“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Genesis 4:1-15 // 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 // Luke 18:9-17
4th of 5 in a series
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today, we reflect on the words of the tax collector sinner, beating his breast at the back of the church saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
In these days, we’ve been walking through Luke 17 and 18 and the disciples that respond to the grace of God though all kinds of difficult chapters of life. These are the habits that those disciples cultivate as they follow Jesus for their days. These are the sayings that shape their lives. Our first saying was one of humility, “We have only done our duty.” Second, of gratefulness, “God has been good to me.” Third, of confidence “God answers our prayers.”
And today, we think on the subject of repentance. “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
We get the audience right at the beginning – Jesus tells this parable to people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.
So, what kind of people is Jesus talking to? What does it mean that they trusted in themselves, that they were righteous? What does it mean that they treated others with contempt? What is contempt?
The first answer would be that Jesus is talking to the Pharisees, just like the one that’s in his parable. Jesus often speaks in strong terms against the Pharisees, and so we have one particular view of them, but let me paint our picture first with a different brush: the Pharisees were the spiritual leaders of their local communities. The Pharisaic movement began one hundred or so years before Jesus as an answer to the question, “How can we keep our people faithful to God?” They were, in so many ways, the pastors of their day.
But Jesus here is talking to pastors whose righteousness is in themselves and treated others with contempt. and to explore that, we turn to the Pharisee’s prayer. He prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”
First, let’s deal with the content of his prayer. He was thanking God for good things. You have to know that first. These are legitimately good things for which he is thanking God. Would any of you do the opposite? Would any of you give thanks to God that you are like extortioners, unjust adulterers or swindlers? He gives thanks to God that he has no propensity to abuse alcohol, that he has no problems eating an appropriate amount of food. He gives thanks that he can get to church once a week. He gives thanks that he lives a good kind of life.
Does any of that content sound familiar? Thanking God for the good things of life. Thanking God that we’ve escaped the danger that’s befallen others. Thanking God for the opportunities that he’s afforded us in life that he hadn’t afforded to others… Thanking God for every good thing, for every opportunity of service.
But then, don’t just look at the content; look at the tone. It’s not that those good things are bad. The problem is that they’re good. It’s that this pious person has made good things into the ultimate thing. This becomes one of our greatest dangers as life-long Christians. We take good things and we make them ultimate things.
Let’s unpack that. I remember this last weekend – I wasn’t in church – I was at the Mankato half marathon, and let me tell you, that was about the most perfect day, and it was great with all the people around me, but it was tough… I remember having to break down the longer run into smaller chunks – if I can just make it to mile ten… if I can just make it up the next hill… And I tell you that, to tell you this: Even when meeting a shorter goal, even when getting there is a good thing, I still have more race to go, I needed to keep the final goal in mind.
God has made us stewards of everything we have, and we’re just that – stewards. The world is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. We are only managers, resting in the grace of God. You make good things into ultimate things when you begin looking at your bank account for safety. Now, it’s good to have a bank account, and it’s good to provide for your family, but when you start looking at the zeros in your bank account as your safety and security, you’ve started making a good thing into an ultimate thing.
You make good things into ultimate things when your spouse and your family, some of the best gifts that God has given us, when they become your value and worth. When you define yourself solely as son or husband, as father or brother, then you put your whole identity in something that passes away.
This whole world will pass away, but God’s word will never pass away.
What good things are you tempted to make into ultimate things?
But this is all a foil to the tax collector. He slinks when the Pharisee walks proud. He sits when the Pharisee stands. He whispers when the Pharisee speaks up. He repents when the Pharisee boasts. He knows his sinful place before a sinless God when the Pharisee goes to God almost as equal.
And the tax collector whispers, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
One thought comes to us from C.S. Lewis, from his essay, The Weight of Glory. He writes about humility and repentance: as he matured in his Christianity, he stumbles upon “what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator.”
The specific pleasure of the inferior. The joy of a dog before its master. The joy of a baby in its mother’s arms. The joy of a learner in learning from the learned. The joy of the creature before its creator.
To know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our pleasure is first and best to receive all that God is giving to us. To receive every bit of forgiveness that he would shower down upon us, to remember again the washing of holy baptism, to eat and to drink again for the very same forgiveness.
To know, first and best, that God is God and we are not. And second, to remember that it is purely God’s nature to be merciful to the undeserving. Did you catch that about the tax collector’s prayer? That he’s asking his God to do and be exactly what he does and who he is. And third, to ask that God would be God, that he would do what is in his nature to do, right here in our midst.
Because the real beauty of Lutheran theology is that it was never about the best of humanity. The beauty of Lutheran theology is that the good, the rich, the talented, the eloquent, any and all are that have and enjoy the good things of this life, they are saved the very same way that every alcoholic, drug-addicted, foolish, angry, sexually immoral, immature, homicidal wreck of a human life. Even those at the top of their game, even those who are well-educated, healthy, strong, good looking, marriageable, with good eyes and clean living, those who are on their way to checking off all the things on their bucket list, even they are far from the kingdom of God until they repent.
By the grace of Christ. By the love of God, taken human form, marched up to Calvary, hung on a cross until he was good and dead, then raised from the tomb.
By the mercy of God, by the great riches of who Jesus is, doled out and spent down to the very last cent, spent down to the point of his death, so that your reward might be rich in heaven.
By the son of God, by the love of the Father for his son, we are adopted into the family of God, we are given the full inheritance of sons, the eternal life of Jesus Christ.
And that is an incredible work. Our God, in every deed, in every word, he is working to bring about what will come in full when Jesus Christ comes again. He is working to renew all of creation so that those who believe and are baptized might live with him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. That’s incredibly complex.
But all he requires of us is the faith of a simple child. Let me paraphrase Greg Finke. A car is both incredibly complex and incredibly simple. There are so many things that have to happen so precisely that make timed explosions happen in sequence so that wheels turn, steering wheels steer, headlights work, ipods play and I get to where I am going. But here’s the thing. I don’t need to know all of that. Someone else has designed it. Someone else has done the incredibly complex work. Someone else has done the heavy lifting, and they’ve done all that so that all I need to do is turn the key.
And I tell you that to tell you this: Christ has done and is doing the incredibly complex work in your life and in the world. He is working in his time, in his way, in your conflicts, in your life. He is drawing you and others to repentance. He is paving the way for reconciliation. He is preparing the ground so that his kingdom would come and his will would be done. Don’t try to do his work. He’s got it.
Instead, take up the incredibly simple job of being a little child. Knowing that God is God and you are not. Knowing that our identity rests on being first and best redeemed children of God. Rejoicing in the inferiority of being a creature before the creator.
And following that creator wherever he would lead. Where is he leading you? What incredibly complex work is he doing, so that he can lead you through like a little child? What pathways has his grace paved for us, so that we can follow where he leads? God be merciful to me, a sinner. God, thank you for your mercy to me, a sinner.
Amen and Amen.
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