Call on the Merciful Lord

“Call on the Merciful Lord”

Joel 2:23-32                Luke 18:9-14


It could be a sign of something…I don’t know.  But…on cold days like those we anticipate soon I can’t get my feet warm until I put on my comfortable old slippers…the comfortable OLD slippers…those new slippers won’t do.  My guess is that we have all had a pair of comfortable old slippers…maybe have a pair today.  They are soft…warm and gentle on the feet.

Today’s parable from Jesus is one we have heard so often that it too might be as comfortable as those old slippers.  It should not.  While this parable may fit our feet…it could also pinch…like those new…expensive dress shoes when you wear them for the first time.

Like the parable we heard last week this story has prayer as its focus…and it speaks to God’s grace.  The parable we heard last week showed that consistent prayer shows our confidence that God is gracious and caring.  This parable shows us what we think of ourselves and of God…perhaps without even realizing that’s the message.

It’s the story of two men who prayed…a Pharisee and a tax collector.  The contrast between the two men should be obvious.  Tax collectors were the scum of Jewish society.  They were lackeys of the conquering Roman government.  They were religious and political traitors to the Hebrew society.  They were utterly despicable. They were outcasts.  Today the closest social equivalent would be drug pushers and pimps…people who prey on society, who make money off the bodies of other people and by stealing from others.

On the other hand…the Pharisee had a strong positive reputation in the community.  He had studied long and hard to be better than others…as the historian Josephus described it…”in the observance of piety and exact interpretation of the laws.”  People believed that no Pharisee would ever sell out his people for personal gain.  Like everyone else they, too, were victims of the tax collectors.  You could count on the Pharisees to love the Law and attempt to uphold it.  Remember…however… reputation is only what can be seen.

In today’s parable the Pharisee began his prayer well enough.  He expressed gratitude for the sin that God had kept him from.  He had not stolen…had been faithful to his spouse.  For the people who heard him…his phrase…”even like this tax collector…” seemed appropriate.

In the church today you might hear someone who thinks and acts like the Pharisee say…”God, I thank you that I haven’t fallen to what so many of my contemporaries have succumbed to…sensuality, dishonest business practices…the God-less life of so many of the unchurched.”

Certainly…we should be thankful for the grace of God in our lives.  We have all probably said…”There, but for the grace of God, go I.”  But, there’s something wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer.

Note where he positioned himself.   Then think about where the tax collector said his prayer.  The Pharisee came to the Temple at the precise hour when it was most populated with others in prayer.  He went to the very front of the congregation.  He stood erect…above those bowed in prayer and worship.

A second point to consider…his prayer was loud enough for the whole congregation to hear.

Third…his prayer was all about him.  It was essentially a monologue offering congratulations to himself.  Five times in the brief prayer he said “I”.

Fourth…our discomfort with his prayer comes when he refers to the tax collector in ways that promote the Pharisee’s own Mr. Clean image to the crowd.  He attempted to promote himself to God by exposing the moral failure of another.  Also…he doesn’t seem to care about the plight of the tax collector.  He doesn’t show to him the kind of love that God shows to his poor…pitiful…sinning neighbor.

Some Christians today…make the same error.  They start their prayer by thanking God for his saving grace that has changed their lives…but they think that their success in life is due to their own discipline and effort.  They have turned God’s grace into their own personal accomplishment list.

The tax collector’s prayer was quite different.  He stood at a distance…probably just inside the gates of the Temple court.  He would not look up to heaven…but he beat his breast and asked God for mercy on him…the sinner.  Unlike the Pharisee’s proud proclamation of his own virtues…the tax collector humbly proclaimed his sins.

The tax collector had no desire to compare himself with others.  His plea…”Have mercy on me.” is the opening line of Psalm 51…the Psalm of David that followed his repentance for his adultery and the murder of the woman’s husband.  The tax collector’s hope is that just as God forgave David’s sins…God will forgive the sins of the tax collector.  He felt that the merciful gift of the removal of God’s anger was his only hope.

Jesus told the crowd to note the contrast between the two men.  The Pharisee…who presented his own merits…left the Temple unaccepted… unjustified…and facing God’s wrath.   The tax collector…who repented and humbly gave himself up to God’s mercy…left the Temple justified.  In an instant he had a new life.

This parable helps us understand Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith…a basic doctrine of our United Methodist Church.  Jesus made that doctrine clear with the telling of this story.

Jesus loved to end his parables with axioms… rules for living…and this time was no exception.  His words were…”…the proud will be humbled…but the humble will be honored.”  This is an often repeated message from the Old Testament.  It was sung by Mary at Jesus’ birth….”My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”  (Luke 1:46-48)

This parable tells a great truth…the spiritual attitude with which we pray in our heart of hearts reveals much…especially to God.

The unrighteous heart may never say it publicly…but its prayers reveal to God that it is really depending upon itself…not God…for eternal life.  Though lip-service might be given to humility and repentance…they are not real.  That heart’s own perception of its own goodness is held dear as the real source of salvation.

In contrast…the righteous heart is a heart that…calls on the merciful Lord to be gracious to the sinner.

Before I met Jesus I heard of this gift of grace from the Nobel prize winner…Bob Dylan…who wrote and sang these words. “The wicked know no peace and you just can’t fake it. There’s only one road and it leads to Calvary.  It gets discouraging at times, but I know I’ll make it.  By the saving grace that’s over me.”

Paul made it clear in his letter to the church at Rome…”God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

In sermons, Sunday school and seminary we have come to know that the gift of God’s grace is a cornerstone of our United Methodist tradition.  John Wesley called it prevenient grace…grace that is God’s active presence in our lives…an unearned gift that is always available.  It is God who takes the initiative to relate to you and me.  Wesley and Paul tell us it is God’s grace that stirs up within us a desire to know God and gives us the power to respond to God’s invitation to be in a fruitful, loving relationship with God.  That grace was available to the Pharisee.

But…this grace can be refused.

Today…and everyday…as Jesus…Paul… John Wesley…and even Bob Dylan…have told us…God’s grace is ours…whether we are on the mountain top filled with joy and exhilaration…or in the everyday valley filled with work and frustration.  It is available to us just as it was available to the Pharisee and the tax collector.   Let us not refuse it.  Let us…in the humble faith of the tax collector…call on the merciful Lord…with concerns and petition…with joy and praise.