Every afternoon at 3pm there was a service at the Temple in Jerusalem. The priest would sacrifice a lamb on the high altar in the courtyard for the sins of the whole nation. The blood of the lamb would be sprinkled on the altar as an atonement for sin, to wash away all the wrong doing and make people right with God. The trumpets would sound and the cymbals would clash. The people would say a psalm. And then the priest would go alone into the sanctuary to offer incense. This gave people a really good moment for private prayer. When we say our own prayers, we are usually quiet about it, we speak to God with our minds and hearts. In Jesus’ day, most people prayed out loud. So you must imagine all those men muttering their prayers. There would have been a great rumble of prayer. The women weren’t there because they would have been in an outer courtyard, away from the men.
Jesus told a story about the people who went to pray. It was a story about prayer, but it was also a story about human nature, and how people get right with God.
Jesus imagined a couple of people who went to pray in the Temple courtyard. One of them was a Pharisee. Pharisees were members of a religious group which tried hard to abide by the Jewish law and do the right thing. And the man in Jesus’ story thought he had done rather well in that regard.
He begins his private prayer by thanking God. That’s a really good start. Giving thanks to God is really important – it is a recognition that everything comes from God. The trouble is, this Pharisee thanks God that he is better than everyone else, and he notes the sinners he can see around him: thieves, adulterers. He is so smug! So self-satisfied! If Mrs Bucket in “Keeping up Appearances” had been a religious woman, this is how she might have prayed. The Pharisee then goes on to list all his spiritual achievements: fasting, tithing. And again, they are really good disciplines in the spiritual life. The bible commends these practices regularly. The Pharisee is proud to point out (to anyone who will listen as he prays out loud), that he far exceeds the religious requirement for fasting and tithing. The Pharisee thinks that doing this makes him superior, more righteous, more worthy. He feels he has earned his place in heaven. God is going to open the gates personally and welcome him in. He thinks his own actions will keep him right with God.
But it’s not as simple as that!
The second man was a tax-collector. He didn’t even try to be good. Just by doing his job, he was a sinner. He was a collaborator with the Roman invaders. Bad! He enforced the tax burden laid on the people by the Roman masters. Very bad! And then he made it so much worse by making a bit for himself on the side. Very very bad! He was probably not a nice man. Everyone hated him. When he walked up to the temple, people would have avoided him, crossed the road, pretended to be looking at anything else rather than catch his eye. He knew that, of course, and when he went into the Temple, he just stayed by the door, a long way from the action.
His prayer was quite different. It was a prayer that arose from his great distress. And we see that because he is beating his chest. Men in the middle-east very rarely beat their chests – that’s what women do when they are distraught. It is a sign that the tax-collector is anguished. His words are simple and short, but full of emotion: “O Lord, make an atonement for me.”
In the meantime, the priest emerges from the sanctuary where he has been offering incense. He declares in a loud voice that the sins of Israel have been washed away and that the people have been made righteous. There is a great sound of trumpets, the choir sings.
And the tax-collector is praying God for forgiveness. He has been moved to tears by the liturgy. He is caught up into the prayers and the ritual. He recognises his own sin and misery and he asks God to make things right.
Jesus tells the people who are listening to him tell the story that it is this man, the tax-collector, whose prayer has been answered, whose relationship with God has been restored.
What kind of prayer does God listen to? Prayers that are genuine, coming from a place of humility rather than spiritual arrogance. Prayers that arise from knowing oneself and acknowledging the mess we humans make. Age, maturity and experience don’t necessarily make us better people. Being good Christians doesn’t stop us from doing hurtful things and saying stupid things. In fact, as you grow in faith, you grow in insight, and notice more and more the things you do and say that hurt and hinder others or the flaws in your own nature that get in the way of God. So there is always something to repent of.
And whose sins does God forgive and restore the broken relationship? Those who recognise and acknowledge their faults and failings, those who long for him, and who want to come home to him.
The priest at the Temple sacrificed a lamb. Another evangelist, John, describes Jesus as the lamb that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). When Jesus died on the cross, he took away all our sin once and for all.
It was a story, just a story that Jesus told, but it was pointing to what Jesus was going to do, to become the lamb that takes away the sin of the world. Jesus was going to die for tax-collectors and other sinners, for me and for you.
But do you not find that a part of you is thinking, “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee, arrogant and rude and full of myself …”