In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“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!’”
In today’s Gospel lesson, the 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…”
Already we ought to feel convicted, if we’re being honest. Do we not trust in ourselves that we are righteous? Very often I do, and I bet you do too.
The question naturally arises: How do you know whether you are trusting in yourself? You know it when you fall into comfortable routines. When you’re 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’m okay / you’re okay.”
We might think of this kind of attitude as Christian cruise control. And unfortunately, I would wager, this is the default setting for a lot of Christians. But part of the point of today’s Gospel lesson is that its deadly. God hates it. And he hates it because its deadly – because if you don’t root it out, it can separate you from him forever. This kind of attitude is frankly rampant in Episcopalianism and bourgeois American culture generally, but the Lord 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, and almost all of us fear letting anyone know what we are really like inside – we don’t want anyone to find out that we have terrible thoughts, terrible desires; that we nurse bitternesses, hatreds, resentments, lusts, and envies 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 refuse to admit even to ourselves that we have 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 matured beyond all that superstitious stuff about hellfire and eternal damnation.
But where did we get that idea? Not from Scripture. Not from the teachings of the fathers and the saints. Frankly, I think we just made it up somewhere along the way. But God hates it, precisely because he loves us, and he knows the truth: he knows that all this pent up wickedness and self-delusion and superficiality can 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!’”
That is the kind of heart, the kind of attitude, the “soulish” disposition, that God is looking 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 courage to face his own sin, the bitterness or evil desire or malice or whatever it is: he faces 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. And facing the truth demands courage. God desires the integrity it takes to look into our hearts and face the nastiness that’s in there, and to cry out for him to help us. Trusting that he is merciful – trusting in his love for us – confident that he wants more than anything for us to be free and to “be whole again, beyond confusion,” (Robert Frost). God 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 how neglected is the sacrament of confession. 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. Its easier to bottle up the nastiness in our hearts and burry it. Its easier to tell ourselves that we confess our sins and get absolved at the general confession at each mass. But we don’t. God is not a fairy-godmother. We don’t get magically plinked into a right disposition just because a priest waves his hands over you and says the magic words. I have sometimes lamented that the General Confession is even a part of the mass, because it creates the false impression that it is sufficient. That Christians don’t need to do the real work of facing the truth about yourself – of taking stock of what’s really in your heart, and enumerating your sins, one by one in all their hideous banality, 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? Of course he can. He’s God. 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. It takes humility to go to Confession. And that’s the point. God has given us a means to humility: because he who humbles himself will be exalted.
“But the tax collector… would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.