By Eric J. Brown
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified…” (Luke 18:9-14)
The Pharisee had much to be thankful for. Or maybe much that he could have been thankful for. It’s a good thing not to get caught up with the mob. It’s a good thing not to be cruel or to get caught up in affairs; that stuff is painful. He had clearly been taught the Word and raised in the Church. God had even blessed him with wealth enough to be casually generous. God had given him so many things for which he could have been thankful!
But there was a problem. The Pharisee didn’t thank God for what God had given him. Nope, the Pharisee saw all these gifts from God as though they were things the Pharisee had done, was responsible for. And so he strode into the temple all proud of himself, strutted his stuff before God, and then went home, never thinking to ask for anything else. In pride, arrogance, and folly, the Pharisee turned his back on God.
For the tax collector, though, his day in the temple is different. I’m sure he had plenty of things he could have been thankful for, but he wasn’t there to brag. No, he was in the temple because he saw he had nothing to brag about. God had richly blessed him, and yet he had blown it. Repeatedly. He had nothing that he could brag about before God; instead he simply cried out for mercy. I have blown it, God! Be merciful to me, a sinner!
And God is merciful. Of course God is going to give mercy to the tax collector! God delights in giving good things to people. The tax collector goes home justified, forgiven, redeemed because that’s what God does. The Pharisee, even though he didn’t think he needed any of that mercy, he walked away from it.
We always need mercy. We do. Now, Satan will try to make us forget this. Satan will try to tempt us into being so proud of what we think we’ve done that we forget our need for mercy. But you know who God is. God isn’t like some holy scholarship committee that you have to impress with a list of all your accomplishments; He is the very same Christ Jesus who came to go to the Cross to give you forgiveness, life, and salvation through His death and resurrection. You don’t need to try to impress God. In fact that’s dangerous to your faith! Rather, it’s good to know that you need mercy. After all, being merciful is Jesus’ specialty. Lord, have mercy upon us!
Rev. Eric J. Brown is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Herscher, IL.
This article was originally published on the Higher Things website in August 2017.