notes Gordon. “They were seen as corrupt and hated by the other Jews of their day."
They were the government bureaucrats of the day. The Pharisees were the clergy.
The Publican and the Pharisee
These clergy stood out in a prominent place, dressed in religious robes and prayed for everybody to hear: “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.”
While the Pharisee was impressing everybody with his self-congratulating prayer, the hated government bureaucrat -- that day's equivalent of an IRS auditor -- stood in a dark corner and “would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’”
His humble prayer was the one that pleased God, Jesus told the disciples.
“Something snapped inside of me this month,” writes Gordon. “Maybe it was when a friend made a hateful comment about my worthiness. I realized that so much of what was bothering me, and what I had been learning the past few years, could be summed up by this parable of the publican’s prayer. How tired I am of philosophies that divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ that shut others out while vaunting ourselves.”
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them," cautioned Jesus. “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words."
So, does the Bible ban public prayer? No, “public prayer is common in the Old Testament,” writes theologian David Reagan. “Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple.” The prophet Elijah prayed publicly on Mt. Carmel ridiculing the false prophets of Baal.
The Prophet Elijah and the false prophets of Baal
The prohibition is against hypocrisy. The Lord wants humility and repentance. A Judean refugee named Ezra once prayed before “a very great congregation of men and women and children,” according to Ezra 10:1, which describes a passionate invocation.
“When Ezra had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept.”
That's the kind of public prayer the Lord wants to hear.
So, the next time you hear somebody praying for the president, listen carefully. It's clear which kind of prayer pleases God. In the past, nobody particularly listened. The press never cared what the priests, rabbis, archbishops or pastors said.
Now, they're ready to dissect every word. The prayer has become as important as the presidential address. Americans are watching and wondering about this nation's future, Obama's "change," free speech, our traditionally free exercise of religion, the new "moral McCarthyism" and whether political correctness will prevail over truth, humility and repentance.
Indeed, it will be good to listen.