From the Word
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Revised Standard Version. Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1971, p. Lk 18:9–14.
Luke 18:9–14, RSV
Surely this is the art of a great master, which is entirely foreign to, high and far above human understanding. Reason cannot harmonize what this publican has here put together to construct a prayer from words entirely opposed to each other. It does not at all seem proper that such a sinner and condemned person should dare come before God and pray. Sin and mercy are opposed to each other, like fire and water. Mercy does not belong where sin abounds, but wrath and punishment. How then does this man discover the art to harmonize and unite them, and how dare he desire and call for grace to cover his sins? To this belongs more than to know the law and the ten commandments, an art, of which the Pharisee knew nothing at all.
This is preaching the precious gospel of God’s grace and mercy in Christ, which is published and offered to condemned sinners without any merit of their own. The publican must have heard of this, and the Holy Spirit must have touched and moved his heart with it, as he feels his sins through the law, that he comes before God and offers his prayer, that he certainly believes as he has heard from the Word of God, that God will be merciful and forgive sins, will turn away his wrath and eternal death for the sake of his Son, the promised Messiah. Such faith united and bound together these two opposing elements in this prayer.
This preaching of the gospel is heard by many, and it appears an easy matter to say it; but it is not as common as men think. No one better understands how difficult it is than the few who study and exercise themselves to believe and pray like the publican. The reason of this is, that the pious Pharisee is still within us and hinders us from thus uniting them. Thus you have in this publican a beautiful example of true Christian repentance and faith. He gives honor and praise to God alone for his divine grace; he prays to him from the heart and in true confidence in his Word and promise. You see here an excellent masterpiece of spiritual wisdom and the proper fruits that follow faith.
Luther, Martin, and John Sander. Devotional Readings from Luther’s Works for Every Day of the Year. Augustana Book Concern, 1915, pp. 330–31.