Sunday, October 24, 2010

"O God, be merciful to me, a sinner"

One day, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, visited a prison and talked with the inmates. As he spoke to them, he heard endless tales of innocence, of misunderstood motives, and of men wrongly accused of crimes. Finally the king stopped at the cell of a prisoner who remained silent. “Well,” remarked Frederick, “I suppose you’re an innocent victim too?” “No, sir, I’m not,” replied the man. “I’m guilty and deserve my punishment.” Turning to the warden the king said, “Quickly, release this man before he corrupts all these fine, innocent people in here!”

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Our Gospel continues last week’s theme of prayer where Jesus encouraged us to “pray always without becoming weary.” If last week’s message was about being persistent in prayer, this week speaks to us about the quality of our prayer. We’re given the story of two believers, a Pharisee and a tax collector who both believed in the same God, both belonged to the same religion and both worshipped in the same temple. But, at the end of the day, one of them goes home at peace with God but the other doesn’t. This story gives us some insight into how to approach God in prayer and how to lead a life of faith that brings us to justification and not disappointment at the end of the day.

The Pharisees, of course, were very disciplined and very devout men of religion. Pharisees were serious-minded believers who had committed themselves to a life of regular prayer and observance of God’s Law. In fact, they went far beyond the requirements of the law. They fasted twice a week even though the law only required people to fast once a year. They gave tithes on all their income and not just on parts of it. When the Pharisee said, “I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector,” he wasn’t kidding. In fact, I bet few of us today could measure up to the external standards of the Pharisees.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards. Because tax collectors worked for the pagan Romans, mixed up with them and constantly handled their unclean money they were said to be in a state of impurity. Tax collectors were considered public sinners on the highway to hell. But the tax collector in our story still hoped for salvation not on the merit of any religious or moral achievement of his but on the gracious mercy of God.

Now, my friends, simply believing in God does not save anybody. James tells us that the devil himself believes in God and trembles with fear. What really matters is what people believe about God and how their faith in God affects their view of themselves and of others. And this is the key difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisees believed in a discriminating God who loves good people and hates bad people. People behave like the God they believe in. So the Pharisees quickly learn to love only good people like themselves and look down with contempt on bad people and sinners like the tax collectors. Jesus told this parable against the Pharisees because they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, trusted not in himself or in anything he had done but only in God’s mercy. Standing far off, he would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This is the man who went home at peace with God that day; and what a powerful lesson he can teach us today.

Like the Pharisee and the tax collector we too have come to God’s house to offer worship and prayers. Like them we too hope to go home at the end of this service reconciled and at peace with God. Let us learn from the tax collector the secret of worshipping in a manner that is acceptable to God – the secret of praying humbly.

There is a story about a young woman who died and went to heaven. Her life on earth had been a life full of sin and when she arrived at the Pearly Gates she was told that she could only be admitted under one condition: she must return to earth and bring back the gift that God values above all others. The young woman returned and came upon a young man who had just died for his faith in God. She thought, “This is the gift that God values most: the blood of someone who has died for their faith.” She took a drop of the man’s blood and brought it back to heaven. But, when she presented it, she was told there was something that God values even more than this.

She returned again and came upon an old missionary preaching God’s word among the poor. She thought, “This is the gift that God values most: the sweat of the brow of someone who has spent their life bringing the Good News of salvation to the poor.” But, she was again told there was something that God valued more. She returned several more times, with several more gifts but was still told there was something God valued more highly.

She was about to give up when she came upon a child playing at a fountain. The child was beautiful and innocent. At that moment, a man on horseback rode up and dismounted to get a drink at the fountain. When he saw the child, he remembered his own childhood innocence. Then he looked into the fountain and saw the reflection of his own face. It was hardened and weathered. He suddenly realized that he had terribly wasted the life that God had given him. At that moment tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks and fell into the fountain. The young woman took one of the man’s tears and brought it back to heaven. When she presented it, there was great joy among the angels and the saints. This was the gift God valued above all others: the tears of a repentant sinner.

“The tax collector…beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We pray for the grace to be like this tax collector, to humbly place ourselves before God in worship and praise and to trust fully in His mercy and love for us.

May the Lord give you peace.


  1. Beautiful passage! Thank you indeed from a sinner seeking God's mercy.