“Two guys walked into a church…”Rev. David J. Hughes Luke 18:9-14 Year C: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
The phone rang. My answer was followed by a familiar voice from a church volunteer who asked if my wife and I would come and lead the weekly chapel service at the nearby jail. I paused before answering. I didn’t really want to do it. In my mind, there was far too much going on. In another sermon for another day, we were making plans to move to South America. We had to prepare our home for sale as well as our very lives for the adventure that awaited us. However, the need was present so we accepted.
The night of the chapel service occurred on a beautiful June evening. The inmates began to enter into the sanctuary and worshiped commenced shortly thereafter. My wife sang, and I delivered a message followed by a time of response. I watched as men came forward to the altar to kneel and cry out to God. Afterwards we shared a time of fellowship with the inmates featuring cookies and soda – a real treat for them so I was told.
Before returning back to their cells, one inmate inquired if he along with others could have a time of prayer for our upcoming departure. We accepted. Among the many prayers lifted up on our behalf, I specifically remember one man saying, “God we rebuke any evil that will stand up against them.” Upon concluding that time of prayer I was convicted. I did not expect to see such faith in action.
After all, these were men of checkered pasts whom society deemed guilty of crimes. Yet what I found was one of the richest times of prayer I have ever had in my life. It was truly an instance of God showing that the quality and result of prayer is built upon the condition of the heart. While the inmate’s humble heart allowed such simple but powerful prayer to be spoken, mine obviously needed work. I have never seen prayer in the same way since.
Jesus built his ministry on prayer and through it modeled how to connect with The Heavenly Father. For Jesus prayer was the fount from which his earthly ministry flowed, and therefore took priority even over the people he came to minister to.
Look no further than Mark 1:35-36 as Jesus went alone to pray early in the morning before he started his day’s ministry. Jesus showed that within the words uttered to God a person’s true doctrine were revealed. As such, Jesus took great pains to describe the disposition of the heart that a person should possess when praying to God. His teaching was as much as a correctional to current prayer practices as it was instructional on new ways to pray.
Prayer life abounded amidst the Jews who practiced three daily prayers. However, the language of many prayers revealed the grim reality of those who spoke to God about their merit and worth. Few spoke to the heart of God about their deep and abiding need for him. The difference was monumental. The prevalent prayer practices of the day led people to further cement ill-conceived notions of self as they compared themselves to those they considered “less than” in terms of their religiosity.
The transformational prayer which Jesus advocated occurred when individuals instead compared themselves to a holy God and were so deeply humbled by their deficits that they asked that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus desired transformation and therefore taught prayer as an accessible tool for each person who would open their heart in humility to God.
Humility was paramount to every prayer, and as Jesus reveals, it’s often surprising who possesses prayer’s necessary ingredient and who does not. Within this setting, Jesus tells the following scenario.
Two guys walked into a church. Well, not really. There were no churches in Jesus’s day, but there was the temple. “The” as in it was the one and only. Its origin began under the reign of King Solomon and continued until its destruction in 587 BC by the Babylonians. Then came the second temple after the nation of Israel returned from 70 years of captivity.
This temple was still present in Jesus’s day. Everyone who identified themselves as practitioners of the Jewish faith went there. Yes, there were synagogues about, but the temple was the crème de la crème of religious life. In the ancient mind, this is the place where your prayers could really be heard.
Every Jew who was worth his salt laid eyes on the temple at least once in his lifetime through pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and other Jews who lived locally went daily into the temple courts for times of prayer. In this case, the two locals were a Pharisee and a tax collector. These two guys could not be more diametrically opposed.
First, the proud Pharisee entered. He was known by many in the temple for his outstanding participation in religious life. He fasted twice a week and gave a tithe based on all of his possessions. Both of his standards surpassed what the law demanded.
Second, the tax collector entered. It was another well-known profession of the day that Jesus intentionally picked due to the widely held presuppositions that went along with it. However, Jesus reveals there is more than meets the eye.
Within the Pharisee was a heart of stone. His religious résumé and pomp and circumstance entrance served as clever camouflage, but his prayer revealed his true identity. His was a prayer based on elevation of self by the condemnation of others. The Pharisee names a few of them specifically in verse 11, “robbers, evildoers, adulterers, and this tax collector.” He is right because others are wrong. The more he condemns others, the holier he becomes. There is no introspection of self and moreover no comparison to a holy God.
Though the text doesn’t implicitly state that the Pharisee prayed aloud, I’d like to think that he did if only to further accentuate the point that Jesus is trying to make. The Pharisee’s oblivious prayer creates an added tension which can be caused only by those who don’t realize the obtuseness of their language.
Think of Michael Scott from NBC’s The Office and you have an idea of the mindset of this Pharisee. He is praying aloud and berating a man he knows is standing within earshot. His insult is not followed by a modern-day nicety such as “no offense” or “I’m sorry but I’m just going tell it like it is.” His pride blinds his heart to his need of God’s mercy and subsequently his equality, not superiority, to each and every fellow sinner.
The tax collector is introduced by the conjunction “but” in verse 13 which is meant to draw instant comparison and show the model which Jesus is encouraging. He “stood at a distance” not only intimating the societal distance he feels from his peers but the spiritual distance he recognizes that exists between he and God.
He understands his sinful condition which is not relegated to a job title. Yes, he is a tax collector, but his sin is the swindling of others that was complicit with his position. He collected the demands for Rome but then added additional percentages that went to his personal coffers. His wealth came at the hands of the exploitation of others. Of course, people hated him for that, but worst of all, he was anathema to all self-respecting Jews of the day.
If anyone was to be on the sharp side of God’s judgment, it would be this tax collector. Whether it is a sniveling nose or the death of a loved one, it was thought to be divine retribution and just desserts delivered expressly by an angry God. Perhaps these societal and spiritual pressures created the humble heart within the tax collector which Jesus prizes. The tax collector “would not even look up to heaven.”
Knowing that God resides in a place of holiness and perfection, the tax collector understands the reality of his fallen nature. He is not worthy to even cast his gaze in God’s general direction. Instead, he “beat his breast” to show true remorse for his errors. In so many words, the tax collector owns his issues. He made mistakes and they hurt others. His spiritual sickness of sin possesses no earthly cure and for that reason he offers the following prayer – “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Two guys left the church that day, Jesus concludes. One justified and the other as sinful as when he arrived. What’s the punch line? Well, there really isn’t one or at least not one that those gathered would consider “funny.” Instead of laughter were only audible gasps when Jesus reveals that the justified person was the tax collector and not The Pharisee. How could this be?
Jesus answers in verse 14, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words, if you’re looking to speak to God, do so only after careful analysis of yourself so that you realize you need God’s mercy as much as the person beside you.
We all have the tendency of The Pharisee as we believe that in some way, “At least I’m not as bad as that person, God.” Such pride serves as a spiritual blockade to a God who cannot complete the full potential of his redemptive work for people who don’t believe they need complete redemption.
Psalm 14:1-3 surmises that belief in self-righteousness before God is as flawed a claim as those who believe there is no God. Both beliefs are at desperate odds with a God who opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble (Proverbs 3:34). Our true need for God’s mercy is only understood as far as our admission that we cannot procure it for ourselves.
Jesus, of course, is telling this story with the reality of the cross looming near. Though he cried out to God for mercy in earnest prayer in The Garden of Gethsemane, none was granted to him. The bitter cup of torture and death would not pass from him so that through his blood our sins could be justified forever.
It is a wonderful invitation for all, and yet the same underlying principle that Jesus highlighted in Luke 18:9-14 stands. It is only truly understood and thereby received when a person confesses, they need it as much as anyone else. In that light may we, like the tax collector, whisper the prayer together “God, have mercy on us sinners.”
Three years later I returned to that same prison to preach. The inmate’s prayer bore great fruit. Though my wife and I had encountered many difficult moments in South America, God protected us in each one.
As I greeted the worshipers into the prison chapel again that night, I recognized the familiar face of the very one who asked for God’s protection over us that June night before our departure. This being a prison for short timers only, he had obviously revisited some of the same mistakes which led to another prison term.
In conversation after the worship service, I tried to explain the power of his prayer for us that night and all the ways it had benefited our ministry. He didn’t recall the prayer but was thankful for our safe return. I left the prison that night never to see him since, but with the following truth ringing in my ears.
The condition of our hearts is indeed a powerful thing. It surpasses our good deeds as well as our personal mistakes. Whether Pharisee or tax collector, pastor or prisoner, it’s the humility of our hearts which lives to be changed. Therefore, seek God in your prayers in humility knowing that his grace is at hand.
About the writer:
The Rev. David J. Hughes is a native of Pickens, S.C. His upbringing includes fond memories of hearing God’s word proclaimed at Pickens First Baptist Church, frequent trips to Furman University to see the Paladins play, and summers at Camp McCall and Lake Wateree, S.C. David was deeply influenced by the faith of his parents and grandparents who exemplified what it means to follow Jesus. He graduated from Furman University in 2005 with a major in Spanish. Upon graduation he along with his wife, Rebecca Hughes, began serving in missions at home and then abroad in Chile, South America.
Upon returning to the states, he served as Minister to Students at Easley First Baptist Church from 2011 – 2018 while completing his Masters of Divinity at Erskine Theological Seminary where he graduated in 2018. David and Rebecca now currently live in Augusta, Georgia with their daughter Maggie where he serves as the Minister to Students at First Baptist Church of Augusta (www.discoverfbc.org).
David is grateful for those who have mentored and supported his ministry in special ways. They are Rev. Rick Fisher, Dr. John Adams, Pastor Boris Rodriguez, and his parents; Murray and Martha Hughes. He thanks those who blessed his life and are now with The Lord. They are Dr. Lloyd Batson, Dr. Ralph E. Lattimore, Mrs. Alice Lattimore, and Mrs. Kate Hughes.
Scripture and Music:
Jeremiah 14:7-10; 19-22
2 Timothy 4:6-8
Luke 18:9-14, 16-18
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
The Church s One Foundation
My Faith Has Found A Resting Place
Come, Christians, Join to Sing
Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
Just as I Am, Without One Plea
I Am Thine, O Lord
O Love That Will Not Let Me Go
Open My Eyes That I May See
Devotion (John Ness Beck)
A Mighty Fortress (John Rutter or Gordon Young)
The Prophecy of Joel (Eugene Butler)
Open My Eyes (K. Lee Scott)
Open Thou My Eyes (John Rutter or Ben Harlan)
Anima Christi (Robert Powell)
Spirit of God (Don Hustad)
Find Us Faithful (Mohr)
He Who Began A Good Work in You (Mohr)