Human presumption and Divine mercy

I love this story. It is the story that I go back to time and time again

It warns me against the presumption that leads to arrogance and lack of love.
It tells me of my God who has mercy.

1  It warns us against presumption

The first character is the Pharisee. He had status and respect in the community. He was a good man.

And it is important that we do not forget that he had made some life-style decisions which cost him significantly. He fasts twice a week (much more than the law requires). He tithed. He gave away a tenth of everything that he had. Just think for a moment what that would mean for your giving? Everything you receive, you give one tenth away. And when he says that he is not a robber, or an evildoer or an adulterer, we can take him at his word. He was upright, obedient to the law of God and self-controlled.

And remember that Jesus said in Matthew, that unless our righteousness exceeded that of the Pharisees we could not be

But what we also see is that the Pharisee makes two big mistakes

1.      He presumes that – because he does what some of the law requires, and that because he is respected in the community - he is OK before God
2.      He assumes that others – who do not do what the law requires, and who are not respected - are not OK before God.
This is very real stuff.

I am very conscious that when people make big sacrifices – whether that is of time or service or of giving – and when they do live a very self-disciplined life – it becomes extremely easy to look down on people who don’t. That is true whoever you are, whether it is in a family, in a company or club or organisation, in a church – it doesn’t matter. There is something about the ‘I’m totally committed, so why aren’t they?’; I’ve succeeded, so they should succeed’ mentality in each of us. I was talking with someone about their mum who had survived a really quite difficult time. ‘But’, said the daughter, ‘It could make her quite unsympathetic. It was the attitude, ‘I got through it and so should you’.’ And sometimes the greater the sacrifice we make, or the harder the experience we have come through, the easier it is to look down on other people who haven’t been prepared or able to make that sacrifice, or who haven’t survived.

And that can also true for committed Christians, for people who have knelt down and received Jesus as Lord, and who may have made great sacrifices for God. At the beginning, of course, we realise we have nothing to offer to God, that it is all of him; that even the first glimmers of our desire for him have been given by him, and that we are saved not by any sacrifice that we might make, but by the sacrifice that he has made; that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. But after a while, we can slip into the presumption that we are acceptable to God because of what we have done and what we are doing, and we begin to assume that we are better than other people who do not live in the same way. And we become should-ist and ought-ist moralists and very superior. As someone said, the real thing we need to look out for is not the hardening of the arteries, but the hardening of the ‘ought-aries’

We tut tut when we see things happening that should not happen. We shake our heads at the way that society is going. And we pat ourselves on the back, and mutually congratulate ourselves, for being such reasonable good – even spiritual - people.

One of the accusations that people make about members of the church is, ‘You think that you are better than other people’. That is usually very unfair, but occasionally it is unjustified.

Do please watch out when you find that you are standing by yourself looking down at other people: whether they are other people in society, or other people in the church. Do be very very careful when you stand over another person and say, ‘They’re not really born again; they’re not sufficiently committed or spiritual; they’re shallow’.

2        This story tells us of the mercy of God

When Jesus talks about tax collectors, he is not talking about the sort of people who work for the Inland Revenue.

Tax collectors, in Jesus time, worked for a foreign occupying force, and they made their money by ripping people off. They were powerful people. You did what they said.  But they were also very unpopular, and they would not have been regular attenders at the synagogue.  They were often associated with other religious and social outcasts, including prostitutes. They were robbers, evildoers and – more often than not – adulterers.

But something had happened to this particular tax collector. Maybe his world had crashed. Maybe something had happened that had jolted him and made him face up to the reality of how he was living. Perhaps there had been a death in a family; someone he really did love had walked out on him – whatever, it had made him reassess, and he becomes aware that he has been living his life as if there is no God. He has rejected God and God’s word. He has put his trust in himself.

And so he goes into the temple: and he prays. He really does pray. He asks God to have mercy on him. He doesn’t pray a particularly well worded prayer, but it is a genuine prayer. It is a cry to God.

John Climacus (d. 649), one of the Eastern Orthodox fathers, writes “Let all multiplicity be absent from your prayer. A single word was enough for the tax collector and the prodigal son to receive God's pardon. ... Do not try to find exactly the right words for your prayer: how many times does the simple and monotonous stuttering of children draw the attention of their father! Do not launch into long discourses, for if you do, your mind will be dissipated trying to find just the right words. The tax collector’s short sentence moved God to mercy. A single word full of faith saved the thief.”

And I think, in this simple sentence, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’ we can assume that he is not just asking God to forgive him. He is not just asking God to get him out of a mess. He may be asking God for mercy, for forgiveness, for help in a crisis, but when you really cry out to God for mercy, you are asking him for the strength to change and to live a new life – a life focussed on God, a life dependent on God.

This morning we have had a baptism. There is only one requirement for baptism: you don’t have to be a good person; you don’t have to be a respectable person. It helps if you are not. The only requirement is that you recognize that you are a broken, messed up person, that you have nothing to bring to God, and that you are absolutely dependent on him. That is why infant baptism is so powerful, because the baby is absolutely helpless and dependent.

And there is only one requirement for anyone who wishes to live their baptism, to live as someone who has been baptized (because that is what matters – not when or how or how much faith you had when you were baptized). You need to realize that you are a broken, messed up person, that you have nothing to bring to God, and that you are absolutely dependent – every minute of every day - on the love and mercy of God.

There is a story told about a mother who came to Napoleon on behalf of her son, who was about to be executed. The mother asked the ruler to issue a pardon, but Napoleon pointed out that it was the man's second offense and justice demanded death.
"I don't ask for justice," the woman replied. "I plead for mercy."
The emperor objected, "But your son doesn't deserve mercy."
"Sir," the mother replied, "it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask."
Her son was granted the pardon.

This is the secret of power-filled Christian prayer.
I remember realising this on one occasion when I was praying for someone to be healed. I had spent time preparing myself, spiritually psyching myself up. But as we prayed, I began to think, ‘Who am I to pray for healing for anyone. I have absolutely nothing to offer. I care for the person I’m praying for. I really do want them to get better. But my wanting them to get better is not going to make them better. I can’t do this.’ But then I realised – and this is incredibly liberating, ‘This is exactly where God wants me. Totally dependent on him. The reason that Jesus told the disciples to fast and pray before casting out a particular demon was not so they could become spiritually stronger – but so that they could begin to realise just how totally helpless they were, and how completely dependent they were on Jesus and his power.

This is the secret of victorious Christian living

We think the secret is to be more devoted, more passionate, more knowledgeable, more penitent, more self-denying, more self-sacrificing, more committed, more obedient.

It isn’t. You can’t be.  

The problem for the Pharisee was that there was far too much ‘I’ in his service. He is the subject of his prayer; the word ‘I’ appears 4 times. And far too often, the problem for us is that there is too much of the ‘I’ in our Christian service.

Helen Roseveare, a medical missionary in Africa, was the only doctor in a large hospital. There were constant interruptions and shortages, and she was becoming increasingly impatient and irritable with everyone around her. Finally, one of the African pastors insisted, "Helen, please come with me." He drove Helen to his humble house and told her that she was going to have a retreat—two days of silence and solitude. She was to pray until her attitude adjusted. All night and the next day she struggled; she prayed, but her prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling. Late on Sunday night, she sat beside the pastor around a little campfire. Humbly, almost desperately, she confessed that she was stuck. With his bare toe, the pastor drew a long straight line on the dusty ground. "That is the problem, Helen: there is too much 'I' in your service." He gave her a suggestion: "I have noticed that quite often, you take a coffee break and hold the hot coffee in your hands waiting for it to cool." Then he drew another line across the first one. "Helen, from now on, as the coffee cools, ask God, 'Lord, cross out the "I" and make me more like you.'" In the dust of that African ground, where a cross had formed, Helen Roseveare learned the master principle of Jesus: freedom comes through service, and service comes by releasing our ego.

May I urge you to make the tax collector’s prayer your daily prayer. In the Orthodox tradition, the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ is the beginning of prayer. It is the prayer of a Christian, because we call Jesus ‘Lord’. It is not a prayer for forgiveness, for we have been forgiven. But it is a prayer that expresses our total dependence on Jesus; that he will work in us every minute of every day, that he will change us, and that he will transform us so that we might become like him.

Or to put this in language that might be easier for us. It is what John Newton, the former slave trader, who wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, said as an old man: ‘Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly: I’m a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour’.

The quote from John Climacus and the  illustrations about the mother and Napoleon and Helen Roseveare come from Preaching Today sermon illustrations,


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