As so often with Jesus's parables we are left to draw our own conclusions as to what this is all about. What, if we only had the story, would have been about what is and what is not an acceptable prayer to make becomes, in the context, a warning of the dangers of assuming ourselves to be righteous, acceptable to God and worthy of respect from our peers. And this short passage bears both meanings with ease. That is the genius of Jesus's style of teaching - that his parables can bear many layers of meaning which we can discover with each new reading of them.
Luke clearly thinks that this parable is more a warning to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt than it is about prayer. This is the context in which the parable is set and he returns to this theme with Jesus's concluding words. More often, though, preachers will use this parable to teach about prayer - which is understandable, because it features two men praying and follows a parable which is about prayer. To understand this parable it is important not to lose sight of either focus.
What do we learn of prayer in this parable?
The tax-collector is commended for the way that he approaches prayer. He is justified by his prayer, says Jesus. The Pharisee, though, is not. What is the difference? It's obvious at first sight. The Pharisee is clearly pleased with himself. He is the very picture of self-satisfaction, while the tax-collector is the exact opposite.
So much is so obvious that it seems that there should be more. I'm not sure that there is though. We can, and should, ask why this matters. Why is it important for our justification that we should be humble in our prayer?
It seems to me that the thing above all else the distinguishes the prayer of the tax-collector from that of the Pharisee is that the tax-collector recognizes his need of God. There is no sense of self-sufficiency in the prayer. He comes to God with nothing - no sense of his worth or value just an awareness that he needs to be transformed by God's forgiving love, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. By contrast the Pharisee comes wanting nothing from God at all - except, perhaps, approval.
Prayer, which often we find difficult, is all about our recognizing our need of God. When I was taught to pray I was given an acronym to help me remember what to include in my prayers. Many of you may have been given this, or something similar, too.
A - adoration
C - confession
T - thanksgiving
S - supplication
It may have its limitations but each of these elements of prayer reveal our need of God. When we express our adoration, or praise, for God we acknowledge the limitations of our own existence and that we cannot live without God in our lives. We need him to give our life real value and meaning. When we make our confession we acknowledge our need for forgiveness. We may not be great sinners but we dare not be self-satisfied about this area of our life. We need God to forgive because this is the only way in which we can be worthy to approach him or stand in his presence. When we give thanks we are saying that we depend on God for all that we need in life, whether that be material things or spiritual things. When we ask God for something we are acknowledging our total dependence upon God to provide for our needs and the needs of the world. Whether we are asking for our daily bread, or for world peace we know that the provision of those things is ultimately beyond our ability to provide.
This is the problem with the Pharisees prayer - there is no acknowledgement of his need of God.
This, then, is the key to understanding the context in which Luke places this parable. It is impossible to be aware of our need of God (and for that matter of other people) and not be humble. This recognition of our need of God places our whole life in the right relationship with God, and with other people; it gives our life the right context.
How humble we are is most clearly seen in our prayer because it is only before God that we can hide nothing.