God, be merciful to me, the sinner!
Let’s contrast the Pharisee in Luke 18 with the other character in the parable. Verse 13 says, “The tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast.”
You could not pick anybody lower on the religious ladder than the tax collector. In Jewish society, he ranked right down there with televangelists and used chariot salesmen. People hated tax collectors. Why? In Jewish society, if you wanted to collect taxes for the Roman government, you would purchase a franchise, so to speak. You would pay the Roman government so much money for the right to collect taxes, and then you could charge whatever taxes you wanted to and keep the difference for yourself. Tax collectors were hated not only because they were helping support the oppressive Roman government but also because they were guilty of cheating people out of their money.
Even though the tax collector was considered a traitor and a cheat, both men in the parable were sinners–the difference was in their attitude toward their need.
Notice the tax collector’s prayer in verse 13: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” In the Greek text, the word “sinner” is articular, meaning not just “a” sinner but “the” sinner. He was saying, “I am the chief of all sinners.” We do not know what drove him to pray in such desperation. Perhaps he had committed a particularly heinous sin. Or maybe his life had been slowly unraveling, and he was at the end of his rope. All he knew to do was to cry out to God, “God, be merciful to me, the chief sinner of all.”
You also see his desperation in the way he placed himself. When the Pharisee came into the temple, he stood as near to the holy of holies as he possibly could without being struck dead. But the tax collector, the Bible says, stood “some distance away.” He did not feel worthy to come into the presence of God. The closer you get to God, the more unworthy you feel before God. You see that throughout Scripture. Isaiah the prophet, when he had a vision of God on the throne, said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Or think about Peter, who, after seeing one of the miracles of the Lord, said, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). When you realize the holiness of God, you also realize what a distance there is between you and God. This tax collector felt his unworthiness before God.
Today’s devotion is excerpted from “The Other Story About The Two Sons” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2008.
Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. www.lockman.org