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The Disturbing, Beautiful, Unlimited Nature of God's Mercy


In the fall of 1992, almost 30 years to the day, George H.W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton in that year’s election for U.S. President. Bush, it was said, took the defeat very hard, as his aides told him right up until election day itself that the race was close and that he’d probably squeak by. Except he didn’t. Instead he became the one thing no president ever wants to become, a single term president.

Nevertheless, that night, he wrote the following in his diary, “Now to bed, prepared to face tomorrow: Be strong, be kind, be generous of spirit, be understanding and let people know how grateful you are. Don’t get even. Comfort the ones I’ve hurt and let down. Say your prayers and ask for God’s understanding and strength. Finish with a smile and gusto and do what’s right and finish strong.”

And then, just a few months later, this handwritten note awaited Clinton as he entered the Oval Office on his first day as President:

Dear Bill,

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.

Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you.

Good luck — George

Given the context, given the personal heartbreak, my goodness, what an absolutely extraordinary letter. And whatever that is, more of that please. Whether you want to call it humility or charity, grace or nobility, self-restraint or honor, or whatever other word comes to mind, my goodness, more of that please.

This morning we come to what is known as “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector.” It’s a parable about the dangers and consequences of pride, the rewards and blessings of humility, and yet, ultimately it’s a parable about so much more – it’s about the disturbing and beautiful and unlimited nature of God’s mercy.

And before we get too far, I should give a disclaimer to this message: One way or another, this message, or rather, this passage is going to sting a little bit. There is almost certainly going to be something you hear over the next 20 minutes that’s going to be hard to hear, and so I suppose I shared that presidential anecdote with you up top as a positive example of sorts, and to paint a picture of what can be when we see ourselves, and one another, rightly before God himself.

This morning, we’ll look at the Pharisee’s prideful prayer, the Tax Collector’s humble prayer, only to then find Jesus giving a shocking and unexpected verdict, one that goes against all of our basic notions and understandings of who’s in and who’s out and unlimited nature of God’s mercy.

First, let’s ever so briefly set the stage:

In verse 9 we are given the audience, who this parable is addressed to. It’s a parable given to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. That word righteousness can be understood as a “moral goodness” of sorts. These are people who believe they are better than other people.

It’s an audience that we’d likely prefer to not to consider ourselves a part of, and yet, we’d be wise to at least concede that this “better than other people” feeling sometimes festers in our hearts too and that you and I would be wise to take this message to heart as well.

And so with that, here’s how the parable begins in verse 10, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector.”

And here we get to part one. It’s the Pharisee’s prideful prayer:

At first glance, everything is looking great here – in this Pharisee, as he goes to the temple to pray, what you have is a holy man going to a holy place to do a very holy thing.

That’s right, the Pharisee would be seen as a holy man. By this point in our sermon series in Luke’s Gospel, 18 chapters in, we’re so conditioned to think of the Pharisees as the bad guys, given Jesus’s sharp rebuke of them time and time and again, and yet, to the original audience hearing this parable, when they heard Pharisee, they would immediately think of a fine, outstanding citizen.

For the Pharisees were good and righteous people who would likely know the Old Testament inside and out. They prayed consistently and strived to daily apply the scriptures in practical and tangible ways in everyday life. And so, in a first century context, a listener would hear of a holy man, going to a holy place, in order to do a very holy thing. In fact, if I could give you one modern day figure that might be a helpful modern day equivalent to your average Pharisee, I would encourage you to think of Mister Rogers. That’s right, Mister “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” himself.

So here goes Mister Rogers to the temple to pray. So far, so good. But soon after he starts praying, things take a turn for the worse. Here again is what the Pharisee says in verses 11 & 12:

‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

Notice what the Pharisee is doing while he prays. He is justifying himself and thanking God for the fact that he is not like, or rather better than other people – the robbers and evildoers and adulterers and tax collectors of this world.

In short, he’s playing one of pride’s favorite games. The comparison game. And what’s so problematic about the comparison game is that we can always find a way to skew the results in our favor and in a way that makes us look good. No matter who we are, we can almost always find a way to justify ourselves and put ourselves in a good light.

And his reasoning for why he’s better than them is his religiosity, or rather his good works. For he says, “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

And yet here’s what’s noteworthy. Both of those things were an example of going above and beyond the Old Testament Law. For example, the law required that a person fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement, not twice a week. In addition, the law required that the Israelites give a tenth of their crops and livestock, not of everything a person obtained.

And so the Pharisee, Mister Rogers here, thanks God that he is better than these other people in part, because he goes above and beyond what the law requires.

In other words, it’d be like me saying, I’m better than all you all because I recycle my aluminum cans and even more, I make sure to recycle all my glass bottles when I go to Bozeman. (Now, to be clear, let the record show that in the Triller household though we do generally recycle our aluminum, we also throw our glass in the trash.)

Now to all of this, you might say, this is a ridiculous caricature that Jesus is setting before us here in the Pharisee’s prayer. After all, who actually prays like this, who actually thinks like this?

Well, I do. To all those who are married, you know how unhealthy and damaging it can be when couples keep score. And yet, sometimes we do. We think, “I’ve done more around the house, I’ve had the kids more, they’re having more fun than me, they’ve hurt me far more than I’ve hurt them.” We, at times, we keep score. In our pride, we too sometimes play the comparison game.

Of course, this is not just a reality in marriage, it can be true in friendships, in the workplace, it can even be true here at church.

For example, I know that the older generation here at our church is disappointed that the younger generation isn’t helping to lead fellowship hour on a more regular basis, and to clean up afterwards in the kitchen.

And simultaneously, the younger generation here at our church is disappointed that the older generation isn’t helping to lead Sunday School and serve in our nursery on a more regular basis.

If we’re not careful, we have a tendency to judge one another and keep score. And yet, we’ve got to trust that other people are serving as well, even in ways we cannot see. And if they’re not, let’s simply warmly invite them.

All this said, we all, at times, like Mr. Pharisee, Mister Rogers here, have a tendency to let our pride get the best of us by keeping score, to play the comparison game, whether with our family, at work, at church or with the neighbor next door.

Let’s now move onto the other main character and the other prayer in this prayer.

The Tax Collector’s Humble Prayer

If the Pharisee is Mister Rogers, the Tax Collector might be Bernie Madoff, the infamous fraudster and financier who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history, a man notorious for and who excelled in white collar crime. And if it sounds as though I’m being overly dramatic in my comparison here, well consider this:

Tax collectors in Jesus’s day were hated for two reasons in particular, and that is, they were seen as both a traitor and thief. A traitor, because as Jewish people, they were collecting taxes from Jewish people, on behalf of the Roman empire that was in control over them. In other words, they were sellouts. And yet they were also thieves, because they would often collect more money from their fellow Jewish people than they had to in an effort to get wealthy themselves. Meaning, if they were asked to tax each person 2 dollars, they might tax them 4 dollars, give 2 to the Romans and pocket the other two for themselves. They were sellouts, and also scumbags.

Here you have a first century Bernie Madoff, a white collar criminal who enters the temple that day. And yet, here’s his prayer, as found in v.13:

13 “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.’

Just by his body language and posture in prayer alone, we get a picture of a man who is at the end of himself, who is desperate for help, who is experiencing true contrition. Standing at a distance in the temple, he can hardly step foot in the place, feeling like he has no business being there and that it’s taken all his courage just to walk through its gates.

And as he gives his prayer of confession, it’s like there’s no one else in the temple with him, it’s just he and God. Which in the end, is the right posture for confession. Imagine it’s just you and God. No one else is in the room, no comparisons or self-justifications need to be made. We simply bring ourselves, our imperfect and unholy selves before a perfect and holy God and speak to him freely and openly.

And that’s what the tax collector does: His prayer is short and sweet, powerful and poignant: God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

He can’t, like the Pharisee, compare himself to others as a way of justifying himself, for on paper, he’d know he’s one of the worst of the worst. He’s got no moral purity or religious piety to stand on. What good deeds could he possibly offer?

Instead, he recognizes the sinner for who he is and throws himself upon God’s mercy. And the word used for “mercy” here is really interesting. It’s not the typical word used in the bible to describe mercy. The tax collector here isn’t asking for mercy as a synonym for “God, be nice to me or be gentle towards me.”

Rather, a better translation for “have mercy on me” here might be “make atonement for me.” The idea behind atonement is that a sacrifice must be made to make something right. In other words, the tax collector is so aware of the depths of his own sin that he realizes that no amount of prayer, no amount of temple confession can make this one right, that he can’t make things right on his own. He needs help from God himself.

Which, yes, should raise our antennas (if you will) and take us on a beeline straight for the cross. The cross of Jesus Christ, the one who had no sin and took on our sin so that we might be made the righteousness of God. The tax collector cried out for help, and help, or rather atonement, he will receive.

All of which brings us to, as promised, the disturbing and beautiful and unlimited nature of God’s mercy. And yes, I’m all the more convinced that God’s mercy is somehow all three of these things at the same time.

Because here’s how Jesus summarized the parable in v.14. He delivers what would have been to that first century audience an absolutely stunning and unexpected verdict:

14 “I tell you that this man [referring to the tax collector], rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God.

Or in other words, it was the Ponzi scheme master himself, Bernie Madoff himself, not the beloved Mister Rogers, who went home accepted by God. Bringing us to this realization: that the one who is accepted by God is the one who depends not on his own good works, but rather on God’s mercy.

So friends, consider the implications and how the nature of God’s mercy can be both disturbing and beautiful.

Consider the Pharisee, the one who lived a squeaky clean life, who was a good ol boy and did all the right things. This parable tells us that no amount of good works can make up for a prideful and sinful heart. For those of us who sometimes look to our good works as justification for our standing with God, this parable should stop us in our tracks.

Even more, consider the Tax Collector, the one who was a traitor and thief, scumbag and sellout. This parable tells us that no amount of sinful behavior, no record of evil and wrongs can make us ineligible for God’s mercy when combined with a humble and repentant heart.

It’s the disturbing and beautiful and unlimited nature of God’s mercy. Disturbing because no amount of good works can get us in and yet beautiful because no amount of sin can keep us out. Disturbing because it shakes up the snow globe and turns everything upside down in terms of who’s in and who’s out, who’s accepted and justified by God and who’s not. And yet beautiful, because though all are lost, there are no lost causes, no, not even with us.

Robbers, evildoers, adulterers, yes, even a tax collector, despite all the wrongs and evil they’ve done can be justified, can be accepted by God when they cry out in desperation for God’s mercy.

And if all of this seems rather unfair, that’s because it absolutely is. And I’ll finish with this:

The senior pastor at my previous church once served as a campus pastor for students at Stanford, and one time he was invited to speak to a group of atheists on campus about Christianity. So he went, and he talked about lots of things, one of which was God’s mercy. And one student was so frustrated by what Scott had said, and so he asked, "Let me get this straight. If my friend goes out and murders a bunch of people, but on the last day of his life, he accepts Jesus, and it's real, are you saying he goes to heaven, the same heaven as Mother Theresa?"

And Scott said, "That's exactly what I'm saying."

And the student said, "That's not fair."

And Scott said, "That’s right. It’s not fair. Not one bit."

He said, "That can't be. That cannot be. Don't you think he needs to do something to make up for all the bad stuff he's done? Don't you think a price has to be paid?"

“Don’t you think a price has to be paid?”

Exactly. This atheist student had this sense that justice had to be served, that a price had to be paid, that someone had to take the fall for what this hypothetical murderer did wrong.

And of course, the story of the bible, the story of Christianity is that a price was paid as God himself, Jesus Christ, was nailed to the cross, atoning for our sins once and for all.

Friends, it is all so very unfair. Jesus Christ, God himself, who lived a perfect, sinless life, unfairly absorbed the wrath of God so that you and I could unfairly receive God’s mercy.

It was and is so incredibly, unbelievably unfair. But yet, it just shows you how wonderful God’s mercy is. The disturbing and beautiful and unlimited nature of his mercy.

Though all are lost, no one, literally not one, is a lost cause. And in the end, this should create a culture of Christians, both individually and corporately, who are filled with this stunning and unexpected blend of humility and confidence.

Unbelievably humble because no amount of good works will ever be enough to get us in and yet unbelievably confident since because of Jesus’s death on our behalf, because of God’s incredible mercy, that through repentance and faith no sin can keep us out.

You and I, humble and confident, not because of what we have done, but because of what Jesus has done for us. Oh may be so, may it be so.

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