The Pharisee and the Publican

We don’t have to convince God that we are worthy of His love.

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, Jesus draws a contrast between two kinds of prayers:

  • The Pharisee: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11-12).
  • The Publican: “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

I realize that it’s hazardous to guess what’s going on inside the mind of a person about whom I know very little (particularly when that person is a fictional character in a parable) but I’ve been thinking a lot today about the implications of the Pharisee’s prayer. He seems to me to be terribly self-conscious and insecure. He feels like he has to remind God of his good deeds, fasting and tithing, as though God might somehow forget and fail to reward him. He feels the need to compare his behavior favorably with other people, as though there were some quota for entrance to heaven, and he can only enter by surpassing someone else. Above all, his prayer implies that he thinks God is more inclined to judge him than to help him. He seems to want to prove that he can do this on his own, that he doesn’t need God’s help.

In contrast, the publican sees God as a source of help and recognizes his need for that help.

Jesus said, “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other [the Pharisee]” (Luke 18:14). How ironic, since the purpose of the Pharisee’s prayer was to justify himself before God!

Our Father in Heaven loves us and is eager to help us. If we are so focused on proving to Him that we are already good, we may miss the opportunity to let Him help us become better!

There is a similar set of contrasting prayers in the Book of Mormon. When Alma and his team of missionaries arrived in the land of the Zoramites, they saw a group of wealthy people praying in an unusual way. One by one, these rich Zoramites would stand on a tall platform which they called the Rameumptom (the “holy stand”). They would raise their hands toward heaven and offer a prayer which was very similar to the prayer of the Pharisee. They thanked God, for example, that they would be saved, while everyone else would be cast into hell. They ended their prayer with these words: “And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen” (Alma 31:15-18).

Immediately after hearing this prayer, Alma offered a very different kind of prayer, on behalf of himself and his fellow missionaries. “O Lord, wilt thou give me strength,” he pleaded, “that I may bear with mine infirmities. For I am infirm,” (Alma 31:30). And he prayed for the Zoramites too: “Behold, O Lord, their souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren; therefore, give unto us, O Lord, power and wisdom that we may bring these, our brethren, again unto thee” (Alma 31:35).

When the mission was over, Alma gave the following counsel to his son Shiblon, who had been among that group of missionaries:

Do not pray as the Zoramites do, for ye have seen that they pray to be heard of men, and to be praised for their wisdom.

Do not say: O God, I thank thee that we are better than our brethren; but rather say: O Lord, forgive my unworthiness, and remember my brethren in mercy—yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times.

Alma 38:13-14

Today, I will acknowledge my unworthiness before God as I pray. Instead of trying to live up to God’s expectations, I will ask Him to help me overcome my weaknesses and sins. I will trust that He loves me and will help me if I am willing to be helped.

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