God, Be Merciful

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Luke 18:1-14

We can humble ourselves now, recognize and acknowledge that we are sinners, knowing that God someday will lift us up to the glory of salvation. Or we can go on in proud self-righteousness to our ultimate destruction where God will humiliate us.

This is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, from Luke 18.

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14, nrsv

Contrasting Worshipers

“Two men went up to the temple to pray,” Jesus begins his story, “one being a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” These two would-be worshipers present a stark contrast to one another. They both came to the temple, but they came from very different backgrounds, possessed very different reputations, and displayed very different attitudes. One came with an ease and confidence born of many years’ experience. He was comfortable, relaxed, at home in the temple, feeling nothing but satisfaction with his life and his religious world. He smiled as he slipped into his usual pew, nodding cordially at all his many friends and acquaintances. He read through the bulletin and checked the announcements, mentally comparing them with his calendar for the week. He glanced over the preacher’s text for the morning, and then composed himself for prayer. The Pharisee was, in fact, a temple regular, and proud of it, too; a faithful church attender, we might say, as so many of us are.

The other man, the tax collector, approached this worship experience in another way altogether. He was nervous and uneasy, as uncomfortable as a Baptist at High Mass. He knew that he was out of place; he felt like he didn’t belong there, that he shouldn’t have come at all. And he was full of guilt and inner turmoil.

Each of these Temple visitors had reasons for feeling the way he did. The Pharisee went beyond the demands of the Law in his obedience to God. He was a pillar of moral rectitude, leading a life of scrupulous respectability that stood in marked contrast to the dishonesty and sexual promiscuity of others around him. The Pharisee also was an obviously pious, religiously observant individual. He fasted not once, but twice a week. He gave a full ten percent of all his possessions. He was like the Pharisees Jesus described elsewhere as tithing even on the herbs of their kitchen gardens (Matthew 23:23).

But despite all this, there was something terribly wrong about this man. To quote the verse I alluded to a moment ago, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” said Jesus, “For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law justice and mercy and faith.” That was this Pharisee. For all his outward virtue and religious behavior, he had lost touch with God. He had neglected the weightiest matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.

This man functions as a mirror in which Jesus was inviting his audience to view themselves. Listen again to the way this parable is introduced. Jesus told it, writes Luke, “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” There is the pharisaical spirit in a nutshell. Looking at himself, the Pharisee began to admire what he saw. As he admired he grew proud, and in his pride he began to despise those he considered beneath him. The Pharisee’s self-righteousness was his fatal flaw, for God can forgive just about anyone except the person who doesn’t think he has anything to be forgiven for.

Then there was the tax collector, or “publican,” as he was known in the old King James English. In his case too I think we should accept his words at face value and believe he is telling the truth about himself: he was a “sinner.” I know the word “sinner” has fallen out of favor in polite society. We much prefer to use softer alternatives nowadays, speaking instead of “mistakes being made,” or “personal shortcomings,” or “dysfunctional backgrounds.” But in the tax-collector’s case, as in fact mine, “sinner” will do. This self-description does not reveal a becoming modesty on his part; no, sinner is what he was. The man was not a nice person. “Tax collector” says it all. Tax collectors were the most despised members of Jesus’ society and with good reason. They had a well-earned, much-deserved reputation as a sort of cross between Mafia goon and Nazi-collaborator.

But there is one great, good thing about this tax collector. He knows and acknowledges exactly what he is. Everything about him speaks of humility and repentance:

  • from the position he chose “standing far off,” says Jesus, that is, on the back edge of the crowd, away from the holiest place in the Temple,
  • to the posture he assumed he “would not even look up to heaven,” which was the normal Jewish attitude of prayer, but instead stood with head and eyes downcast,
  • to the action he took he stood there “beating his breast,”
  • and finally, to the prayer he offered.

Contrasting Prayers

Just as these two men present very different appearances and attitudes, so they offered radically contrasting prayers. The Pharisee prayed about himself. In contemporary terms, his prayer went something like this:

“Well, Lord, as you know, I’m not a drunk, or a thief. I don’t cheat on my wife. Thank you so much. I really enjoy worship. I go to church and Sunday School every week. And I belong to a small group Bible study for prayer and accountability. I really love to give. I not only tithe to the church, but I give regularly to four different ministries, and I’ve got the thank-you gifts to prove it. I just want to praise you, Lord, for my I mean your faithfulness. I’m just so thankful I’m not like other people, especially like that guy sitting in the back over there, the one who’s living such a sinful life. Of course I give you all the glory!”

The Pharisee’s effort wasn’t so much a prayer as it was an exercise in self-congratulation. His major problem is that he is looking around to compare himself to others. That’s why he comes off so well in his own opinion instead of looking only up to God. Do that and it will overwhelm you with a sense of your own unworthiness.

What about the tax collector? He shows us the proper spirit, the right attitude, in which to approach an infinitely holy and yet infinitely gracious God. His prayer is direct and to the point:

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He prayed for nothing but mercy because that was all he dared to ask for, and he knew, I think, he didn’t even deserve that. Alone with his sin, this man could only cry out and cast himself on the graciousness of the Lord.

Martin Luther said, “It is the beggars before God who are blessed, and we are all beggars.” This is a beggar’s prayer no excuses, no attempts at self-defense or self-justification, no boasting, just a cry for help. The eastern Orthodox churches have developed a practice of prayer based on this tax collector’s simple heart-cry. It’s called the Jesus prayer, and it goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The goal is to repeat this prayer continually, whether silently or aloud, until it becomes as natural to us as breathing in and breathing out. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” That is a prayer with power.

Listen to the punch line Jesus adds at the conclusion of the parable. Speaking of the despised tax collector, a man whom every respectable Jew would have considered to be beyond any hope of forgiveness, Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified (that is, made right with God) rather than the other,” meaning the Pharisee, the guy everyone would have thought was God’s best friend. And then Jesus adds a final word of application: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Perhaps he learned that truth from his mother Mary, who sang of the God who “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;” who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” and “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).

That truth presents us with a clear choice: self-exaltation now, leading to eventual humiliation, or self-humbling now leading to eventual exaltation. Or to put it in a slightly different way we can humble ourselves now, recognize and acknowledge that we are sinners, and in repentance pray the Jesus’ prayer, knowing that God someday will lift us up to the glory of salvation. Or we can go on in proud self-righteousness to our ultimate destruction where God will humiliate us. Which way do you choose?