Prayer is activity that reveals our heart. What we pray for and about says a lot about our hopes, desires, and worship. In this passage Jesus tells a parable to point out the self-righteousness that so easily consumes our sinful hearts. The Pharisee stood up in prayer and praised himself before God. We are often deceived that our prayers are for God’s glory because we start off thanking God (or even close “in Jesus’ name”). But the stuff that we pray about in between has nothing to do with God or with Christ. Rather, we pray for temporal things, things that bring us pleasure and comfort, or things that bring us ease from suffering that may be God trying to get our attention. Sometimes it may even be so subtle as trusting in our repentant prayer for forgiveness rather than trusting in Christ and His sacrifice. We may start off praying well, but what is the main thrust of our prayer? Is it about our kingdom, our glory, our pleasure, our pride and self-righteousness?
The tax collector gives us an example of how we ought to pray. Standing far off, not even lifting his eyes toward heaven, beating his breast, and crying out to God for mercy. He recognized that there was no hope or comfort in himself; and he recognized all the time he wasted in trusting himself and glorying in himself. In recognition of his sin and his utter need for God’s mercy, he repentantly cries out to God. His prayer is not long or eloquent, but its beauty comes from a humble heart trusting only in the mercy of God. So, because all of righteousness is as filthy rags, like the tax collector, we must humbly pray, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
God’s mercy is surely extended to those who repent and trust fully in their Savior. We cannot trust in our righteousness or even our repentance. But when we throw ourselves down and cry out before the throne of grace, it is our Great High Priest Jesus Christ who intercedes on our behalf. In Christ we receive grace, mercy, and forgiveness. In the blood of Christ our sins have been washed away forever. In Christ, if we cry out for mercy, God abundantly provides the mercy and grace we so desperately need. Let us then rejoice in the forgiveness of sins which is ours in Christ!