Tax Collector’s Prayer

A Powerful Prayer

I entreated thy favor with my whole heart: be merciful unto me according to thy word. Psalm 119:58 (KJV)

Just seven words—the simple prayer of a sinful man: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Why did Jesus tell this parable and present the tax collector’s prayer as a model?

First of all, the tax collector knew whom to address. God alone can remove the stain of sin that blots our fellowship with Him. The tax collector also identified himself correctly—a sinner. The Greek word used for sinner, hamartolos, refers to someone who was “devoted to sin” and “especially wicked.” He didn’t pretend to be righteous as the Pharisee next to him did. He recognized that he had no right to approach God and that he deserved nothing but punishment from God. In fact, Jesus said that the man was so overcome by his unworthiness that “he would not even look up to heaven” (v.13).

The tax collector also knew what to ask for—mercy. The Greek word for merciful means to  “be propitious.”  Propitiation isn’t a word we use very often. It comes from the Greek word hilasterion which referred to the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle. Once a year the High Priest would offer where the High Priest made atonement for sins by sprinkling the blood of sacrificial animals on the Mercy Seat (Lev. 16:11-14). This act was symbolic in two ways: it indicated that sins required punishment (the sacrifice) and that God would be merciful (forgive the sins) if the sacrifice was made.

Jesus told his listeners that the tax collector “went home justified before God” because he humbled himself (Luke 18:14). To restore our relationship with God as the tax collector did, we must also humbly ask God for mercy–to withhold punishment because Christ became the sacrifice for our sins on the cross.

Sometimes I don’t know what to say when I approach God in prayer, especially if my mind is filled with sins I’ve committed—angry words, prideful attitudes, unkind thoughts, selfish actions. Asking for mercy is a good place to begin when I’m overwhelmed by my unworthiness to speak to a holy God.

Are you staggering under the weight of your sins and shortcomings?  Pray the tax collector’s prayer and allow God’s mercy to lift your burden.


Read the parable in Luke 18:9-14. What other differences do you see between the Pharisee’s prayer and the tax collector’s prayer?

To understand how Jesus’ sacrifice eliminated the need for the Ark of the Covenant’s Mercy Seat, read Hebrews 9:1-15.

Read Luke 6:32-36.  What practical examples of mercy did Jesus give the disciples? How can we extend God’s mercy to others on a daily basis?

To be justified is to be made right with God. To read a devotion on justification, see Justification under Dig into Words. To read a devotion on mercy, see At Calvary under Dig into Songs.

Denise K. Loock


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