It isn’t often that I get a hymn stuck in my head…usually it’s a song from the 80s or a commercial jingle that gets stuck in there.
But as I was reading over the lessons for this morning, the hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” crept its way in. If you want, follow along in your hymnal (#469). The first verse reads:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in his blood.
This hymn tells us a lot about the nature of God. It tells us that God’s mercy and justice is bigger than we can imagine. It tells us that everyone is welcome…even the sinner. And this is good news indeed! It means that we all have a chance at redemption and salvation. It means that God’s love and forgiveness is something to be thankful for, and it’s something we can trust in.
In this morning’s Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, and how they understand themselves before God, and God’s response to their prayers.
Who are these characters?
The Pharisee is among the religious elite. He is most likely wealthy, educated, and well respected in his community. His prayer to God isn’t so much about his relationship to God, but more about how he understands himself—thank God he is not “one of those people”—the thieves, the rogues, the adulterers, and the tax collector…in other words, the people who are not well respected, the ritually unclean, the cheats and the traitors. And then he goes on to justify himself before God with all his good works of fasting and tithing.
A modern version of the Pharisee’s prayer might be something like:
Thank God I am not a like other people; my neighbor who cheats on his wife, my friend who is of a different political persuasion, or the homeless person at the bridge. I am here every Sunday morning, I participate in every committee I can, and I bet I pledge more than anyone else in church.
Who is being served by this prayer? Not God. The person offering this prayer, or the Pharisee in the case of Luke’s gospel story, is serving himself, proving his worth before God.
Then there’s the tax collector. In the ancient world, tax collectors were as bad a lepers. They were Jews who worked for the Roman government. They were outcasts in the Jewish community because they were seen as traitors, and they were outcasts in the Roman world because they were Jewish. They lived and worked in a no-win situation. His prayer to God is simple “God be merciful to me, I am a sinner”.
A modern version of the tax collector’s prayer might be something like:
God I am trying, but come up short. Have mercy on me.
We don’t like to talk about sin…it’s something that those “other” Christians talk about. But if we understand sin as our shortcomings before God, the mistakes that we make and never learn from, or our inability or unwillingness to follow, love and trust God completely, then our sin isn’t so much about individual actions (or inactions), but rather our relationship with God.
And that’s what Jesus is getting at with this parable. What is our relationship with God? Are we already perfect and righteous? Or are we constantly turning to God for help, guidance and forgiveness?
When we step away from our self-perceptions—that we are perfect, that we have the most or best stuff, and that we are better than or more worthy than someone else, then what’s left behind is who God deeply wants to be in relationship with. God wants us to be who we really are, deep down, without all the “thank God I’m not like other people” stuff, and offer that version of ourselves up for love, mercy and forgiveness.
That’s why Jesus tells those who are gathered around and listening: for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
It’s not necessarily that God prefers the tax collector over the Pharisee…it’s that God sees the true heart of the person offering up prayer and responds in kind.
And that’s the good news of this gospel lesson. We have an opportunity to step out of self-righteousness and “look at how great I am” perceptions and just BE before God. And in the wideness of God’s mercy, in God’s justice and welcome, there is grace. Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.