Mercy, Luke 18:9-14
First United Methodist Church, October 27, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
Have you heard the story of the man who came to the gates of heaven to be greeted by Saint Peter? Peter asks the man if he can give a brief history of his life with an emphasis on the good deeds he’s done in order to gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
“You will need 1000 points to be admitted,” Peter tells the man.
“This will be a cinch,” the man thinks to himself. “I’ve been involved in church from the days of my youth.” Then he begins to list his activities for Peter. He was an officer in his youth group, served in every possible position he could, even as a youth. He was on the church council and pretty much every committee the church had to offer. His list was extensive.
“Very impressive,” Peter smiles at the man. An angel standing with them also smiles and nods as he tallies the points and then whispers into Peter’s ear. Peter tells the man, “This is quite striking; we seldom see men of your very good works. You will be pleased to know that you have 327 points! Is there anything else you can think of?”
The poor soul breaks into a cold sweat and begins to reach deep for every single act of kindness he could think of. He listed them as the angel scratched furiously on his angelic clipboard and nodded his head in admiration.
Peter looks at the clipboard and says, “This is quite exceptional! You now have a total of 402 points. Can you think of anything else?”
The distressed guy strives to recall good deeds, like the time he helped a little old lady across the street. He finally arrives at a grand total of 431 points and cries out, “I’m sunk! There’s no hope for me! What more could I have done? O Lord, all I can do now is beg for your mercy!”
“THAT,” exclaims Peter, “is a thousand points!”
We’re back on the road with Jesus and we’re listening to his stories. The ones we hear this morning are addressed to those in the crowd gathered ‘round who have convinced themselves that they’re good folk. That they’re “righteous,” scripture says, meaning they see themselves as being morally sound, as people who do the right thing toward other people, treating others with kindness, with respect. And, righteous meaning they’re folks who follow their religious beliefs. They’re folks who do their best to be “right” with people and with God.
By now, we’ve been in the gospel of Luke long enough to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and so when we hear the two subjects of the story, the Pharisee and the tax collector who go into the temple to pray, we predict right away that the Pharisee will be the one who comes out the loser.
In Luke, we’ve seen the Pharisees and Jesus have a complicated relationship. Three times a Pharisee has invited Jesus to dinner and each time Jesus ends up criticizing the host. The Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas wants to kill him. He responds by giving them a piece of his mind to pass on to the king. We’re not all that surprised that the Pharisees are reported to have a grudge against Jesus and have grumbled against him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He’s recently said, “You are the ones justifying yourselves before humans, but God knows your hearts.” It’s not meant to be an affirming observation.
So, we’re pretty convinced that the scale is tipped against the Pharisee. We don’t expect too much out of this man who is going to the temple to pray.
On the other hand, the tax collectors have responded positively to Jesus, beginning with Levi who left everything, stood up and followed him (5:28). We’re kind of thinking that this tax collector is going to turn out being in a good place, too.
So what good is a parable if you know how it’s going to turn out? A parable, a story—to make it good/to make it memorable needs to have an edge to it, a surprise, in order to work, doesn’t it? In order to teach us something new. Isn’t that the point? Isn’t Jesus trying to teach us a new way of thinking? A better way to live? So, who is he talking to? To whom is this story directed?
It’s directed, we’re told, “to those who have convinced themselves [or who are confident in themselves] that they are righteous and who despise the rest…” What an interesting beginning. Which one of us would ever admit to that? We maybe can think of other people who would fit that description, but we’re not that impressed with ourselves. We’re not that arrogant. We know that it’s God who makes us righteous and we wouldn’t dream of treating someone else with contempt. But we’ll keep listening because we kind of enjoy hearing Jesus zap somebody who needs zapped.
The story Jesus tells right before this one is actually very similar, and I’ve hinted around that story more than once over the last few weeks, so I’m just going to read it to you now. It’s the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge. This story, we’re told is about folks need to always pray, and to not lose heart. Here is the story Jesus tells:
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.”
Jesus then says this: “Listen to what the unjust judge says. Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8).
The judge in this story, whose duty is to support and defend the righteous—the good folk of his charge—is himself unrighteous. He has no fear of God and no respect for others. He isn’t concerned about giving a just verdict/a correct verdict. He’s not a nice guy and he doesn’t even care.
In contrast, in this second story that comes to us this morning, the Pharisee thinks he’s a good guy, but he’s actually clueless. He doesn’t ask God for anything; he doesn’t think he needs to. He and God are of one mind, he believes, and so he simply celebrates who he is and what he does, comparing himself—and looking down on those around him—particularly that despicable tax collector over there on the edge of things, in the back (you know, where he belongs). The Pharisee misses the point of God’s justice, the call of who he is to be, and the extent of God’s patience with sinners like the tax collector.
Let’s envision the scene in the temple where these two men have come to pray. It’s late afternoon, and they enter through one of the many gates into the Court of the Gentiles. It’s an enormous open space surrounded by colonnaded porches. They join the crowds that gather for evening prayers and for the evening sacrifice; as the lamb, offered on the altar for the welfare of all Jews is slaughtered, people gather to pray. Picture a crowd standing in the Court of Israel and in the Court of Women, each person praying out loud in their own way. Most of them are standing with their arms raised and faces turned toward heaven. That was a common stance for prayer in that day. Others take on the posture of mourning, with their heads lowered and their backs bent.
The Pharisees prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving, praising/blessing God for what God has done. The standard beginning that we’ve read in different places of scripture, “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe…” but rather than continuing that prayer of Thanksgiving for Israel, the man makes the prayer very personal. He says he’s thankful that he’s not like those other people standing around him, and then he lists out all the good things he does, which is pretty much above and beyond what is expected of him as a faithful Jew (So God ought be really pleased, you know?).
He’s not simply praying upward toward where he envisions God to be, but he’s looking around himself, breathing a sigh of belief. Thank goodness I’m not one of these folks.
The tax collector, again off to the side, is well-aware of his status among the other pray-ers. If we lived in that day, we wouldn’t like him much either. His job is to squeeze money out of us and our neighbors so the Romans can be in charge of our country. He gets rich while we have to sell our farms to pay our tax bills. He’s got a lot of nerve to show up in this place, to pray.
But he does show up, and this is what he says, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” He prays with his head down, his eyes down, his fist beating his chest. He’s overcome by grief and he repents.
He says what Peter said the first time he saw Jesus perform a miracle, “O Lord, go away from me, because I’m a sinful man.”
He says what the prodigal son said to his father when he returned home, “Father I have sinned against God and you, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”
He says what the thief on the cross said to Jesus as they both die, “I know I’m here because I’m guilty, but this man is innocent; Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Luke’s gospel is full of sinners who repent, who turn from their sins to God and who receive God’s forgiveness and blessing. If they repent, God justifies them: God declares them righteous. That’s what happens in this story. This man, Jesus says, went down to his home, righteous before God. Changed, I think. Ready to begin his life in a new way.
It's a good lesson for us, who maybe see ourselves as righteous before God. We do our best, don’t we? We aren’t like—whomever we don’t like or don’t respect or who we’re certain are terrible sinners. But it’s not about naming our virtues and collecting points to prove how good we are. It’s not standing alongside others attempting to convince God, ourselves, or anyone else that we’re better, or holier, or more worthy…whatever. It’s about acknowledging who we are—the good parts and the not so good—repenting our sins, and offering ourselves to God. It’s remembering that Christ died on the cross for us—for all of us. It’s realizing that we most likely won’t appreciate the gift/that grace until we acknowledge that we actually need it.
Let’s not forget the end of the parable: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” It may sound like judgement, but it’s grace. When we are broken, when we admit our failures, head down, eyes down, fists beating our chests, then God in his mercy will lift us up and bring us to a place at the great banquet. When we’re puffed up and proud and judgmental, then God in his mercy will bring us down, so that we can join the party with all the other sinners. Pharisee or tax collector, prodigal or older brother, lost sheep or contented member of the flock, God wants to gather us home. To open the gates (1000 points!!) so we each hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”