“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!’" (Luke 18:13)
Yesterday morning Chris Silard, one of our pastors, preached a message from Luke 18:9-14 on the Pharisee and the tax collector. It was wonderfully convicting and encouraging. Chris highlighted many of the differences between the attitudes and actions of the two men. He pointed out that the Pharisee mentions God only once in his prayer, while he uses the pronoun "I" five times. His goal isn’t to seek God but to impress Him. HIs prayer, rather than being an expression of dependence, is an exercise in self-exaltation. In contrast, the tax collector describes himself as "a sinner." Or more precisely, the sinner.
Who I’m comparing myself to when I pray makes all the difference. And typically I’m evaluating myself by the behavior of others, just like the Pharisee. If my focus is on those around me, I’m not looking for mercy, but worship. My prayer isn’t, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner," but, "God, be rewarding to me, a better-than-average Christian," or, "God, be pleased with me, a generally superior Dad," or even, "God, be observant of me, an unusually faithful worship pastor."
I recently saw this self-righteous tendency in my life when I finished browsing through a magazine and saw others being praised, quoted, and receiving recognition. I walked away feeling slightly discouraged and didn’t know why. Questions started to run through my mind. "Why wasn’t I mentioned? Did they really think they were THAT good? Why isn’t anyone pointing out their flaws?" This quickly drifted into self-pity. "I shouldn’t even be doing this. Who do I think I am? No one ever notices what I do." It’s painful even to write these words.
By God’s grace, I recognized the source of my malaise and began to confess my need for a righteousness that is not my own. In my attempts to receive credit, I lost sight of my need for mercy. This parable speaks directly to my temptation. Jesus directed it to those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)
Jesus couldn’t be clearer. He aims to free us from our seemingly endless attempts to justify ourselves in God’s eyes on the basis of our own achievements. We come to Him by mercy, or we don’t come at all.
"God, be merciful to me, a sinner."
What precious words, knowing that God Himself has provided that mercy through the atoning sacrifice of His only Son.