October 27, 2013 – Pentecost 23

Pentecost 23 10.27.13   (Ps 32, Luke 18:15-17, 18-30)    Luke 18:9-17 God, be merciful to me

Luke 18: 9-17

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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Jesus tells yet-another parable– this time because there were some– (no names needed to be mentioned, but some, we’re told ) who,  trusting in their own righteousness, were looking down on others with contempt.

Two men go to the temple to pray, Jesus says – a leader in one of the largest, most respectable churches in town – and a tax collector, working for the despised Roman empire (ranking lower on the community respect list than the repo man at the used-car lot).

The first man prays –  “thank you God, I’m not like others – not a crook, not an evil-doer, not an adulterer – not like that tax collector over there. I fast twice a week. I give ten percent of my income to the church. I’m a God-fearing  man…”

The other man stands far away from others, and won’t even look up, as he beats his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

And we know which of these two guys gets the prayer-thing right – since Jesus comes right out and tells us which it is. And we’ve read on ahead to the next two episodes in Luke’s gospel. So we can see the pattern…

We’ve seen children brought to Jesus for a blessing or healing touch, and we’ve seen Jesus’ disciples sternly ordering their families to desist. ‘Get those kids away from Jesus! He’s got more important folks to see today than a bunch of kids!’

There’s a rich ruler waiting just off-stage to talk with Jesus, and probably the disciples are thinking that’s who Jesus really needs to be talking with today, not children. So they’re not exactly singing little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong… And, Lord have mercy, these disciples actually try to drive little children away. No matter how much parents loved their children, children still ranked with slaves, at the low end of the social order, in those days. (And probably this episode makes us realize that the  parable Jesus tells about some looking on down on others isn’t addressed only to Pharisees.)

And Jesus says, “let the little children come to me…The kingdom of God belongs to them… And unless you receive my kingdom like a child you’re never going to get there at all.” (And… if we’re not sure of the pattern notice again…)

When the rich man does get to see Jesus, the interview doesn’t exactly go well. He’s got all the commandments down pat, so he thinks, but he obviously still isn’t ready to follow Jesus, as we see him heading away in sorrow, when confronted with the fact of loving his many possessions more than he loves God… The one who has much to lose in the world can’t give it up, even for Jesus… While little children who’ve got nothing to go on but love get the promise of God’s kingdom…

And the disciples really don’t seem to see the patterns yet. They wonder how can it possibly be hard for the rich to inherit the kingdom? They are rather slow learners.

Later in this same chapter, a blind beggar will be at the roadside crying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And people will be hollering at the blind man to hush. (Like the disciples, again, just not getting it.) But the blind man keeps crying, “Son of David have mercy on me!” And Jesus stops, asks what he wants, hears the man’s request to see again, heals him back to sight, and the man follows Jesus, praising God.

St Luke has told us several times that the disciples are blind to Jesus’ purposes…But here’s a blind man who sees well enough to knows he’s blind, a blind man who knows who to ask for sight, and knows how to ask for what he wants – while those who ought to know – show they don’t know yet. (Sometimes the blind can lead the blind.)

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There’s a prayer known as “The Jesus Prayer” – made from a composite of parables and stories from Luke 18 – the prayers of the tax collector and blindman and the methodology of the persistent widow last week, who petitioned an unjust judge till he gave in and gave justice.

There’s multiple versions of this Jesus Prayer. One longer version goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, sinner that I am.” A shorter version goes,“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” Either way the idea is to pray persistently, like the widow in last week’s parable, like the blind man asking sight. Pray silently, pray out-loud, pray till the words sink in deep, and become second nature, like breathing.

I’ve prayed this Jesus prayer for four decades now, and I can testify– not only is this prayer simple, easy to remember, and a prayer we can say anytime, anywhere – this is also a prayer that, to the best of my knowledge, is always answered affirmatively by Jesus. (“Yes– I will have mercy.”) This is an all-seasons prayer, but I pray it especially when I’m tired, stressed, confused, or in need of focus. (Which is to say, pretty often.)

Our daughter Rohi likes this prayer too. When she hears me say, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” Rohi will often chime in, “a sinner that I am– ” completing my sentence.  Which can sound a little strange, given that Rohi is one of the more innocent persons I’ve ever known. Yet she says “a sinner that I am” with such gusto, and, seems like, enjoyment – as if she is on to the secret of just asking forgiveness and receiving it and how good that feels if we’re really paying attention – and hey, even our dear Rohi needs this prayer… like everyone else on earth…

We’re all children of God, made in the image of God and immensely loved by God.

We’re also all sinners in need of God’s mercy. The universal nature of sin is perhaps our most verifiable doctrine. According to St Paul’s simplest, most sweeping definition of sin (given at the end of Romans 14) sin is anything that isn’t done in faith. There are other Biblical definitions of sin, but essentially sin is any degree of separation from God’s will and God’s grace. And all have sinned, all have an inborn tendency to sin – some more obviously than others – but all of us have the same human tendency to sin.

Bishop Fulton J Sheen, once-upon-a-time Catholic bishop of Rochester, NY, had a television ministry that made him famous, but he also used to preach fairly often in prisons, and when he did, somewhere along in his sermon, I’m told, he’d always find a way to tell the prisoners: “The only difference between you and me – is that you got caught, and I didn’t.” (Meaning I’m a sinner, just like you.)

And Jesus tells us today the one who knows he is a sinner – has all the advantage over the one in denial. The essence of biblical wisdom is to know who we are, and who God is. To know our need of God – and understand we can’t save ourselves. We need a Savior to do that for us. And we need our Savior not just once in awhile, but all the time.

If we put ourselves in the place of the Pharisee, praising himself for his own spiritual resume, we’re obviously flunking Salvation 101, according to Jesus. If, on the other hand, we put ourselves in the place of the tax collector (at least as long as he’s deep in prayer mode) we’re on the right track.

But as soon as we start to think, “thanks God I’m not like that Pharisee over there – so full of himself!” – we ourselves are now on the same slippery slope. As the ancient poet T Bone Burnett has said, “as soon as you think you’re humble, you’re no longer humble…”

Self-justification is such an easy thing to fall into, without really even noticing.  Jesus has been teaching me for a long time, but just like those first disciples, I too am a very slow learner. Like the Pharisee in the parable today, I too have a tendency to remind God of all the good things I’ve done (allegedly good things,  I’ve allegedly done, that is,  more accurately). I too, like the Pharisee in the story, have a tendency to think “well at least I’m not like those other people over there, doing all those horrible things…”

Til the Holy Spirit reminds me again of all the sufficiently awful things I have done… along the way. Sometimes I can actually hear the Holy Spirit saying, “who the hey do you think you are – judging other sinners like yourself?”  Reminding me it’s time to pray – Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner that I am.

The very first sin, way back in the garden, is the not-so-original-mistake of trusting our own hearts and minds more than we trust God. Listening to the voice that tells us, first, just that we ourselves are actually very competent people – then, once we start believing that – telling us that we ourselves are people who can do practically anything – what we set as our goals we can achieve – then telling us – actually we know how to do this garden thing better than good old what’s-his-name…

Once we start not needing God in even one area of life, pretty soon we find other parts of life where we think we can also manage independently, do quite well enough, without God. Til finally, one day, we wake up and it’s God-who?

Which is again why we need a Savior. A Savior who loves children. A Savior who reminds us often that we’re called to be his children – and we are his children– when we remember who we are – (meaning–)

God’s children, immensely loved by God – and – sinners immensely in need of God’s grace – When we remember who God is – When we remember who we ourselves are – When we come to know how very much we need God, all the time… When we’re not ashamed to ask God’s mercy often… even always…

Then we’re already in the mercy zone… And our prayer is already being answered…

Thanks be to God.

Amen.  (And let’s sing the song– I Need Thee Every Hour – #397)