In Luke 18:9-14, we find another example of a lost man who, like Cornelius, had God hear his sincere prayer. His prayer is what some call “the sinner’s prayer.” Actually, the man isn’t a literal person but is, instead, merely a fictional character in one of Christ’s parables. Nevertheless, we can use him to make the point that God can, if He chooses to do so, hear the prayers of lost people.
In the parable, a Jewish Pharisee and a Jewish tax collector go to the Jerusalem temple to pray. Obviously, Jesus’ intent was to describe two polar opposites as His subjects for the parable. The Pharisees were Israel’s religious elite, men who were all about keeping Judaism’s laws to the strictest standard. Their lives were one big obsession over not committing any outward sins. They genuinely believed they were working their way into salvation by their fanatical keeping of God’s commandments. They simply did not understand or care to understand that no amount of good works can produce salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The tax collectors, by contrast, were men who earned a living by collecting taxes for the Roman government. Rome required a prescribed amount of taxes and was satisfied as long as it got that amount, and that left the tax collectors unregulated to collect excess taxes in order to make money for themselves. As might be expected in a setup like that, the greed of many of the tax collectors ran rampant and the whole profession was notorious for its immoral business practices.
To make matters worse for the tax collectors who were Jewish, their fellow Jews despised them for hiring themselves out to Rome, the enemy who ruled over Israel. Consequently, in the eyes of a self-righteous Jewish Pharisee, a Jewish tax collector was in the same social class as harlots and drunkards. From the Pharisee’s point of view, such people were all vile, wicked “sinners.”
So, in Christ’s parable the two men come to pray. First, the Pharisee launches into his prayer, which is really just an egotistical description of how divinely devout he is. Jesus describes the scene as follows:
“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.'” (Luke 18:10-12, N.K.J.V.)
The Pharisee’s prayer certainly sounds religiously impressive, doesn’t it? I mean, all that talk about fasting twice a week and giving those tithes must have impressed God, right? Nope. Truth be told, what the Pharisee said wasn’t even a true prayer. As Jesus said, the Pharisee only prayed “with himself.”
Standing far away from the Pharisee is the tax collector, who doesn’t even consider himself worthy to pray in the same vicinity of the Pharisee. He doesn’t consider himself worthy to look upward to heaven, either. Jesus describes his prayer as follows:
“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 18:13-14, N.K.J.V.)
Jesus surely stunned His listeners by saying that the tax collector left the temple justified while the Pharisee didn’t. Such a thought went against everything the Jewish mind had been taught to believe! A tax collector praying a more acceptable pray than a Pharisee? How could such a thing be possible? Even more than that, the Greek word the passage translates as “justified” is dikaioo. That’s the same word the New Testament uses in numerous passages to describe the justification that comes as the result of salvation.
Therefore, like Cornelius from my previous post, the tax collector in Christ’s parable stands as an example of God hearing the prayer of a lost person. While it might be argued that the man being Jewish and praying in the temple was evidence that he was already saved before he prayed, the words of his prayer have long been taken to mean that he was lost. Furthermore, the fact that he was still employed as a tax collector — unlike Matthew (Levi), who quit the profession when he got saved — is ample evidence to indicate that he was lost. Along the same lines, it’s probably not a coincidence that Luke, in the very next chapter of his gospel, gives us the story of Zacchaeus, a real-life Jewish tax collector who needed to experience salvation (Luke 19:1-10). Based upon all this, I feel safe in saying that the tax collector in Christ’s parable was a lost man whose prayer got heard by God and culminated in the man’s salvation.