A reading from the Gospel of Luke, the 18th chapter.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14 ESV)
There’s not much to add to this. Not really.
Well, except there is. This morning, I heard a preacher today speak of the virtues of humility, and how this saying of Jesus proves we should all walk humbly with God. He spoke of a priest, praying to God, saying, “I’m not like that pedophile over there…”
Yes, he really said it.
And pedophile, praying to God, “be merciful to me a sinner.”
Which one is justified?
This is a reason we should be humble, walk with humility, realize that we cannot and should not be arrogant. Because … our works, our virtues, our righteousness does not justify us.
And yet … I suspect for a number of people sitting in those pews, self-righteousness and arrogance and conceit are not problems. Arrogance is not their sin. They already beat their breasts, and wail before God, and they know — because everyone around them has shown them and made it clear — that they are of no value. They are sinners, enemies, lost and irredeemable.
Remember who the tax collector is. He’s not just a bad man. He’s not just a sinner. He works for the enemy, the conqueror, the occupier, and in doing so, he steals from and cheats and betrays his own people. (To an extent, maybe pedophile is a better comparison than I want to admit; doing the ministry I do, however, I’m hard pressed to want to forgive the abusers of children or even include them in notions of forgiveness.) To be a tax collector and say this prayer is to know, really know, just how bad your work is. To know, really know, how much that work separates you from the Pharisee, who is the keeper of what it means to be one of the people of God.
How much that work separates you from God.
The tax collector’s plea forms the core of the Jesus prayer, which I will sometimes sit and say 33 times (counting on the segments of my fingers). I’ve altered the version I say a bit, drawing from my favorite prayer in Numbers 10, and it goes something like this:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and deliver me this day.
Because mostly I feel worthless before God. I feel like I don’t belong to God’s people. I don’t know what I’ve done to be an enemy, but clearly I’m not good enough to be one of the People of God. I don’t fast and I don’t tithe and I don’t have a fancy title.
Because of this Jesus tells me I’m justified. I suppose. I’d rather have the fancy title and the nice clothes and belong. I don’t want to stand far off, and beat my chest, and wail that I’m not worthy. I want to draw near, and tell God I’m good enough. I’m tired of hearing I’m not good enough and I’m not welcome. I want to say, just for once, that I’m not like those other people, those sinners who are not me. And maybe, just maybe, for once I’d like to tell someone, “you are not welcome here, please go away,” and have that power, and make it stick.
But I don’t.
Am I exalting myself, even in my own mind, by wanting these things? Am I still justified? I don’t know. There are days — like today — when I’m not sure I care.
I know Jesus cares. I know Jesus cares most about those who stand far away, who know who they are — sinners, unwanted, unclaimed, people considered beyond the reach of God’s love and redemption — and that he goes to find them. Us. The lost.
So, I am one of God’s people, whether the others want me or not. Whether I much want to be one of God’s people or not.
And I am redeemed. And justified. And so are you. All of you who have stood far off, known that you are not welcome or wanted at this table where only the righteous can dine. Where only the decent and respectable are invited. You who are sinners, who know you are sinners, who know you are lost and unwelcome and unwanted, Jesus wants you. Has found you.
Has claimed you as his own.
Has justified you.
God is merciful, even when men are not. God is welcoming, even when men are not. Here, today, now, you belong. You belong to God.
Someday this kingdom will be bigger. Someday, it will feel like it really includes me. But right now, it is here, at this table. You belong. And I do too. That is enough.