Two men went to the temple to pray. One of them was a religious leader who probably wore a robe like this one. He was comfortable standing before the Altar. He “stood and prayed thus with himself.” Note that - with himself, about himself, perhaps even to himself. “God I thank you that I am not like others, especially not like that guy over there. (I’m trying to point at the wall so that you won’t accuse me of pointing to you). This part of the story reminds me of some afternoon talk shows, where people expose their problems for all the world to see. And we all get to say, “Wow, at least my life is not that bad.”
And then this religious leader tells God (and himself) all that he does for the kingdom. And to be honest, it is an impressive list. “I fast twice a week,” he says. As another religious leader, I’ll tell you that this is a good practice. I recommend fasting and so does Jesus. “I tithe,” he says. Once again, that’s good. This practice helps us to live for something more than the things we have and enables us to participate in bringing God’s blessings into the world. Before we are too hard on this Pharisee, I can find many passages in the Bible that tell us to do what he does. So what’s the issue?
Let’s look at the other guy for a moment. He is a Tax Collector, which means, in that day, that he was the lowest of the low. Today we would compare this man, not to the IRS, but to the Mob. Tax Collectors could collect anything they wanted, as long as they paid what the King demanded, and do so with the power of the Roman Army behind them. In today’s world, we might imagine a drug dealer, perhaps who ruined the life of someone you love, but with fully legal protection. This man had the nerve to come before God, and ask for something. He asks for mercy. Do you think God will answer that prayer? Would you? Would you be willing to show mercy?
Here we have two men. One is a good, moral, Bible-believing, generous person who went home empty. The other is an immoral, thieving mobster who went home blessed. It is the sinner who goes home justified. How can that be “justified?” Here’s the key to the parable. Jesus says, “for those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted."
Think about a wheel. With a wheel, strength, power, inspiration comes from the center, the core, the hub of a wheel. What is at the center of your life? If you put yourself at the center, you will not be able to move very far. On our own, we are “poor in spirit,” says Jesus. We are humble, whether we know it or not. We do not have the spiritual resources within ourselves to make life meaningful, and certainly not to connect life to eternity. We can’t do that. On the other hand, if we put God at the center, we are exalted. We are then connected to a source of true power and able to move forward in grace, mercy, and love – all that God wants for us.
The Apostle Paul says it this way: we all fall short of the glory of God. If we think that our goodness is the standard, then we bring God down to our level, and make it a standard easy to meet. From this perspective, we don’t have very far to go. Just fast, tithe, walk around looking all religious, throw in some judgement of others, and you’ve got it made.
If, on the other hand, we allow the Spirit to open our eyes to the glory of God and to the magnitude of God’s love, then we truly see just how big God’s love is and how short we fall. We know that there is no way we can make it on our own. Our hope, if there is any hope at all, is in the very love that the Spirit has revealed to us.
Paul says, even as we all fall short, so also we are justified by grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Justification is a technical and legal term meaning “acquittal” or “pardon.” Justification is when a judge “wipes the slate clean.” For us, justification comes through the cross, where God takes our sin and pays all penalties, wipes the slate clean, and then, as those forgiven, receives us into his presence with pure love. Through the cross, Christ conquers sin and death and opens the way of life for us, a life where we are then able to grow in all the fruits of the Spirit, the fruits of sanctification, able to live “with all humility, patience, and gentleness, bearing one another in love,” as Paul says. (Eph 4:1-3). This is the method by which salvation is given.
So, who receives this? Who are justified? We tend to assume that the guilty need to make amends before they are set free. Conventional wisdom calls for restitution before grace is given. In other words, grace needs to be earned by things like fasting and tithing and looking religious, with a good dose of judging others, and then salvation is earned. That’s the perspective of our conventional wisdom. God’s perspective is very different. Justification/pardon/forgiveness come to those who know the need for mercy. Justification comes as we begin to understanding the depth of God’s love, and when we begin to trust in this blessing. God plants this love in our hearts, and we respond with faith, with trust. We begin to let this love rule and guide.
I was in a conversation the other day with a college student, who was wondering how God could be both a God of justice and a God of mercy. Through this conversation, we explored the thought that mercy is the way God brings justice. Mercy is not saying, “Oh it’s OK. You’re forgiven. I don’t expect anything from you.” No. Mercy is an invitation to change. It is an invitation to embrace the love you are given and to start living by that same love. In this sense, mercy can be painful. It calls us to be transformed, to live by a new standard. It is worth noting that the Hebrew word for “mercy” is kin to the word for “womb.” Mercy is the place where new life is born. Yes, God forgives and pardons, showing great mercy, while at the same time, God calls us into new life and to grow into all that we are created to be. That’s the way God works.
The Pharisee did not ask for anything from God, and thus went home empty. The known sinner asked for everything; he asked for God’s mercy. He asked for Christ, and he went home full; he went home changed. May this story lead you to examine your own heart. Amen.
Benediction: Go now in the world, not to justify yourself, or to spend your energy trying to prove to God, or yourself, how good you are. Instead, plead only for mercy and know that, in God’s providence, mercy has a name. Christ Jesus IS God’s mercy for us. If we are to have heaven in our hearts; if our lives are to be connected to eternity, then this is all we have – there is no other way but by the mercy of God. Look for this mercy. Share this mercy. And as you do know that the peace of Christ will be with you...Amen.