In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
In today’s Gospel lesson, our Savior gives us a picture of the kind of attitude God desires. It is, in brief, an attitude of PENITENCE and CONTRITION. “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
I would like to challenge you to think about yourself in light of what the Lord says in today’s Gospel. I would like for you to ask yourself who you are REALLY like – the Pharisee, or the Tax Collector?
This passage opens by telling us the CONTEXT within which our Lord was speaking. First of all, “He… told this parable to some who TRUSTED IN THEMSELVES that they were righteous…”
This should be an immediate indictment of our consciousness. BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF. Do you trust in yourself that you are righteous? Very often I do, and I bet you do too.
How does one KNOW whether one is trusting in oneself? You know it when you fall into comfortable routines. When you are perfectly happy to go on the way you’ve been going on, with a kind of distant but vaguely benevolent concern for the poor and needy, and with an equally vague conviction that “I am fine, thank you; how are you?”
This is Christian cruise control. And unfortunately, I would wager, this is the default setting of most Christians’ souls. But its DEADLY. God HATES it. He HATES it BECAUSE its deadly – because if you don’t root it out, it will separate you from him forever. This is the kind of pharisaical lie that says “I’m okay; you’re okay; lets have a drink.” Its rampant in Episcopalianism and in bourgeois American culture – in which most of us live – but the Lord of Glory says that this kind of attitude has the power to “destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mat. 10.28).
Where does this attitude come from? Many of us are like this because we fear causing a scene, or we fear being a burden, or we fear LETTING ANYONE KNOW WHAT WE ARE REALLY LIKE ON THE INSIDE – we don’t want anyone to find out that we have terrible thoughts, terrible desires; that we nurse bitterness, hatred, resentment, or lust in our hearts; we don’t want people to know what we’ve done in the past, or what we’ve done in secret. So we keep up appearances. We build around us a wall of superficial pleasantness; we bury our bitter memories; we stifle our hatreds and our evil desires. Or sometimes, like addicts have always done, we deny that it’s a problem. We say things like “well she deserved it” – or we make up excuses for ourselves; we say “Well I couldn’t help it” or “that’s just the way I am.” Or sometimes we delude ourselves about the Gospel. We tell ourselves that we’re educated, broad-minded, modern people – we tell ourselves that OUR religion outgrew all that superstitious stuff about pie-in-the-sky and eternal damnation.
But God hates it, friends. He hates it because he loves us, and he knows the truth: he knows that all this pent up wickedness and self-delusion and superficiality will kill us FOREVER.
But “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying ‘God, be MERCIFUL to me a sinner!’”
THIS, friends… THIS is the kind of heart God looks for. This Tax Collector has CONQUERED HIS FEAR. He’s plucked up the courage to FACE THE TRUTH about himself – to take an honest look into his own heart, to leave off the denial, and the self-delusion and superficiality – he’s found the pluck to face his own sin, the bitterness or evil desire or malice or whatever it is: he’s FACED IT HONESTLY, and he cries out: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Psalm 51 says Lord, “had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, but you take no delight in burnt-offerings. THE SACRIFICE OF GOD IS A TROUBLED SPIRIT; A BROKEN AND CONTRITE HEART, O GOD, YOU WILL NOT DESPISE.”
God is not interested in our burnt-offerings – he’s not interested in the games we play to appease our consciences. God desires HONESTY. He desires COURAGE. He desires the INTEGRITY it takes to look into our hearts and face the nastiness that’s in there, and to cry out to him for mercy. Not because he’s harsh; but the opposite. Because he IS merciful – because he is filled with burning love for us – because he wants more than anything for us to be FREE and to be WHOLE. He wants us to be filled with joy and peace. He waits only for us to ACCEPT his gift of mercy. And accepting mercy means that we have to acknowledge that we NEED mercy.
Salvation is at once very easy and very difficult. Its easy because its free. God is waiting for us with open arms. His love and acceptance have no bounds, no limits, no conditions. The difficulty is on our end. The difficulty lies in facing the truth of our situation, of picking ourselves up, and running into God’s embrace. You can see how hard it is in the difficulty we have making our confessions. We don’t want anyone to know what we’ve done, or what we’re capable of doing. We don’t even want to face it ourselves. Its much easier not to do. Its easier to bottle up the nastiness in our hearts and burry it under layers of “I’m fine, thank you; how are you?” Its easier to tell ourselves that we confess our sins and get absolved at the general confession at each mass. But we don’t. Here’s the thing about God: he’s not a magician, and he’s not a mechanic. You don’t get zapped into spiritual okay-ness just because a priest waves his hands over you and says “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in everlasting life.” THAT, friends, is superstition. You don’t confess your sins at the General Confession, you confess THAT you’ve sinned. And that doesn’t absolve you of the difficult and courageous work of facing the truth about yourself – of taking stock of what’s really in your heart. Of enumerating your sins, one by one, and asking for mercy.
Can God’s grace operate outside of the sacraments? Can he forgive you for your sins without your going to Confession? Sure. Of course. But its not a question of what God can do – it’s a question of what WE can do. Can we really face our need for forgiveness without taking stock of our situation, without the difficult work of naming our sins before God, face to face, in the person of his minister, and asking for mercy?
The Church didn’t institute Confession to gratify the priest’s salacious interest in your nastiness. Rather the Lord himself gave us confession because he knows how easy it is to trick ourselves into thinking we’re okay without it. He gave us a means of doing what MUST BE DONE – of running headlong into our need for mercy. He prescribed a time and a place and a means of saying with the Tax Collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner” – and not just saying it, but meaning it. And that time and place for you is right back there on Saturday mornings, or by appointment. No one can make a good Confession without coming face to face with the nastiness in his heart. It takes humility to come to Confession. And that’s the point. That’s the Lord’s mercy. He’s given us a means to humility: because he who humbles himself will be exalted.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.