After reviewing the prayer of a Pharisee in a parable of Jesus (see Luke 18:9-11), let’s take a look at the next prayer in this story, given by someone from a social group that was outcast and hated:
“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 18:13 NIV
I see a bit of humanity in this tax collector (whether an actual person who Jesus was telling us about, or just an example in this parable). Note that he stood at a distance: this was someone who carried guilt and shame. Maybe other people forced him there, or the Pharisee made sure that his “praying spot” was as far away from a tax collector as possible (although the Pharisee knew that the tax collector was there), but I wonder if maybe he – the tax collector – made that choice to distance himself, knowing that he was a sinner.
The tax collector wasn’t just repentant. This wasn’t the rote, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned”, that we see being recited in Catholic confessionals in TV shows (more on that in a moment, since I don’t want to paint those of the Catholic traditions with a fictional brush from Hollywood). Instead, the tax collector’s prayer was serious, sincere, and self-directed.
In fact, he’s literally hitting himself. This might seem dramatic, but when we fight the battle between our spirit (after giving that over to Jesus) and our mortal body (which remains bound by sin while we walk this earth in it), sometimes, it’s necessary to take action to keep our body in check. In fact, some translations suggest a similar concept in Paul’s message found in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27.
Regardless, as a commentator wrote, “This tax collector knows that he is a sinner and that his only hope is forgiveness.” [Black, p.298]
By the way, confession is an important element of the Christian walk, and while I don’t believe that it has to be given specifically to a priest, we shouldn’t miss the importance of confessing our sins. And, confessing our sins to God is a good thing, but doesn’t seem to be all that we are called to do (see James 5:16). Sometimes, we need to tell other trusted Christians that we have sinned, and ask for their help to quit!
There’s an interesting footnote in the NASB on verse 13. Where we might read, “have mercy on me”, the NASB has a footnote with the term, “propitious”. That probably qualifies as a “fancy church word”, but “propitiation” is the turning aside of wrath (see What is propitiation? | GotQuestions.org for more details). Jesus was our propitiation, when He died to take God’s wrath upon Himself, so that we did not have to experience that wrath. And, when we confess our sins and seek God’s mercy, we are seeking the same thing: for the wrath of God – which we deserve – to not fall upon us.
There’s an old sermon illustration about a minister who is greeting people as they leave after the morning service. Someone comes up to him and says, “Pastor, I appreciate you saying that you sin just like the rest of us. We’ve had other preachers here say the same thing, but you’re the first one that we really believed.”
In the humility that comes from acknowledging our own sins, let us remain faithful in prayer. In the writings of Matthew Henry, “We must pray, and never grow weary of praying, nor think of leaving it off till it comes to be swallowed up in everlasting praise.”
From Sunday School lesson prepared for May 29, 2022
- The Lookout, May 29, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.
- The College Press Commentary, Luke, by Mark C. Black. College Press Publishing Company, © 1996.
- Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete). Matthew Henry. 1706, via BibleGateway.com.