Lauren J. McFeaters
August 20, 2023
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It begins with contempt.
“Jesus told this parable to some
who trusted in themselves (that they were righteous),
and who regarded others with contempt.”
It begins with Contempt: the opinion that another person is insignificant, worthless, deserving scorn.
Contempt: regarding someone as inferior, worthless.
Contempt: being dishonored, disgraced; disrespected.
The Pharisee, rather than being grateful for his blessings, is smug to the point of loathing. In his mind, there are two kinds of people: the righteous – and the immoral; the virtuous – and the corrupt. He is thankful, head to toe, to be among the righteous.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is desperate. He’s overwhelmed by his misery and divides humanity into the good and the awful. All he recognizes is his wretchedness and he stakes his hopes entirely on God’s mercy.
John Calvin puts it this way: What makes our pleas and prayers null and void, is our contempt of others.
And contempt seeps out at all angles.
- at a neighbor who’s not raking their leaves in proper piles
three feet from the curb;
- at a boss who can’t seem to grasp our potential;
- at the Ex who knows exactly how to sabotage a family
- the coach that seems to have it out for us;
- the sister we haven’t spoken to in three years.
How luxurious it can be to bathe in contempt; to swim in it, soak in it. The problem comes when we’re so seduced by our “right” and someone else’s “wrong,” that our faith shrivels, our hearts wilt.
Holding onto our distain is the single most act of detachment from our faith, because rather than rejoicing in what God can make of us, we choose to hang someone out to dry.
Our disdain is an attempt not to need God, because we think we have the power to be our own God. The Pharisee’s prayer was not a petition to God. It was a selfie posted on X; an upload to Snapchat; a post on Insta. In contrast, the tax collector is so deeply in need of God, that a plea for mercy is becomes an act of trust.
But here’s where we need to be careful: before we turn the Pharisee and Tax Collector into Biblical Stock Characters, brought out for a lesson in ethical behavior; you know: the self-righteous, rule-bound religious leader, lacking in compassion – compared to the repentant, meek, and simple tax collector, we need to be very shrewd, very careful, because Luke has set a trap.
Whenever a parable seems this clear-cut, this straightforward, we’d better not go down that path. David Lose puts it this way: careful listeners should realize Luke is the master of reversals; things never stay the same for long.
First, the Pharisee.
Truth be told, he only speaks the truth: he IS righteous. According to the law, he leads a blameless life. He fasts and gives alms, and indeed bears no resemblance to the unsavory characters with which he compares himself. What, then, is his problem? It narrows down to one thing: while he is right about the kind of life he should live; he is mistaken about the source of that life.
While he prays to God, his prayer is about himself, and because he misses the source of his blessing, he despises those God loves. He leaves the Temple as righteous, according to the law, but he is not justified; that is, he is not called righteous by God.
Second, the tax collector.
There is no note of repentance in the tax collector’s prayer, no pledge to leave his employment, or render reimbursement to those he cheated, no promises of a new and better life: nothing, except the simple acknowledgment that he is utterly and entirely dependent on God’s mercy. The tax collector knows the one thing the Pharisee does not: his life belongs to God – his past, present, and future – entirely dependent on God’s grace. [ii]
Again David Lose says, this is where trap is set: the minute you decide to take this parable to heart and “be humble” like the Tax Collector, it’s pretty hard not to also be grateful you’re not like that Pharisee.
And then the trap has sprung. It’s not about you. Not your humility or lack of pride or even about your being one justified by faith. It’s not about you; it’s about God. [iii]
This parable – was and is, a challenge to shift our attention from ourselves – our distain and self-effacement, our piety and passions, our success and failure, our glory and shame – to shift it to where it has belonged all along – to the God who delights in justifying the ungodly, welcoming the outcast, and healing all who are in need; the God whose compassion rains upon us in showers of tenderness. Mercy. Mercy Saints Alive.
For all of her life, my Aunt Willie Hines used the phrase “Mercy Saints Alive.” She was a woman raised in poverty, our family were share-croppers on a farm in Pickens, Mississippi. She learned to sew and cook, plant beans and fish the creek, pluck a chicken and bake a biscuit.
When surprised, she’d quietly say, “Mercy Saints Alive.”
When confused, she’d softly exclaim “Mercy Saints Alive.”
Aunt Willie Hines was 5-foot, 1-inch of quiet discretion. She blended into the background, and you had to listen carefully when she spoke. She was shy and timid and unsure of herself. What she was sure of was being able to bake cornbread or Chess Pie in a log-fed oven without a thermometer or a timer.
But while Willie Hines was quiet and hesitant at home, on Sundays at the Pickins Baptist Church, she was rip-roaring. Rather than responding with a modest voice to her pastor’s, “Can I get an Amen,” she’d loudly declare, “Jesus my Lord – Mercy Saints Alive,” Instead of keeping a reserved profile during prayer, she’d speak-out with a full-throttled, “Mercy Saints Alive, Dear Jesus, Mercy Saints Alive.” On Sunday mornings, Willie Hines let herself loudly express a full-throttle declaration of gratitude.
That’s what I want to shout at these two men. Mercy Saints Alive you two. Lord have Mercy!
- One of you is way too busy looking above yourself; the other, way too busy burying your head in the sand.
- One of you is so arrogant, you can’t see beyond yourself; and the other can see themselves at all.
- One of you is a legend in your own mind; and the other can’t fathom being more than a worm.
Mercy Saints Alive you fools!
- Don’t you know, before there was sin, there was love;
- Before there was contempt, there was joy;
- Before there was the shame, there was grace.
It’s not about you. It’s not about us. It’s about God.
And that’s the best way to receive this parable:
- to put hands on hips, and declare, “Mercy Saints Alive.”
- Instead of looking up and being self-satisfied; instead of looking down and living in self-abasement; look straight ahead, into the eyes of your Lord, because your Lord is looking straight back at you.
- This Lord who forms and reforms you;
- This Lord who will never let you go,
- This Lord who pulls all of us –
- The Pharisee and Tax Collector,
- The Condescending and the Ashamed;
- The Arrogant and the Unassuming;
- Holy Rollers and Heretics –
He pulls us right into the arms of Mercy.
Mercy Saints Alive.
[i] Luke 18:9-14: Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Jesus said, “I tell you; this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
[ii] David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 18:9-14.” Workingpreacher.org, October 24, 2010.
[iii] David Lose. “The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and the Reformation.” Workingpreacher.org, October 21, 2013.