Lord, Be Merciful
Two men with the same purpose: to pray. Did you notice that? The Pharisee did not go up intending to glorify himself, nor the tax collector to humiliate himself. They both went up to pray.
The Pharisee, it would seem, had all the advantages:
· He had the advantage of training. Hundreds of years of great wisdom, by the most learned of rabbis, would go into his prayers. Is it a question of the right words? He had them. Is it a question of making sure you have all points covered? He knew them. He was an expert.
· He had the advantage of frequency. He did this often, at scheduled times. Nothing prevails like practice! His practice was sure, so he approached this prayer with confidence, the confidence of one greatly experienced. He was an expert.
· He had the advantage of self-discipline. He fasted; he watched every action; all his details of life were regulated by the Law of Moses, the highest he knew. Like the true professional of any occupation, he had disciplined himself to the point needed. He was an expert.
But there was a problem in his approach to prayer. He is bargaining with God. By his training, by his practice, by his self-discipline he has concluded that God owes him. It is not so.
The tax collector takes the opposite approach. Perhaps his deficiencies produced desperation, for he came to beg, not to bargain.
· He does not state what he has done, rather what he is—a sinner. It is well to know yourself when talking to the Almighty.
· He does not appeal on the basis of his good deeds but rather upon the character of God—for God is merciful.
The Jews tell a similar story to this day. An emperor asked one of the sages for a compilation of prayers suitable for any occasion. He was expecting a book with prayers by formula. He wanted to fill in the blanks, so to speak. The sage returned the next day and handed him an axe.
Naturally, the emperor was puzzled, and asked for an explanation. The scribe reminded the emperor that every door in the palace had a lock, and for each lock there was a particular key. But the axe would get through any door. The axe in prayer is the pure and contrite heart, which opens the door to heaven.