God, Be Merciful to Me, the Sinner

As today is the beginning of the Yom Kippur fast for my Jewish friends, the topic of self-reflection is on my mind.  Plus I am reading the gospel of Luke during my morning Bible time, and here is an apt lesson for today and for this season:

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

I know I am guilty of trusting in myself that I am righteous and of viewing others with contempt.  Indeed, as noted last month, there is a lot of Pharisee behavior going around.  

Jesus could not make the contrast more stark.  On the one hand, you have the Pharisee: knowledgeable in the law, respected in the community, morally upstanding and socially enlightened.  On  the other hand, you have the tax collector: a sell-out, a cheat, and a pariah.  And yet it is the tax collector and not the Pharisee who is justified before a righteous God.  Why?

Among other functions, religion serves to address the human need for absolution, the release from guilt and condemnation.  The Pharisee and the tax collector are equally in want of absolution, but one pushes his sins away by recounting his good deeds, while the other acknowledges he is unworthy and cries out for mercy.  

Let us examine ourselves this season to see what our impulse is when faced with our sense of guilt and condemnation.  Do we breathe a sigh of relief that we are not like others who are clearly and publicly in the wrong, and stand on our good works and moral respectability?  Or do we feel the weight of our wrongdoing and cry out in desperation to a merciful God?  Choose carefully.
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