A Sermon on

Humility and Prayer

Presented by
The Rev. Ken Allen, ThD.

Also He 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." --(Luke 18:9-14, NKJV)
People go to church for all kinds of reasons. Some go to sing, some to hear the preacher, some to be with their friends, some to be identified with a certain social class in the community. But some go to pray.

Prayer should be one of the main reasons for attending church. But prayer apart from humility is no prayer at all. The simplest request made in humility to God is real prayer indeed. This is the central truth in this parable of our Lord.

As Jesus looked at the crowd gathered around him, he saw an obvious need for humility in some of them, for they "trusted in themselves . . . " (v. 9)

They had a misplaced trust. "They trusted in themselves that they were righteous." Though much of what the Pharisee says is true, his spirit is all wrong! He was a proud "self-made" man. Some who feel they are self-made are pretty much in love with their maker! Rather than thanking God for His many blessings, this man begins to tell God what he had been doing for Him.

Out spirit ought to be "upon the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand." Trust in self reveals and obvious need for humility.

In this verse (v. 9) we also see that some of the people Jesus was speaking to had an unbecoming attitude and "despised others." Finding no fault with themselves, they have nothing good to say for their brothers. This is too often our attitude. The more we commend ourselves, the greater our condemnation of others; the better we think of ourselves, the worse we think of others. When the Pharisee announces that other people are extortioners, unjust, adulterers, there is no trace of sorrow in his voice. Rather, he seems to rejoice over it. He believes that the failure of his brother adds to his success, that his friend's sickness guarantees his own health. He is building his hopes on two faulty foundations -- his own goodness and the other fellow's badness.

These Pharisees had a definite lack of humility. Notice that in the parable Jesus says that the Pharisee "prayed thus with himself." He was congratulating himself for all he was and all he had done. He did this in tones loud enough to make sure others would hear.

Today, a modern Pharisee may pray, "God, I thank you that I've won 3 souls to Christianity this week!" "God, I thank you that my Sunday school class is growing!" "God, I thank you that my child has not gone wrong!" (yet)

He prayed with a spirit of self-infatuation. In verses 11 and 12 alone we see five "I's." In today's terms, the Pharisee would be a "super Christian" -- he tithes, fasts, goes every time the church door is open, etc.

Now, notice the contrast starting in verse 13. Where the Pharisee used five personal pronouns, the publican used only one -- and then only to call himself a sinner! In this open display of humility by the publican we see:

  1. Reverence toward God. He would not even look up toward heaven. Yet where a person has no realization of sin there is no reverence toward God. One man failed and one succeeded in prayer. The difference was in their attitudes toward God.

  2. Honesty about self. The publican is literally saying, "God, be merciful to me the sinner." Like Isaiah he too saw himself to be a sinner after having seen the holiness of God.

You must be honest enough about yourself to be able to say, "I have sinned." Whether the person praying is David, the prodigal son, the publican, or you, forgiveness is granted only to those who are humble enough to be honest about themselves.

To see yourself as you are you must have a standard. The Pharisee's standard with which he compared himself was the worst man that showed up at church that day. He felt very proud of himself. But the publican looked upward not to a man better than he, but to God who is absolutely perfect. In light of the perfection of God he saw and confessed his own imperfection. He was honest about himself.

Now that their prayers are over, what difference did it make in these two men's lives? One received absolutely nothing and the other received forgiveness. In this we see the ultimate end of humility. First there is:

  1. Justification. "This man went down to his house justified." Nothing is more glorious than to be justified -- forgiven. Old burdens are lifted, sins forgiven, guilt feelings vanish and new joy and freedom invade the soul! This is the ultimate end of humility.

  2. Exaltation. That poor frustrated soul who is always striving for attention, always exalting himself, ends up being "abused." But the person who is not self-assertive, who does not always need to express his opinion or insist on his own rights, is the one who in the end is exalted. Isn't this strange? But this is the ultimate end of humility.

Let us join this justifed man in his prayer of humility. When we see our lives in contrast to the life of Christ, there is nothing left for us to say but "God be merciful to me -- the sinner." And when this is done we have in our lives the proper relation between humility and prayer.