Luke 18:9-14 Prayer Must Begin With Repentance.
Luke was a masterful writer. With every new truth he very often states his key point right at the outset, follows this with the body of evidence to support it, and then draws his conclusion. In the previous passage he stated his main point that “men always ought to pray and not lose heart” (v. 1). Most of us struggle at persevering in prayer, especially in society and cultures that want instant gratification on so many levels. In like manner Luke introduces a new theme here concerning “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (v. 9). However, this passage is also beautifully connected to the previous in that those who persist in prayer are those who recognize their need.
So prayer should not only be persistent, but those who go to God in prayer must first recognize their need. Using “prayer” to thank God that one is more righteous than others and therefore does not need God, is more of a declaration to and of self. The professions could not be further apart in terms of respect or lack thereof than that of a Pharisee and tax collector (v. 10). The Pharisee himself lumped the tax collector together with extortioners and the unjust (v. 11). The fact that many would have considered one of these men to belong in the Temple and the other not, also speaks to Luke’s point. Who are the true members of the church anyway? It is certainly the case that those who stand in the temple are called to pray (Cf. 135:2).
Righteousness is indeed required in the court of the LORD. The question is-whose righteousness? The LORD calls us first to repentance. We must be washed of our filth, which includes the sins of blood shed and the oppression of the defenceless (Cf. Is. 1:15-18). This is a message that must be preached in the temple-the visible church! Why even bother with prayer if one is so audacious as to pray without confession? We are co-conspirators living in a culture of death and oppression. There is no private “spirituality” divorced from how one lives in the world. “God be merciful to me a sinner” (v. 13)! This is the only reasonable beginning to a true spirituality.
There is no other way to be “justified” (v. 14). We will not find ourselves if we hang on to the notion that we have anything to contribute to our justification before a holy God. Only the humble can walk away justified. A sinner beats the breast because we know we are rotten to the core with our sinful condition. We need new hearts. Talk of obedience is one thing, living it is another. Any “spirituality” that fails to apply the law-word of the covenant to all of life is vacuous and nothing short of shear hypocrisy (Cf. Is. 58). We should be repenting and asking God’s forgiveness for our individual and collective failure to uphold His only standard of truth and justice. ‘Spiritual’ activity like prayer and fasting is otherwise meaningless.