Lord, Have Mercy

A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you’re looking down, you can’t see something that’s above you. –C.S. Lewis

PRAYER: (from the Lectionary)

“Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

SCRIPTURES: (from the Lectionary)

Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-18
Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ (Luke 18:10-13 NLT)

PRAYER FOCUS: Lord, have mercy on me

How do you function as the people of God when you are living in the middle of a godless culture? How do you stand against a political power that is at best indifferent, if not openly hostile, to your religious beliefs?

If you are a Christian living in the 21st Century, you might have pondered these questions. And you’d have a lot in common with the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.

The Roman occupation of Israel created more than a national political problem for the Jewish people. It generated a whole set of spiritual and cultural problems, as well.

The Israelites had four options:

1. Fight the foreign occupation (and its culture). That was popular. One of Jesus’ disciples, Simon the Zealot, was of such a persuasion. The problem was, the Romans had already defeated the Hebrews militarily and it was nothing for them to crucify suspected resistance fighters.
2. Collaborate with the enemy. You go with the flow. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do…” The Tax Collectors were some of these people, shaking down fellow Jews for the benefit of the Romans. The Sadducees were also collaborators, politically and theologically, going along to get along—“it’s all good.”
3. Withdraw and escape. Disappear into the desert or the hills. Insulate your family and church from any contact with either the pagan culture or those who live in contact with it. These were the Essenes (who gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls).
4. Stand fast and stick it out. You do the best you can to rally your community, your church and your family to live out your faith as best you can without compromising the very ideals you believe in. You pray that God will deliver you from your enemies and you wait patiently. You maintain your distinctive dress and speech, your integrity in dealings with people, and observe your holy rituals such that it gives honor to your faith and your culture. This is the hard path, the true path–the path of the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were descendants of those faithful Jews who kept their faith alive and traditions intact during the Babylonian exile. They were the spiritual pillars of their community. They were the moral guardians of their culture. To borrow a contemporary expression, the Pharisees were in the world but not of it.

So, how did these disciplined, learned, and well-meaning people come to be at the forefront of our Lord’s multiple and stern rebukes?

Hold that thought…

In our Lectionary Gospel passage Jesus addresses a group of Pharisees. The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector deals with prayer. But here the problem is not the Pharisee himself, but the content of his heart—his attitude—as he prays. The story serves as a rebuke not just to the Pharisee(s), but to all who become confident of their own righteousness to the point of looking down on everybody else.

There was much to commend this Pharisee. He was free from overt and intentional sins. He was not unjust in any of his dealings. He was not an adulterer. He fasted twice a week, and so glorified God with his body. He gave tithes of all that he possessed, according to the law, and so glorified God with his worldly finances.

The Pharisee is sure that he is a blessing to God: “I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector (presumably nods in that direction). He went up to the temple to pray, but was so full of himself and his own goodness that he thought he had no need of God’s favor and grace.

His real prayer is “God, I thank you that I am so marvelous.” Just for good measure he adds, “…better than that vile tax collector over there.”

In contrast, the tax collector knows he approaches a Holy God, the Great I AM, the Almighty. He comes in humility, stands at a distance, trembling, afraid to lift his eyes to heaven. While the Pharisee had stood boldly at the front and addressed God, the tax collector beat his breast in sorrow. His prayer was short and to the point: God, be merciful to me a sinner.

Then Jesus told the Pharisees, “who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else”(v.9) that the sinful Tax Collector and not the “good” Pharisee went home justified before God (v.14).

One more time, Christian: How did the Pharisees come to be at the forefront of Jesus’s multiple and stern rebukes?

In a word: Pride.

Conceit. Self-righteousness. Arrogance. Holier-than-thou-ness. Perhaps you’ve heard these words applied to Christians. An out-of-use word for that attitude is Pharisaical.

It’s the same sin that brought down Lucifer. God hates our pride. He wants us to hate it, too.

Twentieth century British theologian G.K. Chesterton wrote, “If I had only one sermon to preach, it would be a sermon against pride.”

Two thousand years have passed since the first telling of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. But we are in no way different from the characters Jesus described. The harder we try to live holy lives in the midst of an indifferent or hostile World, the more the Church stands out against a culture of immorality and idolatry, the more we must realize our desperate need for God’s mercy and grace. For just like the Pharisee, our enemy is pride. And just like the Tax Collector, our only authentic prayer should be “Lord have mercy…”

It’s Monday Morning. May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace (Num. 6:24-26).

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