Summary: “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying ’God be merciful to me a sinner!’”
Theme: God be merciful to me a sinner
Text: 2 Chron. 19:4-8; 2 Tim. 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
The eighteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel begins with a parable about how important it is to persist in prayer. In it we are taught that God hears us when we pray and He will see justice done to those who cry to Him as He did in the case of the poor widow. Today’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector is directly linked to the parable about persevering in prayer. It deals with the attitude with which we offer up our prayers. Persistence in prayer without the right attitude would yield no results and that is the reason why our prayers often go unanswered. How can we come before God and expect that we deserve to receive what we are asking for because we have earned it. It is allowing the flesh to dictate to us and the Scriptures are clear that the flesh does not profit us in any way. It is the flesh that often makes us compare ourselves to others so that we fail to see ourselves as God sees us and we end up behaving like the Pharisee in today’s parable. It is the flesh that makes us see ourselves as being righteous and look down on others with contempt. To develop the right attitude to prayer we need to see ourselves as God sees us or as the Word of God describes us. It is said that a religious leader on seeing a drunkard lying in the gutter remarked ‘there lie I but for the grace of God’. Just as the tax collector, who saw himself in the light of the Word of God, acknowledged his sin and received forgiveness so God will also forgive us when we cry out to Him earnestly ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’.
We all need the mercy of God because we have all been contaminated by sin. This is evident all around us manifesting itself in the form of hate, violence, crime and murder. All that is happening in the world today points to the fact that the problem of evil is found in man himself. The problem of evil in the world is a result of man’s separation from God. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were expelled from God’s presence because a holy God could not coexist with sinful man. Since God is the source of all goodness this meant that all their descendants who were born without access to God’s presence also had no access to His goodness.
Like the tax collector we can also pray with the right attitude - with a spirit of humility recognising that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy. It is such a privilege to come before God that there can be no place for pride. God will always welcome a prayer that is honest about our spiritual state and such prayer will definitely lead to confession. Confession has never been easy and has never been a popular subject as it conflicts sharply with pride that is present in every human being. Confession is admitting your guilt. It is like a person on trial confessing his crime and being condemned to a prison sentence. The only difference is that whereas the prisoner must serve his sentence, God has provided a substitute for the penitent, one who will pay the sinners penalty. But that person must first acknowledge his guilt and not take his sins lightly. That Christ has given His life in the sinner’s place is not a matter to be taken lightly. The mercy of God is what makes Christianity so unique and it is available to everyone. We only need to come to God like the tax collector to receive mercy. We cannot receive His mercy when we come to Him like the Pharisee who mistakenly believed he had obeyed the Law and therefore without sin. He ostensibly went to the Temple to pray but his real intention was to tell all those within earshot how good he was, that he fasted twice in the week and that he paid his tithes. In the words of F. F. Bruce “In the eyes of Christ a person confessing sin is nearer to true goodness that a person boasting of his goodness.” The Pharisee who was highly respected and admired in the community was really far from God because he did not recognise his sin. On the other hand the tax collector who was considered the worst of sinners was closer to God because he recognised he was a sinner and asked God for mercy. We cannot come before God believing we are righteous and condemning others for the very sins we are guilty of ourselves. Sin does not only separate us from God; it also brings us into captivity. We have all sinned and need God’s mercy and the only way is to acknowledge it, repent, and confess Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.