by Steven Chan
In Luke 18:9-14 our Lord Jesus “spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men–extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
It is a good thing that people go to the temple to pray because not many people engage in the practice of prayer. In Mark 1:35 the Bible tells us that “in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, Jesus went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed.” Jesus Himself actively engaged in the practice of prayer and we should all be encouraged to likewise be actively and purposefully engaged in the practice of prayer: We are to “pray always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18).
While the two men went to the same temple to pray, one was justified while the other was not. We can all attend the same worship assembly of the saints and be engaged in the same acts of worship but we should be careful to ensure that our personal act of worship is acceptable to God. What we do and how we perform these acts of worship will determine whether we will be justified or be acceptable to God or otherwise. Jesus taught thus in John 4:23-24: the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
For the worship of each and every individual to be acceptable to God, it must be offered in spirit and in truth. So, brethren just merely attending the worship assemblies of the saints does not necessarily mean that your personal act of worship is acceptable to God. Are you praying and singing with the spirit and with understanding (I Cor 14:15)? In fact, we should ask ourselves: do we even pray and sing, i.e. actually engage in prayer or singing in the assemblies of the saints? Or are we just going with the flow – neither our minds not our spirits are in these acts of worship?
Brethren, this parable of Jesus is not given for us to condemn the unaccepted prayer of the Pharisee. It is given as a warning to all worshippers – especially to those who are religious leaders and teachers – as well as those who adopt a lackadaisical attitude towards worship and are not self-aware of being personally engaged in worship. It is not enough to pray; it is not enough to go to the same place as other worshippers to pray; each of us must pray (and worship) in a way that is acceptable to God.
The Bible tells us that Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” Worshippers of God face the danger of perhaps unknowingly crossing the line and becoming self-righteous and despising other worshippers who exhibit less public demonstration of their practice of righteousness or who may well be outright sinners. This parable warns us to be careful with our attitude towards other worshippers with whom we assemble to worship.
Are we aware of how we perceive other worshippers who are in our midst? Do we feel superior to them because we think that we are more righteous than them? After all, we are actively engaged in many God-honouring activities: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” (in today’s terms I can quote more scriptures than others, I give more money than others, I give more time to serve God than others, etc) and are “not like other men–extortioners, unjust, adulterers,” or even as this “unfaithful Christian” or sinner who is assembled with me.
Brethren, how do we regard our fellow worshippers when we are assembled to worship God? The Bible exhorts the Christian in Rom 14:1, 10-13 to “receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things…But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 11 For it is written: “As I live, says the LORD, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.”
It is sad and tragic that there have been reported accounts in the past when fellow-worshippers assembled in worship have been treated as if they should not be there! It might well be true that the worshipper is a sinner or an unbeliever. But shouldn’t we leave him to God to judge as advised by God in Rom 14?
It is also important to note that the ‘tax collector’ himself was not spiteful of the self-righteous attitude of the Pharisee; he was more concerned with his own relationship with God. Jesus said that he “standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ “
As for unbelievers in the assemblies of the saints, according to 1 Cor 14:24-25 the hope is that “an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all (i.e. the acts of the worshippers such as praying, singing, remembering the sacrifice of the Lord in the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, teaching and preaching, as well as the love and fellowship of the brethren as reflected in the offerings – Acts 2:42). And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.”
The Psalmist expressed it very well in Psalm 51:15-17 when he said: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise. For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart– these, O God, You will not despise.” Again in Isaiah 57:15: For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” Hab 2:4 states thus: “Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith.” Finally in 1 Peter 5:5-7, the Bible exhorts us all: “Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.”
We need to be careful with our attitude for the Bible warns in Prov 21:4: “A haughty look, a proud heart, and the plowing of the wicked are sin.” Psalms 101:5: “Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy; the one who has a haughty look and a proud heart, him I will not endure.” While we may not actively cultivate a “haughty look”, the danger is that if we are not careful with our heart, it may become proud (for whatever reasons whether being self-righteous, or self-importance) and the “haughty look” becomes evident to others (and more importantly to God).
Two men went up to the temple to pray, but only one man went down to his house justified rather than the other. As we all come together to worship our great and awesome God (Deut 6:21), let us truly worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24) and may we be humble in our mind (being ever mindful of God’s mercy towards us all) and not be self-righteous and despise other worshippers.