Rev. Jane Dunning
“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.”
So much of Jesus teaching was about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. As he opens this story with these words, we are given a clue to what will follow. Throughout his teaching, Jesus repeats, again and again, that his mission is to save sinners and to bring the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast words of hope and words of promise.
This parable shows an unexpected contrast between two characters. One is upper class and an icon of respectability and of faith. The other is an outcast, considered to be a thief and a traitor. Who is the hero here? Whose prayer will be heard? Who will be restored to a loving relationship with God?
Let us set the stage…
We are standing in the temple in Jerusalem. It is a huge and beautiful structure. Its splendor inspires awe and wonder, as would be appropriate for worship of the One God of Israel.
There are people already gathered in the temple. Two characters walk in.
The first is a Pharisee.
Pharisees were members of the religious leadership and highly respected in the community. They took the ancient laws seriously and devoted themselves to prayer and to the observance of these laws. They held great power in society and were highly regarded by the people of the day.
Scholars tell us that it was the custom to pray out loud in the temple, before God and before others…
The Pharisee stood apart, where he would be seen, and held his hands up, as was the custom, and prayed:
“I fast, even beyond what the Law asks. I give tithes, not just a tenth of my agricultural products, but of all my resources.”
This character that Jesus described seemed to think that he is the reason for all the good things that have happened for him. The entire prayer was a recital of what he, this man, had done. There is no acknowledgement of his need for God in his life. His prayer seemed to focus on him.
He is reminding God of his deeds and his virtues.
Can’t you just see him standing there, with his chest puffed up with pride and self-righteousness?
Can’t you hear him proclaiming his worthiness?
The second character in the story is a tax collector, thoroughly despised by the people.
The Jews at that time were living under the rule of the conquering Roman government who collected heavy taxes from the people. Tax collectors were thought to use that as a license to steal. They became a symbol of a repressive system. They were treated as outcasts and traitors.
The poor tax collector did not pretend to be other than he was. Can you see him? He was bent over in humility, and did not even look up as he prayed. His prayer was a simple repetition of the ancient words, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He probably spoke softly, not wanting to call attention to himself…
He knew he was despised by people and wanted to be where no one would look scornfully at him. And he was so ashamed that he could not even lift his hands or eyes up to God in his prayers, as was the custom. He felt his own shame and was beating his breast at his unworthiness. He was crying out to God to be merciful to him, an unworthy sinner.
The tax collector’s prayer was one of humility and repentance for what he had done. He could not look up because the weight of his sins laid heavy on his head. His prayer was very short:
“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Can you hear him repeating this ancient prayer again and again, perhaps even listing those sins he had committed.
And his prayer was answered by God.
If we pray like the Pharisee, because we think it is our duty or because we want be seen as righteous, our prayers will be rejected because they lack the honesty and humility to acknowledge that we need the mercy of God. Those are not prayers. They are expressions of pride. There is no compassion for others, only thoughts of self-congratulation that he is not as others are…
When we confess our sins with a completely open heart, God hears these and is reconciled to us. God hears the prayers of those who ask for mercy rather than those who expect it because they have ‘earned’ it. He accepts those seeking mercy and forgiveness into communion with Him, as part of His kingdom. The greater the sin, the greater the repentance and the greater the mercy.
More than once, Jesus has said that he came to save sinners, to help them find reconciliation with our loving God.
When we come before God in prayer, we need to remember we are there to offer thanks for the many blessings that God has given us, and to ask for mercy and forgiveness for our flaws and our failings. We must also forgive the failings of others.
Jesus is telling us that if we pray with grateful hearts and rely on the mercy of God for mercy in spite of our faults and our sins, our prayers will be answered.
Jesus promises that when we turn our thoughts to God, when we return to Him, again, and again, and again, He will have mercy on us, and we will be restored and forgiven.
That is the promise that touched the sorrow-filled heart of a despised tax collector and led him to crying out, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
And this man went to his home justified. Amen.
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