we ourselves are not living a godly life?  How can the blind lead the blind and both of them not get run over by a car! 

Third, do you think of yourself before Christ as the worst sinner on earth? 

"Be merciful to me, [the] sinner!"

Now, I've got to pause at this point and echo a comment made by the Baptist Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson. The Greek manuscripts of Luke 18:13 contain an article before the word “sinner.”  In the Greek, the presence of an article means that the object is being specified. The absence of an article means that an object is generalized.  Here, our English translations should read “the sinner” and not “a sinner” as do most translations. This is why Robertson comments, 
“It is curious how modern scholars ignore this Greek article. The main point in the contrast lies in this article. The Pharisee thought of others as sinners. The publican thinks of himself alone as the sinner, not of others at all.” 
The presence of the article belies how the tax collector truly felt about himself. As another  scholar said, the “tax collector views himself not just as any sinner but as the worst of all sinners” (The NET Bible, p. 1861, n. 27, emphasis added). 

This is the real climax of the biblical sinner’s prayer. He must recognize himself as God does. And his sinfulness must come forward in his mind to such an extent that he thinks there is no other sinner as vile and wretched as he is. 

Application: A general sign of one who has truly been justified before God is the one who thinks of himself as the biggest sinner alive. A study I did many years ago of 1 Corinthians 15:9-10 showed that with the apostle Paul, the longer he was alive, the more he knew how worse off he would have been without Christ. Paul went from viewing himself as least of the apostles (in 1 Corinthians 15), to least of all saints (in Ephesians 3), to chief of sinners (in 2 Timothy 1) by the end of his life. 

How do you view yourself? Do you look at others and think "I’m not as bad as that…I don’t do that…I don’t wear that…my family doesn’t do that…etc.?"  Or do you think primarily about your own sin and see it as being an eternally gross and horrendous abomination to the living God? 

If you compare your sins to other people’s sins then you are probably not yet justified, that is you are not yet a Christian. You have not yet embraced thegospel yet.  A sure sign of one who has understood and embraced the gospel is that he or she considers himself to be the worst sinner on the planet. And they don’t just say that or talk that way. They actually, truly, really and genuinely feel that way about themselves. They don’t just say, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  They really feel that way and consequently the way they talk and think when others are brought to their minds is immediate introspection and reflection on their own condition and then a reminder of who they are andwould be without Christ. Their minds dwell on their own sinful condition andnot the condition of others. 

A Summary of the Tax-Collector's Prayer

In summarizing the publican’s prayer one pastor commented, 
“The publican is so overwhelmed by the sense of his own unworthiness, and rightly so. It is a great mistake to regard the publican as a decent sort of fellow, who knew his own limitations and did not pretend to be better than he was. It is one of the marks of our time that the Pharisee and the publican have changed places; and it is the modern equivalent of the publican who may be heard thanking God that he is not like those canting humbugs, hypocrites and kill-joys, whose chief offence is that they take their religion seriously. This publican was a rotter; and he knew it. He asked for God’s mercy becausemercy was the only thing he dared ask for” (T. W. Manson, quoted in Geldenhuys, Luke, p. 452). 
And William Hendrickson wrote, 
“Being deeply conscious of God’s presence,he takes hold of God in prayer (cf. Isa. 64:7), and from the very depths of hisbeing cries out, ‘O God, be merciful to me, the sinner.’ He is earnestly and fervently begging God to be propitiated. He is hungering and thirsting for the one great blessing, namely, that God’s anger may be removed and his favor obtained.” 
“Old Testament, New Testament; David, the tax-collector, Paul; all unite here, in ascribing salvation, from start to finish, to the mercy(God’s love revealed to those in misery) and grace (God’s love shown to the undeserving) of God. See Ps. 51:1; Luke 18:13; Eph. 2:8; Titus 3:5.” (Luke,pp. 820, 822).

In the final post in this series, we'll conclude with some challenging thoughts about figuring out which kind of prayer fits us best.

About the Author: Rob is a entrepreneur in Statesboro, GA, where he envisions and pursues missional-shaped business for the kingdom. He and his wife Sherri have been married for 18 years and together have three sons and a daughter. Rob believes the mission of the gospel is summed up in four simple phrases: know God, obey Jesus, make disciples, and plant churches. This is the pursuit of his life, as well as the point of his blog.

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