It takes deep humility to receive God’s grace. (Listen.)
As Jane Austen didn’t quite say, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good fortune … needs absolutely nothing from God.” I regularly hear people tell me that their sickness and their sorrow is not worth praying about; let God first attend to other people’s need. While this all sounds very noble, as if God is a limited resource which must be carefully rationed, it strikes me that at least two things are wrong with this attitude.
The first is obvious: God is infinite, and so there is more than enough love, grace and healing to go around. The second is less obvious, perhaps, but no less important, and it is this: that underlying this attitude is a dangerous pride, the same pride we see in tonight’s story.
In this story, Jesus tells us about two men. The first is a highly religious bloke who follows Judaic law right down to the letter. When he goes to the temple, he prays long and loud, reminding God of all the things he does right—especially compared to that fellow over there!
And then, Jesus describes that fellow over there: a tax collector. In those days, a tax collector wasn’t a mild-mannered pen-pusher at the ATO. He was a collaborator with the Roman army, who could use coercion and violence to extort crippling taxes from the poor. These taxes were used to feed, clothe and house the soldiers who were controlling the region.
Everyone hated the soldiers, and everyone hated the tax collectors whose work supported them. To a Jewish person, a tax collector was clearly a traitor and a sinner: someone who had no business in God’s house. Yet Jesus describes the tax collector as ‘justified’ or ‘vindicated’, which means he was ‘found to be right’ with God. What on earth is going on?
Let’s take a closer look at their prayers. The tax collector threw himself on the ground, described himself as a sinner, and asked for God’s mercy. The Pharisee stood up tall, described himself as a saint, put down the tax collector, and asked for nothing. And they both got exactly what they asked for. The tax collector received God’s mercy, and the Pharisee received nothing!
This story should make most of us here feel uncomfortable. Because most of us consider ourselves pretty healthy. We don’t need a physician; we don’t need God’s help; God’s pretty busy; and anyway we’re fine. So we don’t ask for mercy; we don’t ask for healing: and so, like the Pharisee, we get exactly what we ask for—nix, nada, nothing. Our experience of God can be little more than the cherry on the top of life. It adds a little gloss, a little meaning and purpose, a little narrative to live by; we rarely ask for more.
But I think Jesus calls us to more. For Jesus calls us to life in abundance; flourishing life; a life overflowing with goodness and mercy. A big life, a grand adventure—but it’s not easy: because this big life happens only when we rely utterly on God.
To those of us ‘in possession of a good fortune’, by which I mean a Christian identity, this idea of humbling ourselves to God shakes our pride and our prejudice right down to the core. It means giving up the illusion that we are good and self-sufficient, and that everything’s just fine. It means giving up our identity as insiders and any sense of entitlement. It means giving up our sneaky suspicion that comfort and success are rewards from God. It means giving up our prejudice against people whose lives are a mess; and it means giving up our prejudice against asking for help—and that’s the really big one!
Yet this is what we must do, because, in God’s culture, religious types like us are no better than anyone else. And in God’s culture, mercy is not given out in little portions to those who work for it, but is poured out in abundance to anyone who asks. It is lavished upon the just and the unjust; it is offered to God’s enemies; it is offered to our own. This economy of mercy goes against everything we know—and this is why the Pharisee is cut off from God: for he cannot place his faith in a God who pours out mercy not only upon the Pharisee, but upon the tax collector, too. And so he doesn’t ask for mercy; he doesn’t ask for anything at all.
It’s not that the insiders can’t be part of the kingdom. From the story of the Prodigal Son, we know that God’s abundance surrounds the older brother: it is his for the asking, and it is also ours. We can throw a party anytime! But as long as we hold fast to our pride and our prejudice; as long as we place our faith in a bean-counting God who measures out rewards and punishments; as long as we try to earn God’s grace, then we will never see it, nor will we think to ask. God’s flourishing life is here, but to enter into it, we must recognise our own deep poverty; we must throw ourselves on God and beg: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” A sinner like the tax collector. A sinner like the Pharisee. A sinner like everyone else.
For it’s only once we understand we have nothing to offer, and it’s only once we place our trust in God, that we can receive the grace and the life that God so freely gives. It means giving up much that we hold dear; but Jesus promises that those who lose their life for his sake shall find it. And so we can be confident that, in humbly confessing our pride and acknowledging our prejudices, and asking God for mercy and healing, we will find love and friendship with Jesus Christ. And in this divine love and friendship, we will experience an extraordinary healing, and faith and fullness of life.
So let us move now to our time of confession, reconciliation and prayer; and let us pray slowly, and seriously, and humbly, as we consider our pride and recognise our poverty and dare to ask God for what we really need. Amen. Ω
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