What we think of ourselves says a lot about how we approach God and how we treat others. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus uses a story of two men at the Temple praying in order to teach us a thing or two along those lines.
One of the men is a Pharisee. He is devout and schooled in theology. He knows the Scriptures in and out. He has mastered the disciplines of his faith. He knows he is good.
His prayer is a picture of self-righteousness, “Thank God I’m not like everyone else.”
The other man is a tax collector. He is considered a traitor to his people and his faith. He gets rich working for the bad guys while lining his pockets with the neighborhood’s money. He is despised. He knows he is broken.
He prays from a place of humility and contriteness, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus explains it is this man, not the “good” one, who leaves the Temple right with God.
Now sometimes us church folk fall into the category of Pharisee. We start thinking we are better or more holy than others because we do the right things or avoid the wrong ones or at least don’t do them as much as other people. The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is not that it isn’t true, but that it is built on what he has done and dripping with pride.
This mindset is graceless. Here being right with God is about behavior modification. Here we forget we need God just as much today as we did at our lowest point. And here we become hypocritical judges in our assessment of everyone else. We reassure ourselves of just how good we are and miss out on God’s work in our lives and transformational relationships with people around us.
This is a dangerous place to live.
There is another mindset that isn’t mentioned in the parable but is prevalent in our culture. Sometimes we model a similar prayer, “Thank God I am just like everyone else.”
Here we aren’t bothered by our brokenness, we are just glad we aren’t the only ones experiencing it. We excuse our behavior/thoughts/attitudes because everyone else seems to be on the same page and, hey, we’re just human after all. Here the idea isn’t to elevate ourselves over tax collectors, but to lower the bar for what is required of us.
We like being broken, so we don’t change. We rest in the comfort of knowing there are other broken people, so we don’t want to see them change. We enjoy our sin. Or perhaps its too hard to resist so we’ll just stay right where we are.
This too is a dangerous place to be. Here we find cheap grace. Cheap grace is as useless as no grace.
The only proper approach is that of that tax collector. It is here we realize how much work needs to be done in us. That scandalous sinner or pious preacher, I need God. It is here we see regardless of how good or bad our behavior is we must have mercy.
Change without mercy is fine, but cannot save anyone. Mercy without change is easy, but meaningless. Mercy, when experienced with a humble heart, has the power to bring about change in us.
This is the mindset the Church is to have: acknowledging our need of mercy and allowing mercy to transform us.
That means more than mouthing these words in prayer, but allowing this understanding to shape us through and through. We are to embody this concept in attitude and action. It should guide the way we take inventory of our hearts. It should affect the way we approach our neighbors and our God.
O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
May these words be on our lips and in our heart. May we pray them and live them. May we be humble and contrite. And may we find the mercy we so desperately need.