GOD, BE MERCIFUL TO ME, A SINNER.
In the name + of Jesus.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. Both of these men were religious. Both recognized where to go if they wanted to stand in God’s presence. Both knew who the true God was. Both made their prayers heard by him. And both held God to his word in one way or another.
The Pharisee prayed first. He was a noble man. Morally, he was a role model for the Jews whom he taught and who were under his spiritual care. He devoted himself to the spiritual discipline of fasting. He was faithful in tithing, not only from his regular income, but careful to tithe on everything that came into his possession. This Pharisee was above reproach in the way he dealt with other people. He did not steal. He did not take advantage of the poor or despise the needy. He did not seduce other women. He knew what was in line with God’s will, and he was pleased with how well he was living up to God’s will. And he held God to his word that God blesses those who keep his commandments.
To be sure, there are blessings in this life for those who know how to behave. If you do not steal or cheat, you will not be in trouble with the law. If you act honorably, you will not be despised by others. If you remain chaste, you will not have to fret unwanted pregnancy. If you remain faithful to your spouse, you will not jeopardize your marriage because of infidelity. Godly living can make much of life easy. By avoiding wickedness, you can avoid bad choices and the painful and costly consequences that follow.
Nevertheless, Jesus said that this Pharisee did not go home from the temple justified. He was convinced he had done what God commands, and he called on God to reward him accordingly. As far as anyone could see, the Pharisee had been faultless. He did not have any shameful sins to smudge his appearance. But God does not judge by appearances. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7) And the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. (Jeremiah 17:9)
You are equally in danger of deceiving yourself, if you have not done so already. As the Pharisee noted, some people’s sins are obvious—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like (the crooked) tax collector. (Luke 18:11) There are people who gorge themselves on evil and celebrate it so that, as Isaiah noted, even the one who departs from evil makes himself a prey (Isaiah 59:15) or a target. Many have made a royal mess of their lives because of bad choices. Some will have to live with the consequences of these choices for the rest of their lives. Do we not feel that we are superior to them? We were smarter than that. We knew how to behave. We thank God that we are not like these other people. And we are waiting for God to reward us accordingly. Beware: If you look down on others because their sins are obvious, you will go home without God’s favor. You, too, are a sinner.
The tax collector also went to the temple to pray. He could not make the same boasts as the Pharisee. He did not get into any kind of a contest with the Pharisee about who had done more for his fellowman. He would have lost anyway. The Pharisee knew it, and the tax collector too. So, when the tax collector prayed, he did not waste any time on his credentials. Nor did he make excuses. No, “I have mouths to feed.” No, “In my line of work, you gotta do what you gotta do.” His prayer was a confession, and his confession was also his prayer: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
The tax collector made a simple confession. He did not weigh out his deeds on a scale to see how his good and bad deeds balanced out. He was good at making tally marks in his tax ledger. Before God, there was no such thing. He was a sinner, plain and simple. He was a sinner, through and through. He simply prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) He was a sinner, not just in words and deeds, but in his mind, his heart, and in his very nature. He did not approach God with tally marks to be addressed, but he confessed guilt for all things. Therefore, he sought mercy for all things. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
You have been taught to pray the same confession for the same reason. Kyrie, eleison. Lord, have mercy. God, have mercy on me, a sinner. The tax collector’s words sound just like our penitential hymn. But there is a nuance in the tax collector’s prayer that begs for more than mercy. The word “mercy” is more accurately translated: “be propitiated to me.” You can understand why the editors opted for mercy. But the expression tells us that the tax collector knew God’s promises. And it tells us why the tax collector went to the temple rather than simply to pray from his own home which would have been much easier.
The temple is where the Lord’s atonement was procured and pronounced. Day after day, the priests made sin offerings for the sake of the people. Especially on the Day of Atonement, the high priest made propitiation for the people at the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies. In fact, the mercy seat on the ark is the same word for propitiation. It is the sacrifice which takes God’s wrath away. Death is demanded for the sinner, but with the sin offering the victim is slain in place of the sinner. The tax collector knew this was the purpose for the sacrifices in the temple. He knew God’s promise that one great, perfect, and final sin offering would be made for sinners, even for him. His prayer was that God would fulfill his word: “God, be propitiated to me. Complete the sin offering. Send the Savior who will be that sacrifice, and whose holy blood will make atonement for every sinner—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, and even this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)
“Kyrie, eleison! Lord, have mercy. God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” God has been merciful. The Lamb of God has been slain for you. God made him who knew no sin to be sin for you. The sin offering has been completed. The Lord does not weigh in the scales which are worse sinners or better sinners. He makes payment for all. The Lord does not waste time assessing which sins are serious and which are minor offenses. Nor does he have you waste your time trying to figure out which sins should bother you. They all damn. That is why our confession is simply “sinner.” But Jesus is the propitiation for you. He does not ask how much blood he must shed for you or how much of his life he must lay down for you. Jesus has given himself up completely to pay for your sins. He has consumed all of God’s wrath. He sends you home forgiven, justified, and saved.
Today, ashes mark you as one who is going to die. Repentance is expressed in words and ceremonies. This church of sinners continues to pray, “Kyrie, eleison. God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And God continues to pour out his mercy. The blood of Jesus purifies you of all sin. The life and death of Jesus have delivered you from sin and death. And even though your flesh will return to dust, you will be raised up glorious to eternal life. You will go to your heavenly home justified. For, God is faithful to his word. He has been merciful. And sinners are forgiven.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.