What is prayer? The simplest answer is that prayer is talking to God. But it may also be helpful to reverse the question. What is the opposite of prayer? Jesus describes what prayer should not look like in the parable recorded in Luke 18:9–14. Prayer is not self-congratulation. It is not a matter of reciting your spiritual resume. Instead, prayer means coming to God as you are, recognizing your deep need, and expressing it to Him.
To make this point, Jesus contrasted the way two very different people approached God: a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee, rather than expressing a personal need or offering praise to God, used prayer to brag about his spiritual accomplishments (vv. 11–12).
By contrast, the tax collector approached God from a distance (v. 13). Perhaps he was reluctant to draw any closer than the outermost court of the temple. Instead of praising himself, the tax collector felt so unworthy that he “would not even look up to heaven.” He beat his breast, a gesture that signified deep mourning or shame (Luke 23:48). The Jews of Jesus’ day considered tax collectors to be Roman collaborators, people who epitomized dishonesty and greed. But as he considered each of their prayers, Jesus said that only the tax collector went home forgiven.
Jesus’ parable reminds us that the God who knows every word we utter before it is on our lips also knows the state of our heart (Ps. 139:4). You do not need to put on airs when you pray to God. We must come as we are. Like the old song says: “Just as I am, without one plea / But that Thy blood was shed for me / And that Thou bid’st me come to thee/ O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”
>> The tax collector’s words are the basis for what some call the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Spend time alone with God today putting this lesson into practice.
Lord Jesus, we praise You for having mercy on sinners like us! With repentant hearts we worship You, for You have invited us to abide in You. Through Your blood we share Your blamelessness before God!