Humility and Mercy

Jesus told a story once that I find both compelling and convicting. His stories have a way of offering comfort and a challenge at the same time.

In this story two people went to stand before God in the temple in prayer. One was a Pharisee, a man who knew and followed God’s law to the letter. He was the spiritual leader of his day. The good guy. The one everyone looked up to and tried to emulate. He was the one who taught others the Scriptures, and challenged them to believe God. He was the one who eschewed sin and would avoid “all appearances of evil.” This man was serious about his religious life. He gave ten percent of his earnings to God and he fasted on a regular basis in order to devote himself to prayer. On this day he went to the temple to spend some time in prayer.

And at the same time a publican, a lowly tax collector also entered the temple to pray. This man was the refuse of his people. He was a cheater, a thief who was “above the law.” He was looked on as a traitor to God and God’s people because he worked for Rome the oppressive ruling empire. This man probably never prayed. And he wasn’t a regular at the synagogue either. He probably didn’t even have any Jewish friends left. He had chosen wealth and security over honor and dedication to God. But here he was at the temple to pray.

The Pharisee couldn’t help but notice him, and suddenly within his heart welled up a thankfulness to God for all that he was and all that he did. He stood before God and said, “Oh, God, I’m so thankful that I not like him–a liar, a cheat, a thief,a deserter! I have never failed to serve you and devote my life to the laws you have set before us. I’m a regular faster and giver. I’m your man, God. And I’m so glad of it.” He was thankful all right!

On the other hand the tax collector was in abject misery as he brokenly confessed his wicked ways. He could not even lift his face to the heavens, but beat on his chest in anguish and cried out to God for mercy.

Jesus concludes this story with these striking words, “I’m telling you the truth; it’s the tax collector who found favor with God that day not the Pharisee so full of himself he didn’t need God.”

Why? Why was the tax collector the one who received mercy before God? Jesus’ story seems to clearly be saying that only those who come to God in humility and repentance are able to receive his mercy. So many times I’ve come to God asking for his mercy because I deserve it! Which of course is a paradox since mercy by definition can never be deserved! God’s mercy is abundant and free. But it can only be received when I realize it’s great value and my absolute unworthiness.

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